If you’re reading this and, like me, made it through this pretty dire season of The Walking Dead, congratulations! If you’re reading this while considering checking it out, also congrats for not wasting probably around 12 hours of your life! But the good news is this finale episode itself was watchable, had twists and turns, action, emotion, and on the whole, was pretty good. But it didn’t feel like a finale to me.
The episode opens, and often comes back to, Sasha (SONEQUA MARTIN-GREEN) in the dark with headphones in, with what appears to be engine noises in the background. She seems emotional and has flashbacks to moments with Abraham (MICHAEL CUDLITZ) before they went off on the mission of getting Maggie (LAUREN COHAN) to Hilltop, which ended with his skull being bashed in by Negan (JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN). I like things like this where we jump around, given teasers of the present without fully understanding the extent of a situation. I think it makes you focus more as a viewer, intrigued, and waiting for those little puzzle pieces to fit together and get the dawning realisation of what is in store for these characters.
We return to where we last saw Sasha, in the cell with the Saviors, and Negan has explained his plan to her, although we, of course, aren’t privy to that information. He makes it clear that he likes her, and they bargain with how many lives Rick’s (ANDREW LINCOLN) group need to pay with to settle the debt with Negan. They manage to agree that only one needs to die, and Negan promises it won’t be her. But that doesn’t sound foreboding at all…
In Alexandria, we pick back up with Rick holding a gun to Dwight’s (AUSTIN AMELIO) head. After an outburst from Daryl (NORMAN REEDUS), and Tara (ALANNA MASTERSON) wanting revenge for Denise (MERRITT WEVER) being killed, Dwight apologies and convinces Daryl that he was only following Negan’s rule while he was trying to protect his wife, Sherry (CHRISTINE EVANGELISTA), but now she’s free he doesn’t need to be careful. He tells them that the Saviors will arrive the following day, and their plan should be to pick off the Saviors that come to Alexandria, and then Dwight can let them into the Sanctuary to finish off the rest. In theory the plan sounds good, and as a viewer it’s much easier for us to trust in Dwight, having seen his vulnerable side and how much he loves Sherry. But this is a big leap of faith for Rick’s group.
We then jump between the other groups and see that Maggie is in charge at Hilltop, since Gregory (XANDER BERKERLEY) has disappeared. At the same time, we see the Kingdom fighters stumble across the trolley baricade that Richard (KARL MAKINEN) used before. This time it turns out Morgan (LENNIE JAMES) is behind it, and planned to ambush the Saviors alone. King Ezekeil (KHARY PAYTON) manages to persuade him to join with them, that there is strength in their numbers. He shows real concern for Morgan losing himself in his destructive path since the death of Benjamin (LOGAN MILLER), and I think that bond will grow in the next series.
The tension builds as Alexandria prepares for the fight. A few of them rig the dynamite in a truck outside their gates, and block the road with cars. The Garbage Pail Kids arrive, naturally swarming out of garbage trucks like ants, and set themselves up alongside the Alexandrians on the rooftops and ramparts. It’s good timing as the Saviors arrive, but unexpectedly for Rick, it’s Eugene (JOSH MCDERMITT) that leads the way, calling for him to stand down. Without Negan in sight, and hesitant to hurt Eugene, Rick finally gives in and sees that Eugene isn’t on his side, signalling to Rosita (CHRISTIAN SERRATOS) to blow the dynamite. It’s an emotional call for Rick, who’s never one to sacrifice his own, but the plan falters when we realise they’ve been betrayed and the Saviors were warned. The dynamite trap has been foiled and the Garbage Pail Kids turn their guns onto the Alexandrians. It’s a truly hopeless moment, and a genuinely good twist in the tail. We’re so used to the plot being that Rick’s group may start as the underdog, but a clever plan gets them ahead of the game. Here though, all hope seems lost just when we thought they’d finally get one over on Negan and his crew. The drawback is that we don’t really have an emotional connection to this group, because we’ve seen them in literally two episodes before, and they’re portrayed as almost non-human. I mean what is with the way they talk? The zombie apocalypse happened a couple of years ago, I doubt an entire group of people has already forgotten how to speak… This moment of betrayal would have had a higher impact had the show worked on developing these characters during what felt like the longest series known to mankind so they certainly had scope for it, and would have had a greater payoff in the finale.
Negan starts messing around with Rick’s head, threatening him and using Sasha as leverage to choose members of his group to be sacrificed. It turns out that the shots we’ve had of her in the dark were in a coffin Negan had loaded onto one of his trucks. It’s all for effect and she willingly got in, but took Eugene’s pill with her in a selfless move as one final attempt to rid them all of Negan. As he opens the coffin for dramatic effect, she’s already turned to a walker, and attacks him. It’s again, a great, original plot twist that you don’t quite put together until moments before she takes that pill. We know that she’s prepared to die for this cause, and how loyal she is to Rick and the group. Her flashbacks to conversations with Abraham really heightened the value the two placed on dying for reason, and making sure it was contributing to something worthwhile.
