Whatever your opinion of this season finale, there’s one thing that’s hard to deny — as Negan might say, that episode was tense as shit. Sure, we all knew that, at some point, Carol and Zeke and Maggie and a very large tiger were going to roll up on A-town and save the day. But when, exactly? Was Dwight really on Rick’s side? What’s the deal with Sasha and those uncomfortable close-ups? What are Maggie and Sasha staring at? Who will Negan kill? And where did Eugene get an old-school iPod that still has some juice? Zombie Sasha, Negan’s one-liners, and feeding time for Shiva were among the episode’s highlights. But it wasn’t much of a cliffhanger, and in the end, what looks like a hopeful future for the survivors spells trouble for Walking Dead fans.
It’s fitting that the finale paid tribute to both Abraham and Glenn, the fallen heroes who’ve cast a long shadow all season long. Each time we check in with Sasha, it’s hard to tell what she’s experiencing. Is she in pain? In ecstasy? Delirious? As Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” plays, she recalls her last exchange with the Sarge. She’d had a dream that he died on a beach, and as Sasha searched for him in the water, she was pulled under — foreshadowing how Sarge’s demise would consume her. She begs him to stay rather than go with Rick to Hilltop, and the Sarge gives a very Sarge speech about how Maggie’s “carrying the future.” Sacrifice, he says, is everything: “Putting your ass on the line for someone else, tearing it to shreds for ’em. You said it before. Oh my, that is livin’.” For Abraham, for Maggie, for the future — Sasha swallows the poison pill and gets ready to make one hell of an entrance.
Glenn’s presence is more subtle, at least until the final scenes. With Gregory gone, Maggie is Hilltop’s undisputed leader, though she’s got a pretty shallow cabinet of advisers in Jesus and Enid. Will she stay put, as Rick requested, or will Hilltop join the fight? With the pocketwatch her pops gave Glenn in her hand, there’s really no doubt about the decision she’ll make. We eventually see what she was watching with Sasha in those flashbacks — the sun on the horizon. The view is a message that’s meant for the audience as much as for the characters — after such a grim season, do not fear, folks. There’s hope ahead.
Well, sort of. With Negan headed to A-town in hours, there’s no time to rally the troops and take the fight to the Sanctuary (which Dwight explains is the name of the Savior HQ). Dwight kindly slows down Negan’s assault as the Junkyard Dogs arrive in their garbage trucks and bikes (would have liked to see at least one of them on a hoverboard). Everything’s going smoothly, until Blondie gets weird about where Michonne wants her positioned for the assault. Why didn’t Michonne think that was suspicious, like we all did? Maybe because everything those trash pickers say and do is not quite right.
Plot twist No. 1 arrives when Eugene’s bullhorn plea — “Compliance and fealty are your only escape” — fails miserably. Rick gives the signal to blow up a truck full of explosives, knowing that means there will soon be one less mullet in the world. Click, but no boom. Somehow, the Saviors cut their own deal with Miss Spock, and the double cross leaves the A-towners at Negan’s mercy (and pretty much kills any chance Jadis had of “laying with” Rick). Negan’s flair for the dramatic reaches its peak as he unveils a coffin with Sasha inside. But Sasha had enough time on the road trip to die and turn: Zombie Sasha knocks Negan to the ground as he yells “Holy God damn!” Well said.
With that, everything goes straight to hell: Michonne gets her face smashed in, Rick is shot in the hip and joins Carl on his knees. Negan’s act may be getting a little stale at this point, but two things remain unchanged — his potential to do something shocking, which gives the show some much-needed tension, and his one-liners (the best of the night comes when he tells Carl to recognize A-town’s imminent defeat: “I want you to point your one ’ball up the street there and take it all in”). Negan tells Rick that Carl is about to die, and that Lucille is going to smash Rick’s hands to a pulp. The Rick of the season’s first half would have responded with his glassy, thousand-yard stare of defeat. But the new Rick (a.k.a. the old Rick) is defiant: “You can do it right in front of me. You can take my hands. I told you already, I’m gonna kill you. All of you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but nothing is going to change that. Nothing. You’re all already dead.”
Just as Negan removes Carl’s hat and winds up, the second twist arrives in the form of a large tiger that devours a Savior and probably makes Negan tinkle in his pants. Sure, we all saw that coming, but it was a satisfying moment nonetheless. My only complaint about the triumphant arrival of Hilltop and the Kingdom is not enough Jerry (and also, how does Negan have no idea whatsoever that Zeke has a very loyal, very large cat as a pet?). Finally, one of Zeke’s corny Medieval Times lines lands: “Alexandria will not fall! Not on this day!” Cue a Walking Dead cover of the Team America: World Police theme: “Alexandria! Fuck yeah!” (Also, let’s note that like walkers, tigers now have the ability to silently sneak up on large groups and attack with total surprise.)
Negan rides out of A-town in typical Negan fashion — middle finger out the window in a hail of bullets — and the Junkies lay down a smokescreen to cover their retreat. Back at the Sanctuary, Negan is understandably suspicious of Eugene’s theory that Sasha died from a lack of oxygen. With his troops gathered, Negan officially declares war. We’re left to wonder if Eugene might still have it in him to do the right thing, as Sasha suggested he could. As for Dwight, it appears that he really is on Rick’s side — Daryl finds one of his woodcarvings with the message “Didn’t know,” which suggests he wasn’t privy to the Junkyard betrayal.
We fade out as Gabe holds a service for the dead, Jesus and Maggie put down Zombie Sasha, Aaron gives Jerry some fruit, and Morgan and Carol — back to their old killing ways — sit in silence. Maggie gives a whopper of a speech that ties this moment back to the first episode of the series, when Glenn risked his life to save a dumb-ass trapped inside a tank. “Glenn made the decision, Rick,” says Mags. “I just followed his lead.” The three leaders — Rick, Zeke, and Maggie — address their people as we see the sun and Hershel’s watch. It’s a new day and a new unified team that’s ready to exterminate the Saviors for good (probably with no help from M.I.A. Gregory, but certainly with an assist from Oceanside at some point).
But there’s a question that’s much bigger than how the AlexKingHill forces will overcome Negan, or how deep into season eight this story line will continue (or drag, if it stretches on much longer). My concern: When the Saviors are vanquished, where does the show go from there? For a few seasons now, zombies have been little more than window dressing — good for a creative kill scene or an impressive set piece here and there. The real threat, though, is other people, be it the Governor or the Terminus cannibals or the Wolves or the Saviors. There’s a pattern that’s emerged — the survivors find safety, only to have that safety disrupted by a new human threat while the constant danger of the undead lingers. How many compelling “Big Bads” are left to face? How many times can we watch Rick break down, then build back up? Short of Maggie giving birth to a zombie baby, what can truly shock and surprise us now?
The story isn’t headed toward finding a cure for the plague, and no one wants to see life get too comfortable for these people. So what’s left to accomplish? What should be far scarier for Walking Dead fans than Lucille or zombies is that that we may look back on this season — and the deaths of Glenn and Abraham — as the moment this once-great show jumped the shark.