A shocking midseason finale changes everything

By Nick Romano
December 11, 2017 at 01:11 AM EST
Gene Page/AMC
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It doesn’t typically bode well for characters on The Walking Dead when their acting counterparts appear on Talking Dead — it’s a not-so-subtle tip-off that the talent will be chatting it up with Chris Hardwick about the latest death on the show. So when Khary Payton was listed as a guest, I was already preparing myself for Ezekiel’s impending demise. But there was a twist. Season 8’s midseason finale didn’t end with a death at all, but with the promise of a death — and it wasn’t Ezekiel.

After Negan broke free of the walker herd at the Sanctuary and plunged AHK into chaos, Rick meets back up with his comrades in the sewers under an imploding Alexandria. There, amid the huddled, broken masses, is Carl, now pale and covered in sweat as he reveals to his father and mother (as Michonne essentially is now) a walker bite on his torso. While characters have been known to walk away from things far more severe, executive producer Scott M. Gimple teased on Talking Dead that this will play out how walker bites typically play out. But the aftermath is next year’s problem when the second half of The Walking Dead premieres in February.

So how did we get here? If you were paying attention to the clues sprinkled throughout the hour, you could’ve seen this coming.

The last scene of last week’s episode saw Rick trembling beneath his sniper binoculars at the sight of a walker-less front yard at the Sanctuary. Again, no one is responding over the walkie, confirming his fears that Negan has somehow broke free — and we know it’s because of some self-proclaimed ingenious plan on Eugene’s part. As Rick is rushing toward the site with the Scavengers, we see a flashback to when Rick and Carl met that stranger by the gas station. We saw Carl say it was enough after Rick scared off the young man with warning shots, and in the aftermath of that conversation, Carl told his father that he’d learned to act when you care about something. Hope alone is never enough.

The Scavengers, meanwhile, are proving once again that it’s silly to rely on them for anything. It was just in the season 7 finale that they betrayed Rick’s group for the Saviors, and they quite literally run away and abandon Rick as shots are fired at them when they approach the Sanctuary. Luckily, Carol drives up with Jerry in the passenger seat to rescue Rick from hellfire. We see more flashes of Rick’s chat with Carl, who says the point of fighting against the Saviors is to create a world where they’re working together and not all just hoping for the best.

As with episodes throughout the current season, the camera blends through different close-up shots of characters, ending on Negan, who’s smiling at the thought of the revenge he’s about to inflict.

Aaron and Enid, we learn, are driving to Oceanside to recruit more forces — only these women have already been so wronged by AHK and Tara that it’d be a miracle if they granted them an audience. Aaron turns the wheel over to Enid, and she makes a pit stop to accommodate a truck filled with alcohol from Roanoke Way Distillery to bring as a gift. Despite this gesture of good faith, “Roanoke” isn’t something that typically denotes good fortune, as American Horror Story fans can you tell you.

At Alexandria, Michonne is promising Judith she’ll bring back her dad. She spots Daryl, who claims his plan worked and the Saviors will have no choice but to surrender. Carl is up in his room, sitting in a corner as he writes a letter to his dad. He also grabs for a piece of paper that reads, “Just survive somehow,” the farewell note he received from Enid. As he considers this, the camera pulls back to show a wide shot of his room. His sleeping bag bears a red patch at the bottom that foreshadows the walker bite.

Outside, Tara approaches Rosita to tell her that their plan worked — though it didn’t really — but Rosita still seems frustrated by their hasty actions. She aggressively piles up box after box into Tara’s arms, though she tries to make light of this hostility.

Back with Aaron and Enid, they roll up to a spot on the edge of the woods near Oceanside. Night falls and Enid is sleeping in the back when Aaron, sitting in the driver’s seat, spots someone moving by the distillery truck. They silently disembark the car and circle both sides to try to cut off whoever it is. The assailant turns out to be Natania, grandmother to Cyndie. She knocks over Aaron, but Enid shoots her dead. The other women from Oceanside swarm them with wooden sticks as Cyndie breaks down over the sight of her murdered grandmother. Not exactly what I’d call the best negotiation tactic.
(Recap continues on the next page.)

