Spencer makes a bold move, Rick wades into deadly waters, and not everyone is left standing

By Nick Romano
December 12, 2016 at 04:23 PM EST
Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead

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This season of The Walking Dead hasn’t been easy to digest. What began with an emotional blow slowly slogged through standalone episodes for unpopular characters, while the fan favorites licked their wounds and the show dropped in ratings along the way. Though the midseason finale bore some of these same markers, it ended with a genuine feeling of hope that maybe the back half (returning in February) will be better. Maybe now all its laborious groundwork will pay off.

People died, others escaped, another was imprisoned, and more still plotted for something we’ve been anticipating since the second episode finally happened. In other words, just your typical midseason finale during the time of walkers.

We begin at Hilltop with Maggie — still feeling the high from when she and Sasha saved the community from the Saviors’ walker attack — as she kneels by Glenn’s grave. The moments here are brief; some may even wonder why include them at all, but it attempts to tie it back around in the end.

Making her daily peace at the gravesite, she then walks up to her lookout post atop the colony’s wooden walls. Gregory calls up from below, suggesting she not let her heroics the other night go to her head. She’s quick to call out how he’s clearly bothered by how many of his own people seem to prefer Maggie and Sasha — the other person on lookout duty even pressures Gregory into giving Maggie her apple, since she’s pregnant.

Negan is also enjoying his leadership at Alexandria. Carl and Judith watch as he shaves in Rick’s bathroom, while he recommends always moving the blade against the grain. We continue to see flashes of some of the characters: Daryl looks over that mysterious note and key he received one more time before breaking from his cell at The Sanctuary; Tara brings Olivia (frightened but still determined to watch over Judith) the lemonade mix Negan commanded her to prepare; Rick and Aaron plan to cross the lake of walkers in a canoe riddled with bullet holes; and Carl helps set the dinner table for a spaghetti supper after playing house with his tormenter.

The episode picks up in time directly where we last saw Rosita, Eugene, and Spencer returning from their little excursions to find Negan has arrived. As the one who can’t hold a poker face, Eugene is on the verge of tears as he walks through the gates, while Spencer tries to make nice with the Saviors. He even returns one of the women’s advances, but Eugene is told to scurry off.

Carol is enjoying a far simpler life. The last time we saw her was when she first entered Ezekiel’s Kingdom in the second episode, and she’s continuing whatever semblance of a solitary existence she can muster. Ezekiel and Morgan can’t help but drop fresh fruit and vegetables at her doorstep. She catches Morgan before he leaves to quickly check on his well-being before letting him loose. But his stay is prolonged when Richard, one of the warriors close to Ezekiel, arrives asking to speak to them both.

NEXT: Stuck in a sinking ship (or, rather, canoe)

Rick and Aaron continue their race across the lake before they capsize, and it’s not easy. Their canoe is taking on more water than expected as walkers reach for them. They make it to another boat, but are caught off guard when a walker pops out from under the supplies. Based on what we know about walkers and water, they don’t swim, but one pops up from the water and brings Aaron into the lake. So, it’s not all too clear what’s keeping them afloat. Still, Aaron lives and is able to swim to the massive boat in the center. (Last episode, the shot made it seem like some sort of land structure, but it’s a boat filled with supplies.)

Back at The Sanctuary, Daryl is trying to be as sneaky as he can. He hears voices before water spills from around the corner, so he hides in a room filled with loosely lain clothes and food. He quickly changes and starts scooping peanut butter out of a jar with his bare hands when what looks like chess pieces catch his eye.

The scene cuts back to Rick and Aaron, who find among the stash of guns and food a handwritten note that reads, “Congrats for winning but you still lose,” next to a sketch of a middle finger. Rick remarks the only thing this guy must’ve ran out of is ammo, while Aaron notes the uptick in wind will make it easier to drift back to shore on the boat.

Meanwhile, Daryl prepares to make his next move as he’s now fully changed and using a spoon to finish off the peanut butter. But before he goes, he grabs a hat and flips over the chess table.

