Last season of The Walking Dead ended on an optimistic note for the survivor-warriors of Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom, but it also ended with a bit of the ol’ sad trombone for me. Sure, it was encouraging to see Rick finally pick himself up off the canvas and come at Negan swinging (with a little help from Zombie Sasha and Shiva the Somehow-Very-Well-Fed Tiger). Still, I felt a wave of walker-induced existential angst sweep over me. What happens when Negan is eventually killed, as Rick has repeatedly promised? Are they stuck in an endless loop of meeting and beating Big Bads, like a video game with no end? Are we running out of ways to be shocked and surprised? These questions feel especially appropriate as we’ve reached this landmark 100th episode. But as Negan might say, “Well, shit, snowflake! You bitch and you moan … and yet here you are, back for more. Buckle up or go watch This Is Us.”
So let’s fret about the future later and celebrate a solid premiere that lives up to this season’s tagline, “All Out War.” It could easily have been a simple, slow-build battle with the Saviors. Instead, there’s some intriguing time-shifting throughout the episode. Rick is ugly-crying again? And then … Rick is old? (It’s worth noting that showrunner Scott Gimple has confirmed that Rick is not waking from his coma, so thankfully the series hasn’t been a Dallas-style dream.)
The action — and this episode is almost all action — begins with Rick, Ezekiel, and Maggie rousing their troops for an elaborate assault on the Sanctuary. For the zillionth time, the survivors concoct a plan that requires Swiss watch precision, Broadway-level choreography, and Michael Bay–size explosions. A herd of walkers are led toward the Sanctuary by a series of blowups, which are a perfect excuse to watch Daryl cruise away on his hog as fireballs burst behind him. (I really hope there’s an episode where his bike gets wrecked and he’s forced to use a Vespa.) Before the undead arrive, Rick rolls up to Negan’s front door with some heavily armored vehicles and a buttload of guns-‘n’-ammo. This was all made possible thanks to Daryl’s inside man, Dwight, who kindly detailed the locations of each Savior lookout. (Daryl wins “best kill” for taking a guard’s gun and his smoke. Runner-up: the tree-stand stooge who ends up as zombie food. Honorable mention: Rick and the moron who unwisely says, “I saw you begging, crying. You’re gonna beg again, Rick. Your boy is gonna die.” Do those teary-eyed shots of Rick suggest this dirtbag may prove to be right?)
A few noteworthy moments arrive before the Rick-Negan showdown. Carl stumbles across a mysterious guy at a gas station who’s babbling about a microwave that was thrown at him, his mother talking about helping “the traveller,” and a quote from the Koran. Rick scares the dude away, but Carl returns to the scene with an offering of canned food. My hunch: This fellow is a troubled guy, but good, and he will be useful in some way.
For all the knocks on this show, one thing it’s done well is create strong female characters. Maggie has grown from apprehensive farm girl to fearless leader who’s putting maternity leave on hold for one last scrum. (Points to Rick for telling her that when this whole Negan business is over, “I’m following you.”) But it’s Jerry who delivers the best speech of the day, as he instructs Enid on body-armor usage. (“Duuuude! Sternum!”) Zeke quotes “the Bard” and delivers another ren-faire ramble about day defeating the night and believing the children are our future. And Rick repeats his promise that he’s gonna kill Negan. Oh, yes. He. Will. Kill. Negan.
Yeah, well, about that. Negan finally appears and thinks Gregory is his ace in the hole, when in fact, he’s just an asshole. Rick declares that Negan is the only one who needs to die, begins a countdown to showtime, and then — in a move that Negan probably respects — starts blasting by the count of seven. Why, I wonder, did no one manage to hit Negan and his fleeing lieutenants? Perhaps because Eugene and double-agent Dwight were in the way.
So the RV crashes and explodes into the compound, Negan runs out limping, and Rick needs Gabe to drag him away from maniacally firing on his nemesis. There’s a schedule, dude! This ain’t about you, remember? Perhaps the point of firing all that ammo was to simply keep the Saviors at bay until the walker horde arrived. Still, seems like a lot of valuable ammo wasted on windows and walls.
Just as Father Gabriel was beginning to grow on me, he makes the inexplicable decision to risk his life for Gregory, who’s done nothing but betray Rick’s crew at every turn. To only Gabe’s surprise, Greg flees and leaves him stranded as the zombies overrun the Sanctuary. In the ultimate good news/bad news scenario, the priest finds cover, but he’s trapped with a giddy Negan. Unfortunately for them both, Gabe likely left his shitting pants back at A-town.
Of course, we’re saving the episode’s biggest moment for last: the slowly unfolding scene with Old Rick, which is set just a few years in the future, based on Judith’s age. What is he recovering from? What’s the meaning of the “big owl” outside and this festival that everyone’s taking so seriously, according to Michonne? Why is Weird Al’s “Another One Rides the Bus” playing? Is it possible Weird Al is still alive? Do they not have access to “Eat It” or “Amish Paradise” or “White and Nerdy” or “My Bologna”? Is this a glimpse into a certain future, or merely a possible one? The gauzy, overlit look of these scenes suggests they’re more fantasy than future. What’s real is red-eyed Rick muttering through his tears, “My mercy prevailed over my wrath.” What did he just see? Or do?
Only two things seem certain: The body count this season will be high, and however the war with Negan ends, Rick isn’t destined for a life of late mornings in bed.