As with most big character deaths, even though you couldn’t anticipate her intentionally turning herself into a walker, you do expect her to die in the attempt to kill Negan this episode. The writers focus so heavily on her, building the emotional ties to increase that impact when she goes, that you just know she’s not making it through this series. They did well at rounding her character in the past series, from someone who was quite bland, a bit cold, seemingly not caring about anything or even herself, to someone fiercely protective of those she loves and valuing the sacrifice she chooses to make. I think she will be missed, and I’m really glad she had such a pinnacle moment in the episode, however it’s pretty disappointing that in reality, she didn’t do much damage. Now I didn’t think she would actually kill Negan because it was to be expected that he’d be around for series 8, but I thought she might get a little nibble at least, and he might loose an arm or something… Her death really just bought Rick time, which in the long-run was all he needed.
The group take advantage of Sasha’s attack to start shooting and attacking the Garbage Pail Kids on the inside of the walls. We finally get the big action and fighting scene we’ve been waiting for, and the stakes are undoubtedly high since almost no one is off limits when it comes to finale deaths. We do fear for Michone (DANAI GURIRA) who is alone on a rooftop, being pummelled by a Garbage-woman, and seems in a precarious situation as she’s forced back over the rooftop ledge.
Rick has been shot by Janis (POLLYANNA MCINTOSH), and things once again look bleak as Saviors surround Carl (CHANDLER RIGGS). There seems to be no saving him from Lucille, which I was honestly so delighted about, when the cavalry literally arrive in the form of the Kingdom and Hilltop. Ezikeil’s tiger makes a great impact and is certainly a fun addition to the fray. The Saviors and Garbage People flee under cover of smoke bombs, leaving us with the knowledge that there has to be an all out war. The lines have been drawn, and the next series should deliver a lot of gut-wretching fights, violence, emotion, tension and hopefully a few more key character deaths.
Overall, this was a good episode of The Walking Dead. We saw the story progress, had emotional ties and a main character die with Sasha, betrayals with the Garbage People, Negan lost some of his power, while Rick stood his ground and returned to that fearless leader he was before the attacks on Glenn (STEVEN YEUN) and Abraham a series ago. It was exciting, watchable, and emotional at times, but for me, there were a few things that let it down. For one, Carl should have died. At the least, he should have lost a hand, or his other eye. As a character, he’s incredibly dull and irritating. I find that he contributes nothing the the group or the overall story, and I honestly think him and Rick have interacted so little in the past series it would make no difference if he was there or not. On a positive note, it would have increased that fire in Rick to pursue Negan and make him pay, which would have made great TV. The other problem is that the timing is just too convenient. Twice in that episode, main characters were saved by pure luck with timing, and it just makes the whole thing less dramatic when main characters seem become untouchable. The same goes for Michone. I really like her as a character, but it was obvious that she wasn’t going to die here. Having the moment Rick and Carl think she’s fallen from the building wasn’t particularly effective for me, because we knew there was no way it was her. If a main character is killed off in a show like this, they sure as hell show you it in every detail. There’s no doubt about it, so if it’s ambiguous, then it’s just not them.
Another issue I had was with the build up of Sasha’s role. I like the way it was rolled out, but the pay-off was so small it didn’t really warrant all the flashbacks and intrigue. If she wasn’t going to hurt Negan, then she as least needed to kill a different primary character such as Simon (STEVEN OGG), or even Eugene.
While I did enjoy this episode, for the reasons above it didn’t feel as dramatic as a finale should. It was essentially a great mid-season finale, and could have been if the creators had done the sensible thing and condensed this series down. With this much build up, we need a pay off. We knew this was going to a war, and it was evident in the past few episodes that we’d have to wait until next series to actually see it. With that in mind, viewers deserve something massive, something unforgettable, to make all those long, dull, drawn-out episodes worthwhile. We deserve several major characters dying. We deserve more twists. More brutal stakes. More genuine concern for characters. We were getting there with this episode, but didn’t quite hit that mark.
As a final thought on this series, I’d say the idea of Rick losing himself and being the underdog to a stronger, dangerous group was good. The mutany and rounding up of like-minded groups, also good. The problem is it should have been done in half the time – 8 episodes max. As a fan of the show, I’d much rather they came back and said they were halving the length of the next series, to ensure they kept pace, tension and drama, than promised 16 episodes and couldn’t deliver on any of these fronts. My hope is that next series will give us more of the action, with the betrayal between groups, Negan on a warpath, Rick back at his best, and knowing that they have Dwight undercover within the Saviors, almost like a sleeper cell waiting to be activated. Then there’s also Eugene, with whatever he’s got going on… At this point I think maybe he was just a coward after all unfortunately, but here’s hoping he finds his courage and redeems himself before too long. That goes for the writers of The Walking Dead as well.