By this point, Rick and Aaron have already ridden the boat back to their truck and are loading supplies into it. Rick says he wouldn’t have blamed Aaron if he didn’t want to continue to risk his life to gather supplies for Negan, since any responsible person who’s been accustomed to their lifestyle would object. He notes that even Michonne takes issue with his view. But Aaron reminds him he was there when Negan killed Glenn and Abraham, so he understands they’re saving lives by complying with his demands. “It’s giving up everything,” he says, “but either your heart’s beating or it isn’t, either your loved ones’ hearts are beating or they aren’t.”

As they leave, the camera shoots to the other side of the lake, showing a pair of boots belonging to the mysterious figure who laid the traps.

We then check in on Michonne and her solo mission. She’s still aiming her gun at the Savior who’s driving her to see Negan. Michonne tries to ask how long she’s been with Negan and why she was out on her own, but the woman remains silent. Despite her threats, she eventually puts down her weapons and points her gaze at the road ahead. She remarks she’s not going to kill Negan today, but she’s going to find a way that will change how her personal story ends.

NEXT: A call to action

At Hilltop, Enid is cooking dinner with Maggie at the table when Sasha walks in carrying an apple pie. Maggie can smell it under the covering and ravenously cuts into it. Sasha mentions a man in the colony made it for them as a thank-you for saving them from the walkers, while another suggested Maggie campaign for president of the colony. Maggie is already thinking like a leader: She notes the colony needs writing utensils for the kids and asks Sasha if Jesus can go out and get some. She lies by saying he already went out on a run early in the morning and forgot to tell Maggie.

Enid calls out Sasha when Maggie leaves the room, saying how she heard Jesus left yesterday. Sasha reiterates it’s for Maggie’s own good to be kept out of the loop; otherwise, she’d want to help. Though it’s not the soundest rationale, she wants to keep the operation small in case any accountability falls on others, which has been the same frustrating logic keeping Rick from acting. Enid retorts that Sasha isn’t alone and isn’t the only one who wants to see Negan killed, but Sasha is steadfast and says they both need to protect Maggie.

Rosita similarly wants to make a move, even if that means her own death. She’s sitting in the church at Alexandria, staring at the bullet Eugene made for her and speaking with Father Gabriel. He presses her to explain why she should be the one to die, why she has to be the one to pull her trigger and get caught in the process. She notes that Aaron has Eric, Michonne and Carl have Rick, and Daryl’s a strong fighter. Gabriel brings up her relationship to Sasha, and Rosita remains silent. Trying to dissuade her from her suicide mission, he promises they’ll find a way to win together when the right moment comes along — or they create it themselves — but they need her.

A brief scene continues Daryl’s escape route. He runs down a hall, stopping only to slip past an open door with men distracted by gambling. He finds a better weapon along the way in the form of a metal pole and sprints onward.

NEXT: Will Daryl escape?

Back at Carol’s home, Richard emphasized their advantage over the Saviors, which is the element of surprise. He remarks Carol must be new to the world of violence and fighting, but she simply responds with “You’re wrong,” while Morgan calls her the most capable fighter in the room. For his part, Morgan’s hesitant to join Richard’s side because he doesn’t want to kill; Carol doesn’t want anything to do with this whatsoever. Ezekiel’s man argues they’re saving lives by taking lives, and it’ll get even worse if they don’t act soon. Before leaving, he warns that whatever blood is spilled by their inaction is now on them. Carol, still, seems unfazed and asks Morgan to tell everyone they’ve met that she’s left so no one else arrives at her doorstep.

At Alexandria, a still blood-stained Spencer walks into his home to find it completely ransacked. On a small note, the computer effects used in this scene made it scene like a flashback sequence. So, it was a bit jarring to realize it was a flash-forward, with Spencer now in a pair of khakis and a blue polo, standing in front of a mirror holding a bottle of whiskey and practicing how he’ll say hello.

