In the 90-minute midseason finale of The Walking Dead, “How It’s Gotta Be,” Dwight turns on The Saviors, Eugene begins his redemption arc, Maggie defies her captors, Ezekiel’s life hangs in the balance, and — in the most unexpected moment of the television series run, so far — zombies take a bite out of Carl Grimes. The episode, written by David Leslie Johnson and Angela Kang and directed by Michael E. Satrazemis, ratchets the tension to levels we haven’t seen since the sixth season finale, but this time The Walking Dead follows through on a promise to deliver a “shocking moment,” even if it is one that some viewers had already pieced together from a variety of clues.
There’s a lot of terrain to cover in this week’s midseason finale. Let’s break it down.
In retrospect, it’s not too hard to read the tea leaves leading up to Carl’s death. Showrunner Scott Gimple has been building this arc since the season’s opening scene. It’s fitting that Carl’s good intentions ultimately get the best of him, too. He lectured Rick about seeing the best in people and then went against his father’s wishes and befriended Siddiq. It would cost him his life. In helping Siddiq “release the souls” of a group of walkers, Carl was bitten. We don’t see the walker bite Carl, but viewers who revisit episode six will notice a change in Carl’s expression the moment he’s bitten. He is also slow to get up and more contemplative than one might expect for a run-of-the-mill encounter with zombies.
In the midseason finale, however, he takes his impending death in stride. He tells no one. He writes a note to his father and makes plans to leave Alexandria and die alone, but those plans are thrown into disarray when Negan surrounds Alexandria. Carl quickly changes course and takes over as leader of Alexandria, forcing everyone to evacuate through the sewer system.
Meanwhile, Carl stays behind and — from atop the Alexandrian wall — confronts Negan, who has always had a soft spot for Rick’s son.
“Kill me,” Carl tells him, offering to sacrifice himself. It’s a bluff, but one that Carl is in the perfect position to make. Carl plays Negan like a fiddle and buys just enough time for Michonne and the others to sneak all the Alexandrians away. “I thought we were having a moment, you little asshole!” a betrayed Negan yells before lobbing a series of grenades over the Alexandrian wall, setting its destruction into motion.
In the ensuing chaos, Negan and the Saviors completely obliterate everything inside of Alexandria. Carl narrowly manages to escape. In the meantime, Rick returns to Alexandria in search of Carl and Michonne and gets into a brief but violent scuffle with Negan. They each exchange a few blows before Rick escapes into the sewer system with Michonne. That’s where he makes the heartbreaking discovery: His son has been bitten.
The episode ends before Carl succumbs to the zombie virus, but it will eventually kill him. Showrunner Scott Gimple said as much on The Talking Dead after the episode, though he noted that there is still some story left for Carl. It’s easy now to piece together what that story will entail. Based on the flashbacks in this episode, as well as Carl’s interactions with Siddiq, Carl will preach mercy. Chandler Riggs confirmed as much in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
In the comics, Scott [Gimple] was trying to figure out why there was a hole between Rick slitting Negan’s throat at the end of the “All-Out War” arc and then there’s the time jump and Negan is alive and in prison and Rick didn’t kill Negan. Scott was trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between Rick not wanting to kill Negan and Rick also really wanting to kill Negan, which he does right now [in the show’s story]. Scott’s way to get around that was to make Carl this really humanitarian figure and person who could see the good in people and see that people can change and not everyone out there is bad. That’s what Carl’s talk to Rick was in this episode: there’s no way that they can kill every one of the Saviors and not everyone is a bad person and there has to be some way forward than just killing people.
Carl’s death, however, changes the entire dynamic of the old-man Rick flash forward. That scene from the season premiere comes from the comics, but we see now that it was a misdirect. Carl is alive in that flash forward, so it’s safe to assume the flash-forward is either a vision that Carl has as he’s dying or Rick’s idealistic vision of the future. That negates the Judith theory, and it also potentially puts a pin on the time jump, although that may still happen as it does in the comics.
It’s worth noting, too, that for comic readers, Carl’s death is easily the biggest surprise of the series. We have seen characters who are still alive in the comics die on the television series before (Andrea, for instance), but a week ago, no one would have predicted Carl would die. It’s also the first huge death that the series has managed to keep a secret even from the spoiler sites. For comic readers, the midseason finale is one of the only major episodes that didn’t have a sense of inevitably.
Meanwhile, Aaron and Enid make an unexpected detour this week. While the various communities are falling to The Saviors, Aaron and Enid decide to pay a visit to Oceanside, the all-female community that had agreed to contribute weapons to the All Out War but would not provide soldiers. En route, Aaron and Enid mistakenly remind themselves that members of the Oceanside will shoot any visitors on sight. When they arrive and a jumpy Enid spots an Oceansider, she pulls a Carl and shoots first before asking questions. Enid accidentally kills Natania and leaves herself and Aaron in a precarious situation surrounded by an angry mob of Oceansiders. This happens only 15 minutes into the episode, but the story never revisits Oceanside to reveal their fates. That’s one of many cliffhangers that will have to wait until the midseason premiere before it is resolved. It is worth noting, however, that Natania was the only person stopping the Oceanside community from joining Rick’s war effort.
