At times, it seemed like this day might never come. It seemed like the weeks would continue to drag along until neither Rick nor Negan remembered why they started fighting each other in the first place. But the time has come — the time for The Sanctuary to finally face off against everyone else in the last stand of this war. Was it worth the hype? Well…not really.
It was in the season 7 finale of The Walking Dead that both Rick and Negan finally said it was time for action after previous episodes teased a face-off between the two. Then season 7 proceeded with 15 episodes featuring more lead up to the showdown. After all that time, after all that teasing, after all that strung-out plot, did the finale satisfy? No, because it could’ve been a lot more.
In the end, the hour comes down to only a few things: remembrance of Carl, the walk-up to the finale, the twist, and the aftermath — with the latter being saved for next season. A brief flashback scene shows Rick and toddler Carl walking hand-in-hand down a dirt road. In the present, Rick walks spies himself in the mirror as he walks to the baby’s crib — the baby saved from the Savior outpost. Siddiq enters with a baby bottle, prompting another awkward exchange between the two, only this time Rick actually makes an effort. He asks how Carl died, something he wasn’t able to face before. Siddiq remembers his mother, who believed walkers were the souls of people trapped inside the bodies of monsters. In a way, he argues Carl died “paying respects to a woman he never knew” by killing the walkers. He further reminds Rick that when people die, all that’s left are their ideas.
Everyone else is preparing for war. Ezekiel and Jerry once again prove they need their own sitcom, Carol and Henry predict a victory, and Morgan is having another mental disturbance. Alden and the other reformed Saviors are walking back into the Hilltop after clearing out walkers for Maggie, but Morgan goes to attack them, believing they intend ill will. Henry tries to stop him, so Morgan turns on him inadvertently.
Again, he’s forced to face the horrors of his actions, but there’s so much going on in this moment already. Maggie’s making a side comment to Alden, reminding him that he and his people aren’t actually a part of Hilltop’s community. “You’re gonna be here, but you’re not us,” she says. Rick tries telling Morgan to maybe sit this one out, but he feels he needs to be on the battlefield and no one, for whatever reasons, feels the need to hold him back. He makes a nice speech about how they are both worse off now than they were before, and we cut to all of them walking toward the fight at hand.
The Sanctuary, meanwhile, is mobilizing. Dwight has been beaten and placed in a sweatsuit, marking the Sanctuary’s lowest laborers. Dwight is carted off to join their convoy because Negan has plans for him. The same goes for Gabriel, who will be on hand for when Negan makes his confession. As they drive toward their meeting point, we see Rick’s group making their way through the woods to take out one of Negan’s convoys. Morgan hallucinates a vision of a mutilated Jared as he plunges his staff into a surrendering Savior, but Jesus snaps him awake. The group finds a map off one of the bodies that gives away what they believe to be Negan’s true location, but Negan is explaining to Gabriel in the car that that too is also a trick to draw them into a trap.
Gabriel tries escaping by rolling out of the moving car, but he’s still blinded by his illness. He stumbles into trees and eventually a walker, and is quickly retrieved by the Saviors. Eugene seems ready to put a bullet through Gabriel’s head, but Negan wants to claim his life for his own.
Continuing their trek, Jesus tries to reach Morgan by proposing an alternate method for his madness: The sharpened end of his staff is the part reserved for the dead, the other, non-lethal edge will be reserved for the living. And that will make things better, he says. As the group walks into an open field, they spot a giant herd of walkers, one of the largest they’ve ever seen, off in the distance, reminding them of the true threat.
The Saviors are also rolling out. Some are heading to the Hilltop, where Tara is holding down the fort with Alden. They prepare for battle as Negan whistles into a megaphone around Rick’s location. They can’t yet see where their attackers are coming from, only that they appear to be in serious trouble. Through the megaphone, Negan mentions Dwight will be forced to watch their deaths, Eugene made today all possible, and Gabriel will be killed.
Negan counts down from three as a line of Saviors emerge at the top of the hill with guns…except it all backfires. As they go to shoot, their guns — the ones Eugene had prepared for all of them — explode in their hands. Even Negan is left with fingers blown off and all of a sudden the Saviors’ ambush turns into a trap for the Saviors.