Carl is covering up a manhole to the sewers beneath Alexandria when Michonne spots him. He reveals he’s helping a traveler who passed through, but it doesn’t matter anymore as Negan’s voice erupts from a megaphone just beyond Alexandria’s gates. He warns that everyone needs to line up and start apologizing. The one with the least creative apology will be executed for Rick’s sins and they all have three minutes to comply. We see shots of Rick, Carol, and Jerry frantically driving in separate directions to check on their allies when Jerry’s car is hit by something.

Ezekiel is still wallowing in the theater at the Kingdom, clutching a letter left by Jerry that explained he needed to leave to help the others continue the mission. The Saviors, however, have already arrived at the Kingdom. Ezekiel hears gunshots before he runs offstage into hiding. Maggie and Jesus’ convoy, meanwhile, is being overtaken. They run into a fallen tree blocking the road when Simon leads forces from the Sanctuary to surround them. A truck drives up to the front ahead of Maggie’s car. The back hatch lifts open to reveal three men, one of whom drags out a battered Jerry as the other two carry out a coffin.

While others at Alexandria are panicking and paralyzed under the chaos, Carl is grabbing essential food supplies and commanding the others to head toward the woods. Michonne isn’t okay with allowing the Saviors to claim Alexandria, but Carl says it’s necessary. “All we need to do is survive tonight,” he says.

Back at the Kingdom, Gavin addresses the colony’s inhabitants who’ve been captured and corralled into the town square. He declares that because of their actions Negan claims total dominion over the Kingdom, which means the vast majority of their resources will now go to the Saviors and Gavin will be living at the Kingdom for the foreseeable future. All this while Maggie and Jesus are forced to give up their guns to Simon, and Negan continues to taunt the Alexandrians before opening fire.

Carl catches Negan off guard when he climbs up to the top of the gate to tell him Rick isn’t there. Negan makes more wise remarks, but Carl offers himself as a sacrifice if it would mean the families and children inside could be spared. When Negan asks if he wants to die, he says, “No, I don’t, but I will. It’s gonna happen.” Carl has always struck a nerve with Negan, who sees the kid as a prospective protégé. He’s left speechless again when Carl asks Negan if this is what he saw himself becoming.

The speech, however, is a distraction so Daryl, Michonne, and the others can drive a convoy straight through the back walls of Alexandria and onto the road. Dwight, who strategically set up weak blockades to ensure they’d get through, leads other Saviors in pursuit while Negan, now infuriated by this ruse, commands his men to start firebombing Alexandria. Carl rushes down the ladder but ends up falling. He proceeds to hobble through the chaos and explosions tearing apart his home, while he drops smoke bombs along his path. Ezekiel, meanwhile, is off executing his own plan as Gavin tries to get the Kingdom residents to reveal the location of their leader. No one does, by the way.

Maggie is having worse luck. Simon says Hilltop has been chosen to be spared solely because of the crops they produce. So Maggie has two options, one of which involves the death of Jerry and her own very public execution. The other option is return home and start production on the next round of food supplies. Simon, hearing opera music in the distance, also lets slip that Eugene uses music to help drive away the walkers from the Sanctuary. To prove the severity of his wishes, Simon shoots and kills Neil in the backseat of her car and is about to take further action when Maggie agrees to comply with his demands and return home. Before she goes, she asks Simon a favor, which he grants — to take the coffin so they can burry Neil at Hilltop.

Before returning to the chaos of Alexandria, we see a glimpse of Eugene’s sleepless night: He wakes at midnight to gulp wine and try to return to bed. He can’t and instead just whimpers in silence.
(Recap continues on the next page.)

Explosions continue to plague Alexandria with Carl running to dodge most of them. Tara and Daryl are in the woods already, trying to convince themselves and the others that it wasn’t their foolhardy plan that allowed Negan to escape. It was their fault, though, because if they hadn’t acted so hastily in the manner they did, Eugene might not have been so driven into the open arms of Negan.

They’re waiting along the road for the Saviors in pursuit. Dwight, leading the charge, sees a smoke bomb that Daryl threw in the road. Laura warns that it’s probably a trap, but Dwight drives them straight toward the smoke and leads them directly into a trap. Daryl and the others open fire, and Dwight turns on his own people in the crossfire. Laura, however, gets the jump on him and shoots him in the arm. She’s about to kill him when bullets rip the air close by. She’s able to escape and will likely inform Negan about Dwight’s betrayal.

