It’s official: Rick’s plan to overthrow the Saviors and give Negan a dirt nap has completely fallen apart. Every time it seems the tide has turned in favor of the good guys, the leather-jacketed jerk you love to loathe once again gains the upper hand. By the end of this super-sized midseason finale, Alexandria is burning, the Kingdom is evacuated and locked down, Rick’s crew has relocated underground, and Carl delivers shocking news to his pops — he’s been bitten.
Things unravel from the start as Rick comes under heavy fire at the Sanctuary and the Junkyard Dogs, to no one’s surprise, run for the hills. Somehow, Carol and Jerry scoop him up and drive away without being riddled with bullets. Here’s where things get a bit confusing, though: They split up to warn the others of the Savior jailbreak and everyone’s scattered all over the damn place. So let’s take a tour of the key locales and catch up with who’s where and what went down.
Enid and Aaron
When we last saw these two, they were sneaking out of Hilltop on an undisclosed mission. Turns out they’re headed to Oceanside in hopes of recruiting those pistol-packin’ mamas. Points to Enid for her smart idea to pick up a gift for the Oceansiders. On the downside of her negotiation tactics, she shoots Natania, the Oceanside leader. Had to do it to save Aaron, but she’s gonna need more than a truckload of booze to win over these potential — and essential — allies.
Zeke is still in mourning, with only a good-bye letter from Jerry and his guilt to keep him company. The Saviors arrive to reveal Negan’s plan for the Kingdom: Their able-bodied adults will help repair the Sanctuary and the Saviors are moving in while their home is renovated. (This clearly is setting up an interior-decorating TWD spin-off on HGTV.) Zeke must have been touched to see that none of his people would sell him out to the Saviors; in return, he sacrifices himself to create a diversion that allows them to escape (and in the process, Nabila gives the Savior ringleader a fantastic neck chop). Carol arrives just in time to watch Zeke chain the Kingdom doors. “Save them. Like you saved me,” he says as the gates close. Would Carol still be Carol if she found love? Happiness doesn’t last long for anyone in this world, and my money is on Zeke’s demise by the season’s end.
Maggie’s caravan discovers a very intentional roadblock, and I wonder if anyone else felt a twinge of TWD PTSD when they found themselves trapped on that dark, wooded path. We’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well. Sure enough, mustachioed Simon appears with Jerry as his captive and a coffin. Mags is given two “choices”: Jerry is shot, she’s killed and hung on a spike at the Sanctuary, and Hilltop is surrounded by zombies; or she can turn around, head home, and get back to farming.
She wisely picks door number two, which comes with its own cost, as Simon executes a lumberjack-y dude named Neil. Everyone but Simon knows she’s got a plan to use that coffin for something other than a burial: Back at Hilltop, Maggie shoots Dean, the pee-pee pants Savior captive who tried to kill Jesus and Tara and stomped on Maggie’s prenatal vitamins. The coffin and the execution are meant to buy Hilltop some time and send a very literal message to Negan: “We have 38 more. Stand down.” It’s a brutal move, and as Maggie walks away, she’s fighting back tears. But she’s now prepared to make those morally compromised choices to defend her people. Hilltop, she says, could be where the survivors make their last stand against Negan. Maybe, just maybe, there could come a time when Rick is gone and it’s Maggie and Michonne who lead the survivors.
All episode long, we’re left to wonder how the Saviors escaped. Dwight confirms Eugene is to blame, presumably for the plan he mentioned vaguely in the last episode, one that would require a lot of ammo production. Whatever Eugene did — and it’s odd that there isn’t more clarity on this matter — his choices have led him down a path toward sleepless nights and alcoholism. That leads him to visit Gabriel and the house doctor with a headlamp and some news: He’s given one of the guards a bad case of the poops and also has a key to a getaway car! Gabe is now the second-most-likely character to check out this season, but at least Maggie will hopefully get some quality post-apocalyptic health care soon.
Perhaps the only thing that goes well is Daryl’s ambush. Dwight not only let the Alexandrians escape, but leads the Saviors into a trap and takes most of them out himself (except for the blonde who’s going to tell Negan that Dwight was the turncoat). Daryl’s relieved to hear that his rogue plan isn’t the reason they’re all screwed and lets Pizza Face live, for now. Most importantly, Daryl finally takes his vest back.
This entire season is one big showdown between Rick and Negan, so it makes sense that Alexandria is the setting for their next battle royal. Eventually those opening scenes with Rick and Carl debating Siddiq’s fate begin to take on more meaning. So does that moment when a very emo Carl writes a letter to his dad and reflects on Enid’s motto, “Just Survive Somehow.” Carl must have been chomped in the woods when he and Siddiq came under attack two episodes ago.
Negan rolls up to the Alexandria gates with a microphone like a world’s worst bar trivia host, demanding apologies from everyone for thoroughly messing up his evil lair and hoping to let Rick know he’s pissed. (“Scorched earth, you dick!”) Carl’s offer to sacrifice himself so Negan will spare the others is another hint that something is amiss; his answer to the question of whether he wants to die takes on new significance by the end. “No, I don’t,” Carl says. “But I will. It’s gonna happen.” The poor kid knows that his time was short. For a brief moment, his weird connection with Negan makes the Big Bad all introspective as Carl asks, “Was it supposed to be this way? Is this who you wanted to be?” When the A-towners make their escape, Negan delivers the episode’s biggest laugh: “Son of a bitch, Carl! Was that just a play? I thought we were having a moment, you little asshole!”
Moments later, Alexandria is in flames. It’s worth pausing to consider what that means: Years of working to build a safe community with neatly manicured lawns and the joys of homeownership have literally gone up in smoke. The Kingdom is on fire, too. Will they all eventually settle in Hilltop, or will they once again hit the road in search of a new home? Maybe season nine will find them accepting their new status as mole people.
The A-town drama reaches peak tension with an all-too-brief throwdown between Negan and Rick. It has little bit of everything: haymakers, a shot to Negan’s throat, a smash to the face, an errant gunshot, and Rick flying through a window. For a second, it looks like one of them was going to do some serious damage with Lucille. However Negan eventually bites it, he’s going to have to die in spectacular fashion to make this never-ending hate-tango worthwhile.
While Negan is upset about being displaced while the Sanctuary is remodeled, Rick has literally gone from the penthouse to the outhouse, returning home to find his people have fled to sewers. He’s surprised to see Siddiq, who led them underground. But it’s Carl’s new zombie-teeth tattoo that leaves him speechless and slack-jawed, frozen in a classic “I have no words for the horror before me” look. No way to carve out a chunk of Carl’s side to save him, and anyway, he’s already feverish. That bite is a death sentence. So much for the dreamy flash-forward to Rick’s happy life at Alexandria with his kids and Michonne. His home is in flames and his son is not long for this world. (The biggest loser with Carl gone is probably Enid, who suddenly finds herself in a world with no teenage boys.)
Previews for the second half of the season frame the back eight episodes as the final stand against Negan. That’s easily the best development of the night: A merciful (and bloody) end to the Saviors’ story line is finally in sight.