Ezekiel’s worst fear has come to pass.
The ruler of The Kingdom remained submissive to The Saviors for as long as he did out of fear of losing his people. Through his relationship with Carol and Morgan, further fueled by the loss of Benjamin, he put that aside to do right by those who’ve put their trust in him — put trust in the image of King Ezekiel he projected. Now he lies on the battlefield, just outside a Sanctuary outpost, with the bodies of his people littered around him. These men and women threw themselves on top of Ezekiel to protect their king from the heavy machine gun fire that took their squadron by surprise.
At this point, it’s practically a right of passage for the characters on The Walking Dead to virtually lose themselves, only to rise from the ashes of loss as someone new. We’ve seen it with Rick, Carol, and Morgan, but Ezekiel’s downward spiral is a more contained story within the overarching narrative of the attack on the Saviors — and it’s more layered and deliberate.
We see a glimpse of Ezekiel’s true self through his daily regimen. Remember, the real Ezekiel was just a friendly zookeeper with a fondness for the theater, and it takes time to transform into the King Ezekiel persona. As he explained last season, it’s a character the people wanted to believe in, and so he played the part.
When Ezekiel wakes under a pile of dead bodies after the surprise attack, it seems he’s the only survivor, maimed by the fresh bullet wound in his leg. He’s forced to inch his way along the ground as members of his kingdom now turn on him as walkers. One, as we see in a flashback, is a mother whose son offered flowers as a goodbye good luck charm. Another is a man who kissed his wife and newborn baby before picking up arms. Another is Daniel, the redheaded soldier who remained by his king’s side. Each, with their now scarred faces and lifeless eyes, haunts Ezekiel as an undead reminder of the people he led to slaughter.
He’s forced to drag himself along the ground as the dead encroach, unable to stand or walk on the injured leg long enough to escape or attack. Alvaro, who managed to survive the onslaught, emerges to protect his king, despite Ezekiel’s commands to leave him and save himself. But as Alvaro said, he can’t do that, which makes his death a deeper wound. Alvaro is supporting his limping leader away from the dead when a bullet tears through his chest. A Savior, a cruel Southern fellow with glasses, reveals himself and takes Ezekiel at gunpoint, with plans to cart him back to The Sanctuary to be chained alongside the walkers linked to its fence.
Ezekiel tries to get away, but his captor delights in his own wicked ways. He relieves Ezekiel of the knife in his cane, reclaims the weapon when Ezekiel attempts an escape, laughs as he paints lines of blood across Ezekiel’s face, and mentally beats the king by calling him a false prophet who fooled his followers. Viewers’ thirst for vengeance is finally satiated, at least, when the pair reach an impasse: a locked gate trapping them with the walkers. As the Savior goes to kill Ezekiel so the walkers will have something to snack on while he flees, the Savior’s body is violently severed down the middle by Jerry, who comes crashing in from behind with a giant axe.
Again, Ezekiel tells Jerry to leave him behind — but again, this is not something his loyal subject can do. So together they turn to face the walkers.
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They’re ultimately saved by Carol, who snuck into the Saviors’ compound during the commotion. She prowls through the building and hides in the space above the ceiling, so when the Saviors emerge to transport the machine gun, she quickly picks them off. More Saviors rushing toward the gunfire catch sight of her, but their priority is moving the weaponry back to The Sanctuary in the hopes of changing the tide of the war. Attempting to both escape and retrieve the weapons, Carol finds herself pinned down in the parking lot behind a car by even more enemies with guns.
Carol’s secret weapon has always been that people underestimate her, something Ezekiel asks her about in a flashback scene. Did she choose to become the fierce warrior she is today? She did, just as Ezekiel chose to become the king his people needed. Devising a plan, she hangs up her automatic and slides her pistol out from underneath the car, promising to reveal the location of her allies if the Saviors let her live. They take the bait. One of them walks over and she easily takes him hostage. The Saviors aren’t about to let her get away by sparing the life of this one ally, so they shoot and kill him, but it gives Carol enough time to take his ammunition and open the gates behind them, allowing the walkers to sneak up on the Saviors.
Now Carol is the one who has the remaining two Saviors pinned down behind a car. That’s when she spots Ezekiel and Jerry. Does she stop the Saviors from transporting the machine gun, or does she save her allies? She can only do one, so she chooses the latter. Ezekiel fears they will lose the battle if the weapons get back to Negan, but Carol just smiles because she knows they won’t.
As the Saviors are riding toward their home base, Daryl (on his motorcycle) and Rick (in a car) come careening around the corner toward them. It’s a satisfying chase — much like the death of Ezekiel’s tormenter — but it’s not revolutionary in comparison to the action sequences we’ve seen before. Daryl is put out of commission on the side of the road when the Savior sitting in the trunk starts manning the machine gun, but Rick remains in pursuit. As both dodge stray walkers in their path and Rick weaves between bullets, he makes his way close enough to their target before swerving away to reveal Daryl riding back up on his bike. Daryl takes out the Savior manning the gun, giving Rick the opportunity to come up from the side and jump in the vehicle. He stabs the Savior in the leg, and the car tumbles over the side of the road, though Rick remains unscathed.
Mission accomplished, but Ezekiel’s story isn’t over yet.
Carol and Jerry are helping the king as best they can as they walk across walker-infested train tracks. They try escaping into the woods but encounter more of those radioactive zombies — walkers who are further disfigured from wallowing in a ditch full of chemical waste. Ezekiel’s squad spotted one while they were tracking the lone Savior through the woods. They try to make their way across, hastily passing the injured Ezekiel back and forth between them. But the walkers soon pounce, and Ezekiel once again tries commanding Carol and Jerry away while he holds them off. Shiva sacrifices herself to rescue all three. The tiger leaps into the pit and gores the dead, but the herd smothers the beast until only muffled groans escape the collapsing corpse.
There’s something truly tragic when you lose an animal companion, and Shiva was more than a tame beast. She was one of the few who knew the real Ezekiel and the only one still alive from his days before the outbreak. When she injured her leg in her cage at the zoo, Ezekiel tended her wound, and the two formed a bond. Her presence by his side led people to weave the myth that became King Ezekiel, a man of Arthurian speech who commanded a giant tiger. With Shiva gone, it’s both the loss of a loved one and the loss of King Ezekiel. In the comics (MILD COMICS SPOILER ALERT), Ezekial descends into a depression after Shiva’s death. Here, too, he can no longer handle the burden that comes with being responsible for lives and reverts back to his former self.
Ezekiel walks through the gates of The Kingdom with Carol and Jerry at his back — the only survivors of the assault. With blood still smeared on his face, the king places a hand on a young boy who runs up, eager to hear any word about his mother. Instead of facing the crowd, he silently walks off to be alone with his grief.