Andrew Lincoln’s final episode of The Walking Dead begins with a trippy scene, as present-day Rick stands over pilot episode-era Rick and a True Detective flock of blackbirds zig-zag across the sky in inkblot patterns before turning into helicopters.
Before Lincoln can leave the show with a clear conscious, Rick has to make peace with his ghosts — but not all of them.
Carl is only present in the sense that Rick wants to fortify his son’s dream for their community (and The Walking Dead left such a bad taste in Chandler Riggs’ mouth I’m not even sure the actor would’ve returned to see his TV dad off if he’d been asked). Morgan and Glenn, other figures who played such significant roles in shaping Rick’s life, were left out of the latest reunion episode, though Morgan’s voice can be heard asking, “What’s your wound?” — the same question he first asked Rick when an injured stranger was smacked in the head by his son in the first episode. But Shane, Hershel, and Sasha were there to ease Rick off the show — even though the ending leaves room for a potential cameo appearance or a single-episode arc down the line.
Rick isn’t ready to die. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he forces himself off the metal barb that impaled him and remounts his white horse (a Biblical symbol of the end times). With blood oozing out of his wound, he keeps just far enough ahead of the now combined herds to avoid joining their ranks. As he keeps mumbling to himself, he needs to “keep them safe.” Fighting against flashes from his life that invade his mind, his first stop is a cabin with a mailbox out front that reads “Cardille.” A leaked still image of this mailbox made its way online earlier in the week causing speculation, ranging from a Lori Cardille reference (the actress behind Dr. Sarah Bowman who escaped the zombies of 1985’s Day of the Dead in a helicopter, and also invoking the first name of Rick’s late wife) to an anagram for “Carl Lied.” If this was indeed a moment of foreshadowing, it would seem the former theory is true. (We’ll get to that later.)
Rick bandages himself up as he glances to the skeleton that was the cabin’s former resident. He loses himself in the beams of sunlight shooting through the bullet holes in the walls and sees himself riding his horse with the herd at his back towards Atlanta, a familiar visual from season 1. In the city, he finds Shane. The two recreate their first scene together in the series: eating takeout in a cop car. If it wasn’t for that third man in the shootout, he says, Rick wouldn’t be where he is now. Shane was the source of Rick’s rage and killing him began the Ricktatorship. After once again confirming Judith to be his biological child, Shane calls on Rick to dig deep into that rage again and wake up. Rick opens his eyes to find the herd already invading the cabin, forcing him to flee.
By this time, Maggie arrives at Alexandria with a crowbar in hand ready to kill Negan, but Michonne is already waiting for her outside the prison in the hopes of talking her down. She can’t. Maggie can’t live the way she’s been living anymore and can’t just find a way to turn off her rage over Glenn’s death, it’s not that easy. So Michonne lets her pass. To Maggie’s surprise, she can’t bring herself to kill Negan because it’s not Negan anymore. The once ominous, omnipresent villain tries to provoke Maggie to kill him, but when she brings him out into the light, she sees his tears. He just wants to die so he can be reunited with his wife, Lucille. Maggie realizes Negan is now worse than dead so she locks him back up. Back outside, she and Michonne are informed of what happened at the camp with the battle against the revolting Saviors.
Rick is still riding along the road with the dead at his back when he’s visited by the second ghost, Hershel. With the death of actor Scott Wilson still lingering, the episodes is just as much of a sendoff for his character as it is for Rick. The two men gaze out over a lush sunset from the view at the farm. Rick apologizes for what happened to Maggie and Glenn, but Hershel has hope for his daughter and new grandson. He tries to wake Rick up, but Mr. Grimes is trapped in a delirium, talking about needing to find his family.
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Rick is whisked away to the hallway of the hospital where he first woke up amid the outbreak. The door that once read “Don’t Open Dead Inside” now has the “Don’t” crossed out. He walks through and finds himself beneath a grey sky amongst a pile of dead bodies, the corpses of people he knew. It’s there Sasha appears. “Little things end,” she says, “but it’s not the end of everything.” She also mentions that he’ll never find his family here because his family isn’t lost — and neither is he.
Rick wakes again, hitting the ground as he falls off his horse at the bridge campsite. He sees the remains of the battle as the herd breaks through the trees and tramples over the tents. Rick’s run turns into a haste walk to a shamble. He finds himself before the bridge and as the herd is about to set upon him, Michonne and Daryl lead the rest of the group to clear out the walkers. But that, too, is just a vision. Michonne’s presence reaffirms to Rick that these people are his family, that his story wasn’t about reuniting so much with Lori and Carl but the family they created for themselves afterwards.
He comes to for the final time and leads the walkers across the bridge, ready to sacrifice this project that would’ve boosted trade and travel between the colonies. The bridge, however, is holding — and his family, too, will hold together when Rick is gone. The real Michonne, Maggie, and Daryl lead in the cavalry from opposite sides of the bridge, but as they race to save Rick, he sees an opportunity to settle the situation himself without putting the ones he loves in harms way. He pulls out his pistol and aims it at the cache of dynamite on the bridge. He fires and the bridge explodes, seemingly incinerating himself along with the dead. The others watch through tears as the dead fall in flames into the rushing current below.
From a distance, Jadis spies the column of smoke from the accident. She’s waiting to be picked up by the mysterious helicopter group but she lied about having an “A” offering. She hears over the walkie shouts from the others about what happened on the bridge and sees the charred remains of the walkers floating down the river. A lone helicopter is seen flying towards her, but her eye is drawn to something on the river’s edge. It’s Rick, still hanging onto life, his body slumping into the moist soil. Jadis calls to her envoy on the walkie saying she has an offering, only it’s now a “B” instead of an “A.” The voice on the other hand warns her that there would be consequences if she lied, but she pleads with them. Rick saved her life once before and she wants to return the favor.
Rick is still alive when we last see him. Jadis stands over his body, now attached to an IV in a hospital stretcher inside the aircraft. We still don’t see who else is there, but we see them fly off into the distance. Now, as the title of the hour suggests, it’s time to see “What Comes After.”
A time jump takes us to the same scene where Rick took off but with a new group. Straight from the comics, it’s Magna, Yumiko, Connie, Luke, and Kelly, a group introduced on the page after a similar time jump and were involved with the plotline involving The Whisperers, another more villainous group coming down the pipe. They are surrounded by walkers in the open field when gunfire from an unknown source rips through the trees and clears a path. The voice of a young girl calls out to them, telling them to run through the opening in the herd. The five bolt for the woods and come across their mysterious savior.
A small samurai sword is strapped to the child’s back. She holsters her familiar revolver as her hair — half braided, the rest straight — rests against her plaid button-down. Magna asks for her name and the young girl reaches for something on the ground: a brown cowboy hat with a gold band wrapped around the crown. Her name is Judith Grimes.
It’s a similar arc to what happened with Fear the Walking Dead: Alicia is the last of the Clarks, and Judith is now the only remaining descendant of the Grimes family — assuming Rick doesn’t come back. We still don’t know what happens to “B”s in that mystery colony. Also like Fear, The Walking Dead is presented with a new challenge. What is Fear without Madison? What is The Walking Dead without Rick?
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