“Sucks, don’t it? The moment you realize you don’t know shit.”
So says Negan, who finally makes his grand entrance in a most unforgettable bloody fashion. Black leather jacket, hair slicked back, maniacal grin on his face and barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat on his shoulder — the hype about Negan making the Governor look like a Girl Scout turns out to be true. There’s Rick on his knees: His world shattered, all strength and confidence stripped away. He’s sweating, shaking, powerless. Everything he’s said — to Michonne, to Maggie, to Carl, to everyone — about what they’ve built at A-town, about what their lives have become? Scratch all that. Negan’s words were meant to haunt Rick, but they’ll be plaguing us for the next six or seven months as well. We also don’t know shit: Specifically, who just lost the worst game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe ever? As cliffhangers go, this one is appropriately brutal. (And you thought a couple of weeks of Glenngate was torture? This, friends, is a brand-new hell.)
The episode begins with a major crisis: Maggie’s in need of immediate medical attention. With Denise gone, someone must get her to Hilltop. The roster of heroes is rather low, though, given Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Rosita, Carol, and Morgan are all MIA at the moment. That leaves Rick to round up a posse and fire up the RV. It also leaves A-town in the hands of Enid (who’s doing her best R. Kelly homage), Spencer, and Father Gabe. The priest seems worthy of Rick’s trust as Alexandria’s defender, but as we learn, the Saviors aren’t looking to overthrow the safe zone and slaughter their people, like the Wolves did. What none of the Alexandrians realize is that Negan wants them alive.
All the lead-up to the Negan showdown makes Morgan’s search for Carol pale in comparison. He finds that missing horse and then finds her, wounded and not in the mood for a helping hand. Of all people, she reasons, Morgan should understand that she’s lost her killer instinct and just wants to be left alone. That, as Morgan well knows, is a recipe for death, madness, or both. All life is precious, so he’s not giving up on her. This story line gives us a couple of choice zombie moments, with the hangin’, clangin’ walker that Morgan cuts down and the one Carol tussles with when she runs away. (Note to self: Hair-pulling is not an effective zombie defense maneuver.)
That slow-walking Savior who survived Carol’s slaughter finally catches up, too, and he explains his plan: She’s gonna die, slowly. He shoots her in the arm, then in the leg, and Carol is at peace; death is what she deserves for what she’s done. But just as the Savior’s ready to deliver the kill shot, Morgan arrives and tries to talk the guy down. The Savior makes a move to shoot, and in a rare break from his pacifist philosophy, Morgan empties his pistol. Now Carol’s in really bad shape. Cue that dude who was looking for his horse! He’s got a pal with a steed and a spear, and they offer to get Carol some help, presumably back at Hilltop (unless they’re part of yet another group in the Savior network of oppressed peoples).
Sure, I’m glad Carol’s likely going to survive. Morgan, too. But let’s get back to the RV gang. All they need to do is get Maggie to the doc at Hilltop. Seems simple enough, until they run into the first of many disturbing, elaborate Savior blockades. This one sets the tone for the rest of the episode, as Rick, still feeling like he’s in control, talks some smack. The talkative lead Savior tells Rick they want all of his stuff; Rick says he wants all of theirs, and maybe he won’t kill any more of them. It’s a ballsy play. “You want to make today your last day on Earth?” he asks. He’ll eat those words later. The Saviors spray-paint some guy they’ve been kicking around and wave bye-bye as the RV backs away.
From there, every road leads to a more ominous Savior trap. There’s the gang that shoots bursts of gunfire in the air, like some tribal death threat. There are the zombies who are chained to (and through) each other, decorated to look like the captured A-towners — one has Michonne’s dreadlocks, another has one of Daryl’s arrows wedged in it. Rick knows the Saviors could have killed them already. Instead, they’re leading them somewhere. The last blockade is a wall of logs; the Saviors clearly have numbers and access to serious machinery. The message that follows isn’t subtle: The spray-painted guy is hung from an overpass and the logs go up in flames. “You’re treating your people good, right?” says the chatty Savior. “Like it’s your last day on Earth? Or one of theirs?” Rick is slowly figuring out what’s kept us balancing on our seat edges for 90 minutes — someone will die tonight.