Defeated, Richard now walks towards a “no camping” sign he knocks down to reveal a camouflaged trailer. The inside is littered with supplies, including his crate of empty milk bottles he was seen carrying earlier. He picks one up and flings it on the floor before taking a moment to wallow. The moment feels unnecessary, given Richard seems more like a background character, but he’s fearful for the future of his home and perhaps his secret hideaway will have significance down the line.

Meanwhile, Spencer walks down the street of Alexandria when he’s stopped by Rosita. Sitting on a bench, she asks if he has a hot date. He says he wants to continue the good momentum he has with the Saviors by trying to get closer to them, and maybe one day — months or years in the future — they’ll try to fight back. He then asks why Rosita started and then so abruptly ended their fling. Even though she admits she was just using him for his body and occasional sweetness, he asks her for a no-strings-attached dinner. If you hadn’t already read the comics, this was another indication he may not make it back to have that dinner he promised.

But first, we find Daryl escaping out of the same door he tried in an earlier episode — only this time, there isn’t a gang of Saviors waiting to ambush him. As he fiddles with one of the parked motorcycles, a stray guard wanders over and tries to plead for his life. He promises to not stop him or tell anyone he fled, saying how he’s just one of those people trying to get by. Taking no chances, Daryl swings his pole and bludgeons the man to death as Jesus runs into view. “It ain’t just about getting by, it’s about getting it all,” Daryl says. He grabs a gun that looks a lot like Rick’s pistol from the man’s holster before he and Jesus ride off.

NEXT: A gutsy move

Approaching Rick’s home, Spencer wants to speak with Negan but is blocked by one of his guards, a woman named Arat. Negan eventually makes a crack about how she shouldn’t be rude and allows him to pass, excited by the whiskey in Spencer’s hand.

Back on the road, Michonne’s driver brings her to the desired destination. Up ahead, they can spot Negan’s Sanctuary and the walkers guarding it. The Savior says, “We’re all Negan,” and warns that whatever plan Michonne is aiming for won’t work, because Negan will outnumber her. She advises Michonne to make this car completely disappear by burning it and rolling it down a hill, in addition to using the silencer hidden in the glove compartment. In a bit of a surprise moment, the camera cuts out to a distance, but we see and hear Michonne shooting the woman before she turns the car around to drive home.

Rick and Aaron finally make it back to Alexandria and are caught off guard by Negan’s men, who taunt them as they enter the gate and make them wait as they sift through their offerings. Meanwhile, Negan is enjoying a drink on the porch with Spencer, toasting to the day when he gets himself a vacation home in Alexandria. He mentions the only thing missing is a pool table, and Spencer points out the neighbors across the street have one in their garage. Negan is thrilled by Spencer’s eagerness to please, but wants to stay outside, so he has the table brought out to the street.

The men continue to detain Rick, but turn on Aaron when they find the middle-finger message in their batch of supplies. He tries to explain they didn’t write that, but the Saviors hold Rick at gunpoint while they make their point by brutally attacking Aaron. Though Rick’s red, tear-splotched eyes are the same ones he used to have before exploding on an enemy, he watches helplessly. Aaron fans needn’t worry, but Spencer fans should.

On the street, Spencer sets the pool table as the Alexandrians gather to watch. He mentions the real reason he came to see Negan was to talk about Rick. While he may not agree with Negan’s methods, he says he understands he’s trying to get communities contributing to a greater good. But Rick, he argues, doesn’t have the best history with following the rules, nor was he the original leader. Spencer recalls how his family all died shortly after Rick arrived, and that his out-of-control ego will cause him to try and take over once again.

He asks Negan to put him in charge instead, so he can be the leader his mother was. Negan, however, isn’t persuaded. In fact, everything he just heard proved Spencer doesn’t have any guts, since he waited for a moment when Rick was away to slither in and swindle the leadership of Alexandria away from him. As Rick is finally allowed to collect a bloodied Aaron, Negan decides to see if Spencer has any guts at all — by cutting open his stomach in a moment comic-book readers have been mentally preparing for. However, the clues were there: Negan applauds toughness and looks down on the weak. So, when he asked why Spencer wasn’t brave enough to go and take what he wanted — something Negan advised to Dwight many times — it was the end of the Monroe family.