Elsewhere, Gavin and The Saviors return to The Kingdom not only regain control of it, but to turn it into the new home for the Saviors while the Sanctuary is being rebuilt. The refurbishment will be accomplished by the surviving Kingdommers, Gavin tells them. First, however, he insists that they sacrifice their King, but the Kingdommers refuse to give up their leader.
Awakened from his stupor by the arrival of the Saviors, Ezekiel puts on a heroic one-man show. He sets off an explosion and distracts the Saviors long enough to allow The Kingdommers to escape. Ezekiel, however, stays behind to face the music. Gavin roughs him up, but he won’t kill Ezekiel, not until he can do so publicly. In the meantime, Morgan resurfaces again outside the gates of The Kingdom, where he is poised to rescue Ezekiel when the series returns in February. It’s one of several minor victories in an episode where the overall momentum in the All Out War has tipped back toward the Saviors.
Dwight and Co.
Another hero in the midseason finale is Dwight, who makes good on his promise to aide the Alexandrians in their efforts against Negan. Dwight drives a Savior caravan straight into an ambush arranged by Daryl and co. While Dwight is pinned behind a car, he guns down several Saviors and cements his betrayal. In the shootout, Dwight takes a bullet in the shoulder, but he’ll survive. For his efforts, Tara and Daryl reluctantly spare his life for now, although Daryl is quick to take back the vest Dwight stole from him last season. Because one Savior escaped, however, Dwight is burnt as a double agent. He can’t go back to the Sanctuary. He is firmly on #TeamRick.
Negan’s insistence on waiting to publicly kill Rick, the King, and the Widow continues to operate as a convenient loophole for those characters. Gavin could have easily killed Ezekiel in the episode, and Negan could have probably killed Rick, too, if he hadn’t been so adamant about sparing his execution until it could be performed publicly. Simon, meanwhile, creates yet another loophole for Maggie. The Saviors pin Maggie and Jesus in a roadblock, where Simon could have and probably should have shot the Widow. Simon decides to spare The Hilltop community so that they can continue to produce for the Saviors. Instead of killing Maggie or Jesus, Simon decides to make an example out of a redshirt, Neil, before sending Maggie back to The Hilltop.
When she returns, Maggie — bent but not broken — kills one of the Saviors the Hilltop has locked up in their makeshift prison. “If the cupcake wants to put on a show, let her,” the Savior says, taunting Maggie before she shoots him in the face. Never underestimate a cupcake, folks. Maggie sends his body back to the Sanctuary in a casket and vows to kill one Savior for every Hilltopper they murder. It’s a solid character moment for Maggie, even if The Hilltop subplot remains stuck in neutral.
Back in the Sanctuary, Eugene’s conscience continues to keep him awake. Not even the booze can provide him with relief anymore. To assuage his guilt, Eugene decides to play both sides. He endeavors to help a sickened Gabriel take Dr. Carson back to The Hilltop by providing them a means of transportation and a route for escape. However, Eugene refuses to go with them. He’s sticking with the Saviors for now, where he can presumably fill the role of double agent vacated by Dwight. For Eugene, it’s a start toward redemption.
— Dwight confirms it: Daryl and Tara’s plan to ram a truck through the Sanctuary ultimately allows Negan to escape. It’s all Daryl’s fault, and he should have listened to Rick from the beginning. That said, although Negan did manage to destroy Alexandria, the only life Daryl has actually cost Rick and his allies so far is that of Neil.
— In another moment that’s frustratingly too faithful to the comics, Eugene’s plan to clear away the zombies last week is never fully explained. All we know is that he made a lot of bullets and the Saviors killed a lot of zombies with them, but that hardly seems like the genius master plan that Negan made it out to be last week. Likewise, the manner in which the zombies were cleared was never fully explained in Robert Kirkman’s comics, either.
— “I’m gonna go to Rick’s and make a little spaghetti,” Negan said as he entered Alexandria, thereby continuing this show’s amusing obsession with spaghetti dating back to Hershel.
— There were a number of people complaining on social media last night that the episode was too dark. It was difficult at times to make sense of what was going on, especially in Alexandria.
— The last words Rick spoke to Carl in the season premiere were, “This is the end of it.” No one knew at the time that he was talking about Carl’s life.
— I can’t emphasize enough how much Carl’s death shakes up a lot of the forthcoming storylines from the comics. It throws a huge wrench into The Whisperer War. In killing off Carl, Scott Gimple has made it much more difficult for him to faithfully adapt the comics. That may upset a lot of the comics readers, but it also injects some much-needed unpredictability into the future of the series.
It’ll be interesting to see how forthcoming seasons play out without Carl. It should be noted that this wasn’t Chandler Riggs’ decision. He didn’t want to leave the show, but Gimple killed him off and altered the entire future of the series to make sense of one upcoming storyline. It’s a huge gamble for a series that has thus far remained mostly faithful to the comics. Good or bad, Gimple is on the hook for what comes next.