The Walking Dead is not the same show it used to be. On the bright side, we’ve gotten to see some comic book staples (The Governor, Negan, The Wolves) grace the screen. On the other hand, the problems of the present are often the same problems of the past: Sanctuaries are never what they appear to be, characters are nearly pushed to the edge of their sanity, and hostile third parties are never far behind.
Maybe this will all turn out to be but a false sense of hope for an often laboring series, but the death of Carl could mean something different.
When Shane died, it was a sacrifice Rick thought he made for the group — and it changed him. He changed again when Lori died. Rick nearly lost himself, but he ultimately came back with a Ricktatorship resolve. When Glenn and Abraham died, it broke him again, but, once more, he came back. When Carl dies in the midseason premiere, Rick makes a promise to fulfill his son’s vision for a brighter tomorrow.
That’s what the dream sequence of “Old Man Rick” has been about. As Carl is about to pass on from this world at a now-decimated Alexandria, he shares his hope for the future with his father: Rick, with a longer beard, guides Judith through Alexandria, now filled with former Saviors (including Negan and Eugene), Hilltoppers (including Jerry), and their own people. All are working together to sustain one united community. “If you could still be who you were, that’s how it could be,” Carl says.
Rick explains to Carl that everything he has done has been for his children. Now with only Judith left, he’s left with this final promise: “I’ll make [this vision] real, I will.” It’s difficult to know what Rick stands for, though. He doesn’t have mercy for Negan — Andrew Lincoln revealed recently that he’ll hunt Negan with an ax in the last episodes of season 8 — but with other Saviors, his sympathy wavers depending on who he’s talking to that day. So what will Carl’s death mean for Rick? How will he fight now?
With one mystery solved (Old Man Rick), another remains open. We’ve seen brief flashes of a scene involving a teary-eyed Rick uttering Biblical lines while light cascades down on his face through stained glass. Is this scene from the future? Is this a dream sequence? The midseason return provides another piece of the puzzle: After Carl dies, we see a shot of Rick sitting on the ground with his back against a tree. His hand presses against a bloody gash in his side as the colorful stained glass dangles on the branches above him.
So how did we get here?
Most of the hour is reserved for Carl’s sendoff. We go back in time to see exactly how he was bitten — a walker sank its teeth into his side off camera during the scuffle in the woods with Siddiq. He then wrote goodbye letters to everyone in the camp in case he wouldn’t be alive to make those goodbyes in person.
The rest of the hour centers on Morgan. The Saviors shoot down the walker herd in front of the Sanctuary, forming a safe path out of the compound as the bodies begin to pile up. Morgan, spying all this from his sniper roost, is forced to flee when enemies rush out into the courtyard and open fire on him. He’s able to escape by using other walkers as a diversion and follows Gavin’s convoy toward The Kingdom.
Snapping back to the present, Carol is also making her way there. She tells the other residents fleeing the colony to find a safe haven at her cottage outside the border while she goes back to save Ezekiel. Henry wants to go as well, to avenge his brother, but even though Carol tells him to stay back, you know he won’t listen.
We find the Alexandrians grieving over Carl as his virus takes over. Rick and Michonne want to move his body outside, but they have to wait for the Saviors’ gunfire to cease before emerging. Each new explosion from above further enflames their grief as they watch helplessly as Carl’s body fails.
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The result is a lot of heart-to-hearts. Carl calls a weeping Michonne his “best friend”; he tells Judith that while he wasn’t able to survive this world like their mother promised, she will; and Daryl, ever the stoic griever, gives Carl props for saving their people. Rosita, Daryl, Tara, Dwight and the others plan to regroup at the Hilltop to once again unite their people under one colony. Rick and Michonne, meanwhile, are staying behind with Carl until his last breath.
Back at The Kingdom, Morgan bumps into Carol, who suggests they avoid the Saviors as long as they can to save Ezekiel. But there’s one problem with that: Morgan saw Henry sneak back in. So, as Carol says, “If we need to take them, we take them.” One by one, they take the Saviors.
Morgan’s staff was once a symbol of a repentant monk. Now it’s a symbol of a sadist. Morgan doesn’t kill Saviors swiftly with a gun, as Carol does; he makes them suffer. When Carol offers to take out the Saviors for the both of them, he repeatedly says no as he then takes a moment to watch his victim drown on his own blood. When Carol tells them to bypass another troop of Saviors, Morgan says no again. But this time he’s slipping. As he cuts down two of the men, a third comes up from the side and nearly guns him down before Carol intervenes.
Meanwhile, Ezekiel is getting inside Gavin’s head. “You are the author of this night, Gavin. Its close will be fashioned by your star,” the king says. Soon, the Savior general realizes his numbers are dwindling, and when he hears gunfire in the distance, he and his remaining men rush Ezekiel into the theater.
Gavin has always been one of the nicer Saviors, but when he gets backed into a corner (or a theater), he becomes vicious. While making empty threats about Ezekiel’s demise, an explosion blasts open the door, and Carol and Morgan sneak up from behind through the stage. A skirmish of bullets ensues that ends with Morgan plunging his hand inside a man’s wound and ripping out his intestines. Carol and Ezekiel look on in silent horror, but Gavin puts their shared disgust into words: “Jesus!”
The rest of the rescue turns into a horror story for Gavin. He desperately runs through hallways lit by flame as Morgan slowly stalks him. All that’s missing is the “ch ch ch ah ah ah.” Flames also lick across the roofs of Alexandria. With the Saviors gone and their comrades already heading to Hilltop, Rick and Michonne carry Carl out into the open. These scenes cut back and forth between Gavin quivering at the sight of Morgan’s shadow and Carl being laid to rest inside a church.
Morgan and Rick, again, find themselves intertwined. While Morgan finds his prey and readies to kill again, Rick listens to Carl recalling the child he killed backed at the prison and commenting how easy it was to take a life. While Gavin lies stunned at Morgan slaughtering the Saviors over “the kid” (i.e. the death of Benjamin), Rick admits he’s done everything for his own kid. As Morgan continues to use the word “no” as a threat to Gavin, who’s begging for things to go back to the way they were, Rick uses “no” to comfort his son.
Then, before Carl reveals his hopeful dream for the future, Morgan goes to kill Gavin. “I have to,” he tells Carol and Ezekiel. But before he can, Henry pops up behind Gavin and pushes his own staff through the Savior’s throat. Morgan trembles as his sickness has spread to the child he once mentored. “I had to,” the boy tells Ezekiel afterwards — mimicking Morgan’s own words. Carl had thanked Rick for shaping him into the man he became, and Morgan is now living with the boy he shaped Henry to be.
As Ezekiel comforts Henry, Carl gives his final request to Rick and Michonne: to take his own life. Morning breaks and the pair weep on the steps of the church, the sound of a single gunshot signaling Carl’s departure from this life.
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