NEXT: A few more surprises

He then asks someone to clean up the mess and continues to taunt the silenced crowd with Lucille. Spencer’s death further pushes Rosita to her breaking point as she watches in angered horror, and she whips out her gun with the single bullet and fires. Of course, we already know Negan will appear in later episodes, so the bullet gets lodged in Lucille.

Negan screams at Rosita for disfiguring his beloved weapon as Arat pins her to the ground with a knife. He picks up the bullet casing and concludes it was handmade, but doesn’t believe she was the one who made it. He threatens to cut up her face, but not if she squeals on whoever crafted the bullet. She insists it was her, leaning her cheek into the knife as blood leaks from the cut. Negan commends her “badass”-ery, but is never one to let things slide — unless it’s Carl. He tells Arat to shoot someone, and she turns and fires at Olivia.

Rick and Aaron reach the scene in a rage, but are forced to swallow it as Negan recounts how reasonable he is for bringing Carl back home after his assassination attempt, killing Spencer for trying to usurp him, and giving him one less mouth to feed by shooting Olivia. Rick spits out that the supplies are waiting at the gate and tells Negan’s men to leave, but Negan still wants the name of the bullet-maker. Tara tries to take the blame, but Eugene chokes through tears that he’s the engineer. Negan takes Eugene as a prisoner, no doubt to improve his arsenal, and deems whatever Rick gathered for him as insufficient — he’s in a “serious, serious hole.” He then departs, leaving Rick to knife Spencer in the head when he emerges from his pool of blood as a walker.

Later that night, Rick kneels over a small axe and the mysterious note in one of Alexandria’s prison cells. Michonne walks in from the shadows and embraces him. She says she wanted to go with him and Aaron on the run, but “had to go my way.” What she found made her realize she doesn’t want to do things her way, but their way (her and Rick’s). Though worried about the Saviors’ sheer numbers, she isn’t swayed from her feelings. “We’re gonna keep standing, so what do we do with that?” she asks. “How do we make that mean something? We’re the ones who get things done. You said that.”

For the first time in a long time, Rick agrees and falls into her embrace. After fading to black, the scene picks up with Maggie, who climbs up to the same lookout post and sees Rick, Michonne, Carl, Tara, and Rosita arriving at the gates. They join Sasha and Enid, and while the reunion consists of some clichéd hugs and head nods, you couldn’t help but become emotional watching Rick embrace Daryl after seeing him safe and sound next to Jesus. His longtime friend hands him his gun, signifying the return of the old Rick, though perhaps one a little less impulsive and a little more strategic.

Negan’s biggest blow was making all these characters feel cut off from each other, because — and this is a paraphrased Harry Potter movie quote here — they’re not much of a threat if they’re alone. Rick, Michonne, Carl, and now Spencer and Rosita have all failed in trying to attack Negan on their own. But their arrival at Hilltop means they’re ready to merge colonies, and a teaser trailer for the second half of season 7 confirms they’ll try and bargain a deal with King Ezekiel to increase their numbers.

It’s a move many of us have been waiting for — but the first seven episodes were such a slog, you have to wonder if it was worth the wait. So far this season, we’ve been bogged down with side stories that led to minimal payoff. Will next year’s return be just as taxing, or will the momentum finally pick back up with the Rick we know and love back to his semi-normal self?

While you chew on that, there’s an added threat to all of this. Just after the end credits, the episode revealed a final scene: The man Rick and Aaron stole from at the lake followed them back to Alexandria. His face is still hidden in shadows as he spies Father Gabriel on lookout duty, but his shoes give him away. The final moment is simply him walking towards Alexandria’s front gate. I guess soon we’ll learn what he meant with that middle finger.

Episode grade: A-

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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