The fight switches back to Hilltop, where we find Tara’s group heading into the woods. With the crying infant, they probably won’t get very far, so Tara volunteers to stay behind. Alden insists on joining her and asks more of his people to do so. They hide in the woods to await the Saviors, but before they can fire, explosions of flame engulf their enemies. Aaron has arrived with members of Oceanside, who are hurling homemade explosives. This is the only time we ever see the Oceansiders in this episode — it’s another instance where weeks of setting the stage resulted in very little payoff.
Meanwhile, the fight among Negan and Rick’s squadron’s is practically already finished. The Saviors went to kill Eugene, but he was saved by Rosita. Dwight went to attack Negan, but he dodged and hobble off. Soon, the Saviors dropped their weapons and surrendered, upon Laura’s lead. Negan was hiding behind a tree — the same tree from the vision of Rick, the one with stained glass dangling from its branches — when Rick fires at him. He runs out of ammo, so he charges instead, finding himself in a wrestle with his mortal enemy.
Negan gets in a few solid blows — one with the bat, but mostly with his fists and feet. He admits his “eenie, meeni, miney, mo” method for killing Glenn and Abarham was “bullsh–.” It wasn’t random. He just didn’t want to kill Rick in front of his son. Rick then sweeps the leg and forces Negan down. Rick suggests a way for them to both find peace with each other. As Negan picks up his bat, Rick begs to give him just 10 seconds to plead his case for Carl. He allows him this courtesy, but as Negan tears up, Rick whips out a shard of stained glass that had been dislodged earlier from gunfire to slice open Negan’s throat. The Saviors who surrendered watch from high on the hill.
Despite everything Negan has done, Rick tells the Saviors to save Negan. Maggie screams out in shock. She had grappled in the past about reconciling her need for revenge with what’s best for her people. But her actions prove she’s more interested in revenge. She’s held back as she screams about Glenn’s death and the need for retribution, but Rick repeats a line from Carl: There’s gotta be something after. He gives the surviving Saviors an ultimatum: Get with the program of peace or pay the price.
As Rosita punches Eugene in the face for puking on her in the previous episode and Morgan gives his armor to Carol, that mysterious vision of Rick plays out. He sits at the base of the tree reciting the religious line: “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” Yet another scene that was less intense than its buildup.
In the aftermath, Alden finds a place at Hilltop, with Maggie’s permission; Daryl meets with Dwight alone in the woods, tells him to drive away and never return, and suggests he find his wife, Sherry; and Morgan goes to live by himself at the junkyard, while inviting Jadis to a place to live with the colony. Dwight rolls up to a house where he finds a message from Sherry: the word “honeymoon” above the infinity symbol, forcing a smile out of a man who too long felt tormented.
Back at Hilltop, Maggie is conspiring. Now completely consumed by vengeance, she sits in the dark of her office with Jesus. She tells him he was right to spare the Saviors, but that Rick and Michonne were not right to spare Negan. They will wait and make the Hilltop thrive, but when the moment comes, they will show Rick how wrong he was. Daryl emerges from the shadows, agreeing to this plan. It’s a move, pitting Maggie against Rick, that feels…odd. A few episodes ago, Rick mentioned that he would relinquish leadership to Maggie once the Negan war was done. She would, then, technically be in power. So why all this conspiracy to circumvent someone who’s seemingly no longer a power player? Maggie’s new villainy role doesn’t feel like it satisfied the character’s trajectory. Lauren Cohan’s future on the show being in doubt makes it even more irksome. Is this how we’re to look at a beloved character who’s not only suffered so much loss but has also been with us for seasons?
We then find Rick and Michonne standing over a recovering Negan, lying on a hospital bed. They promise a new world is coming. Just to get the message across by choking him out and opening up his neck stitches, they want him to know he plays a part in all of this. Negan’s fate is to rot in a cell until he dies, existing as living evidence of the society they’re trying to build. We’re left with two more moments of hope: one of Gabriel praying to God on his knees in his burned church and another of Rick walking with baby Carl as he reads a letter written to his late son. This memory was the first time Rick knew who he was. “We were walking side by side, but you were bringing me somewhere, bringing all of us to the new world,” he says.
Again, it felt odd. The finale tried to honor Carl after Chandler Riggs’ dad said his son was “disappointed” with the character’s death. The finale also painted a new color on Maggie, just as Cohan is signing on for a lead role in another series. The Walking Dead hasn’t lately been great at goodbyes.
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