It’s hard to overstate what’s at stake for this episode — not just for the characters, but for the audience, too. Things have gone downhill since the season premiere, with extra-long episodes that were extra boring with very little forward motion. Six chapters of setup for this mid-season finale, in which something big and satisfying needed to happen. What we ended up getting was mostly satisfying: The plots not only moved forward, but closer together; two Alexandrians checked out permanently; Daryl ditched his cell and those sweats; and Rick finally got his swagger back (along with his gun).
We begin with Maggie, who turns her tears for Glenn into a power move with Gregory, taking his apple with a smile. The folks on the Hill were so impressed by the way she repelled the walker invasion that someone baked her an apple pie. There’s not much time spent at Hilltop, but it’s clear that Maggie has won the hearts and minds of its people, as well as most of their produce. Seems that Gregory is just waiting for his moment to sell Maggie out to Negan somehow.
Meanwhile, there’s action at the Sanctuary as Daryl makes a break for it. (But assuming Jesus slipped Daryl the note, why didn’t he escort Daryl to safety?) Given how many Saviors are wandering around, it’s a minor miracle that Daryl makes it outside undetected while also finding a clean T-shirt that fits him perfectly. His El Chapo escape gets hairy when he once again is caught trying to steal a motorcycle. Fat Joey, the much-maligned Savior, offers no resistance, raising his hands in surrender: “I’m just trying to get by, just like you.” Daryl responds by beating him to death with a pipe as Jesus looks on in horror. It’s vicious and unnecessary, but hey, Daryl’s been through a lot. It turns out Fat Joey was in possession of a most precious artifact — Rick’s Colt Python.
Speaking of Rick, he’s with Aaron at Zombie Lake, where they manage to use makeshift paddles to steer a bullet-riddled dinghy though a walker-infested water. Aaron gets pulled overboard, yet somehow resurfaces unscathed (it was a really rough night for poor Aaron). Little do they realize that the hand-drawn sign left by the NRA member who owned this stash — “Congrats for winning but you still lose!” with a middle finger — would be more of a problem than the lake. When they return to Alexandria, two slimy Saviors delight in screwing with Rick; one even gives him a smack in the face. For some reason, Aaron doesn’t explain that the note was left behind by whoever hid those guns. As he takes a vicious beating, we see that something is finally stirring within Rick.
Which brings us to Negan, who orchestrates a most uncomfortable family dinner (“Carl, pass the rolls. Please”), shaves (much to the dismay of sicko Negan fans out there), reveals a love of billiards, and takes a meeting with Spencer. It’s clear early on that Spencer’s plan isn’t to kill Rick, but to kiss up to Negan and get the bad guy to do Spencer’s dirty work. In preparation for his power play, Spencer finally washes the blood off his face, puts on a nice pair of slacks, and rehearses saying “hi” in the mirror. (He obviously took Latin instead of public speaking.) He seems to make all the right moves when he pitches his plan to Negan — scotch, the pool table, sucking up. But Spencer’s plan backfires hard as Negan calls him on his weaselly bullshit: “[Rick] is swallowing his hate and getting shit done. That takes guts. And then there’s you … why not just kill Rick yourself and just take over? You know what I’m thinking? ‘Cause I have a guess. It’s because you’ve got no guts.”
What happens next is the first domino in a chain of events that leads to Rick’s revival. Negan’s carrying a very large knife and swiftly opens Spencer’s abdomen like he’s field-dressing a deer. Spencer hits the ground while gasping and holding his own entrails. Among the slack-jawed witnesses is Rosita, who had just agreed to a dinner date with the guy whose organs are now lying on the street. That’s the last straw for her and she takes her one shot at Negan — of course, she somehow manages to shoot Lucille, despite the fact she’s standing at nearly point-blank range. Negan’s pissed about three things, in this order: His beautiful baseball has been scarred, he was almost assassinated, and someone at A-town knows how to make bullets.
In the end, Rosita ends up with a scar on her cheek, Olivia is shot dead (not a major loss, let’s be honest, people), and after a tense moment of suspense, Eugene is taken hostage. We’re also treated to yet another close-up of bleary-eyed Rick, who’s now seen two more A-towners butchered and another taken away by Negan. (Unfortunately, we don’t see Rick give Carl a serious talking-to about his trip to the Sanctuary and his gunning down of a couple Saviors. The look on Rick’s face as Negan tells him what his son’s been up to is classic. Someone’s getting grounded!)
Rick takes some pleasure in putting zombie Spencer out of his misery, then retreats to the jail, where he meditates on two objects: the middle finger sign that led to Aaron’s ass-whooping and his axe. Michonne arrives with a lengthy explanation of why she went off on her own (though she doesn’t mention putting that redheaded Savior out of her misery). Michonne still wants to fight, but only with Rick by her side: “We can find a way to beat them. We can do this.” To her surprise, he agrees and they have a quick celebratory jailhouse make-out sesh, as one does in moments such as these.
The episode circles back to Maggie at Glenn’s grave again, only this time, her sorrow turns into a smile when she sees Rick and company at the Hilltop gate. Rick and Maggie’s hug is emotional, but nothing compared to when Rick and Daryl see each other — theirs is a bromance unrivaled. Daryl gives quality lip-quivers and just as I was about to reach for a Kleenex, he hands Rick his old gun, much to Rick’s astonishment. Michonne nods, Carl smiles, and just like that, it’s on. Out of all the reunions, Rick getting back together with his piece is the one that matters most. As the gang turns and heads to the Hilltop mansion, Rick’s in the lead, and the entire group walks with purpose and attitude. No more “thank you sir may I have another” subservience. It’s time to rise up and revolt.
Of course, the A-towners have a long way to go before they’ll even have a shot at ending Negan’s reign of terror. They’ve taken the first step toward recruiting Hilltop. But over at the Kingdom, the poor man’s Gerard Butler had no success convincing “Leave Me the Eff Alone” Carol to convince Zeke that they need to go after the Saviors before the Saviors go after them. Let’s not forget about the Oceanside babes, whom Tara will eventually have to reveal. Eugene’s now in Negan’s hands, and it’s only a matter of time before he learns that Daryl escaped and Maggie’s alive. And who belongs to those mysterious boots that were made for watching people from a distance? (My guess is that it’s a friend, not a foe; hopefully one with access to a lot of ammo.) With the old kick-ass Rick back, we’re left with less of a cliffhanger than a road map for where the next eight episodes are headed. When The Walking Dead returns in 2017, it’ll build a coalition and a plan to get rid of Negan once and for all.