But who? There are plenty of folks who are set up for a particularly tragic fall. Sarge and Sasha want to make a baby. Eugene comes into his own, volunteering to drive the RV as a decoy while the rest of the crew carries Maggie through the woods in the middle of the night. (Given that’s their best plan, it’s clear they are, as Sarge observed, “Neck-deep up shit creek with our mouths wide open.”) And what’s up with those dark frames we keep seeing, with quick flashes of light and muffled voices, like someone waking from a coma?
Predictably, the RV gang hears those familiar whistles and finds themselves in the mother of all Savior showdowns. (Let’s not think too hard about how utterly impossible it would be to orchestrate all of these traps and just enjoy the sick tension they create.) Everyone — even ill Maggie — is ordered to their knees. That darkness turns out to be the view from inside a van where Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, and Rosita were being held. Daryl is alive and pretty healthy for a guy who was shot at point-blank range. Eugene’s also been captured. There’s no getting out of this jam.
Enter Negan, whose first line establishes him as a Big Bad of the first order: “Pissin’ our pants yet?” he says with a wicked grin. “Boy, I do have a feelin’ we’re getting close. Gonna be pee-pee-pants city here real soon.” Negan’s combination of black-hole-dark humor and charisma makes him even more frightening — he scares the wee-wee out of you, but you can’t wait to hear what he’ll say next. The soliloquy he delivers is a classic; if not for the mortal stakes, you’d might laugh when he tells Rick of killing his men, “You have no idea how not cool that shit it is,” or when he calls One-Eyed Carl “the little future serial killer.” Maybe you did chuckle. But then you see Rick, dripping with sweat, a thousand-yard stare in his eyes as he realizes he’s completely, utterly screwed. Negan spells out the plan, the “new world order” — Alexandria is his now. He takes half of what they have. Rick and all of them work for the Saviors now, and the benefits package really sucks.
Negan’s also big on optics, so before this new arrangement begins, someone needs to die in a most savage fashion. Like the A-towners, we’re tortured as Negan points Lucille at each one of them. (That gun Carl took from the armory was indeed a nod at Negan’s favorite weapon.) Glenn cries out when Negan zeroes in on Maggie; Rick does the same when he eyes up Carl. Then he goes playground on them to decide who’s doomed: “Catch a tiger by the toe … ” A visual Russian roulette follows as we see each of their faces, bracing for death. Negan finally makes his choice and delivers a two-handed blow, like he’s swinging a hammer at one of those “test your strength” carnival games. The first-person camera drops as blood drips down the lens. “Damn!” Negan yells. “Taking it like a champ!” Seven more blows follow, with sickening thuds, the sound of bones crunching, and echoes of screaming voices.
Now we’re stuck waiting. Who was on the business end of Negan’s batting practice? We know it wasn’t Rick or Carl, since Negan told his toadies that if anyone got out of line, “Cut the boy’s other eye out and feed it to his father.” My guess is that it’s one of the captives from last week. We see a first-person perspective twice in the episode, first when they’re trapped in the van, and again when Negan strikes. Could be a clue the victim is one of those four.
There will be real-life riots in the streets if Daryl dies, so scratch him. Rosita is too minor a character to lose on a season-ending cliffhanger like this. And I’d be shocked if Michonne were killed — that would be two girlfriends down for Rick in just a few weeks, and he’s already been broken by Negan’s hostile takeover. Given Rick’s speech to Maggie about how it’s “always been all of us,” my money is still on Glenn — one of the last remaining TWD OG’s — as Lucille’s target. Now I’m left to wonder what’s worse: being forced into servitude by a guy who calls his barbed-wire bat “awesome,” or waiting until the fall to find out who we’ve lost.