By this point, Negan and his forces have busted into Alexandria. He commands his men to take Carl alive while he waits in Rick’s home. Carl, however, escapes into the sewers under cover from the smoke bombs.

At the Sanctuary, Eugene sneaks into the medical room to awaken Dr. Carson and Gabriel. He says he won’t be rejoining Rick, but he agrees to help them escape. He drugged one of the guards’ drinks to induce diarrhea and left them the keys to a car not far from the gate.

At the Kingdom, Ezekiel ignites a trail of gasoline leading to a pileup of tanks, and the ensuing explosion draws away most of the Saviors so he can drive up a bus and allow his people to flee. As the Kingdom residents flee the colony, Carol is running up toward the gates when she sees Ezekiel locking himself in with Gavin. Before they close, he tells her to protect the people.

When Maggie returns to Hilltop, she rushes up to the pen of prisoners and pulls out the man who tried to kill Jesus at the satellite outpost. To the surprise of even the most taunting Saviors, she kills him in front of everyone and calls it a payback for the death of Neil on the road. Before she walks off, she tells Jesus to start cultivating the crops. She warns the Hilltop might have to be the ones to make a final stand. As Neil is being encased later in the coffin, Maggie writes on the coffin, “We have 38 more stand down,” and tells her men to “leave it where they’ll see it.”

Ezekiel is still alive, at least for now, though he’s getting beaten by Gavin, usually the most likable of the Saviors. Gavin brings up how much he liked Benjamin and didn’t want him to die, but now many more will die because of AHK’s actions. Morgan sneaks up on the scene from the shadows but does not intervene. Gavin commands the Saviors to continue loading the trucks and to break Ezekiel’s arms if he tries anything.

Having taken Dwight with them, Daryl, Rosita, and Tara escape down into the sewer, but Michonne sees the destruction of Alexandria and goes back toward town. Rick arrives solo to witness the chaos. He goes to his house, which Negan ordered to be left unscathed, and starts whispering for Carl and Michonne. Negan gets the drop on him, knocking him to the ground and stripping him of his guns. As Negan starts monologuing again, Rick manages to dodge all the hits from Lucille, but it’s his talk of taking Carl as his own and molding him in his image that emboldens Rick to grab the bat and beat Negan. The madman leader of the Saviors, in turn, becomes furious over Rick laying a hand on Lucille and reclaims his weapon. As Rick dives for his gun, Negan knocks him out of the window, allowing Rick to escape.

That’s when Rick comes up on Michonne. She had been jumped by a Savior, and although she was able to plunge her blade through his skull, she hacks away at his bleeding corpse in an unhinged state. Rick is able to snap her out of it while the fires from the houses around them rage on.

She leads Rick to the sewers where all the remaining Alexandrians — now including Dwight — have taken refuge. That’s when they come across Carl and the traveler he saved. Rick’s son reveals the walker bite and mentions that he got it helping this man get to Alexandria. The camera pans away as Michonne and Rick fall on Carl and the scene fades to black.

While this has been one the more energetic episodes this year, it’s the small preview of the back half of season 8 that looks far more exciting and enticing than what we’ve seen so far this season. Negan’s escape and Carl’s impending death have the potential for more interesting chess moves from these two warring sides, as opposed to the one-sided scene that’s been staged since the season 8 premiere. It was great to see Rick finally get his groove back (for the umpteenth time now) and take action, but The Walking Dead isn’t one to offer tight and concise plot movement. The most infuriating aspects of this story over the years have been the ones that have dragged out the plot.

The state of Carl, however, offers more questions to ponder. (Head here for Andrew Lincoln’s thoughts on the twist, which he shared with EW’s own Dalton Ross.) What was that Old Man Rick vision we saw in the first episode? If Carl truly is to die, then it can’t be from the future. Was it a fever dream? An alternate reality? A hope for the future? Gimple said we’d get an answer about halfway through the season. We’re now at the halfway mark, so expect something come February.

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