Look, we all knew what was in store for this midseason premiere. A couple months ago, we saw Carl’s big reveal to Rick and Michonne — he was sporting a not-very fresh walker bite on his flank. At least Hershel had the option of hacking his leg off to save himself; even if it was possible to slice the bad meat out of Carl’s side, that wound looked like it had sunk in. The kid was feverish. Rick was devastated. Unless the show was about to pull another Glenn-under-the-dumpster subterfuge, this was sure to be the Carl Grimes Memorial Episode.
But damn, TWD, did you have to do us like this? One minute we’re catching up with Carol and Morgan as they creep on the Kingdom. Then it’s back to Carl on his death cot. Zeke and a Savior swap philosophies; Carl writes good-bye notes. Dwight gets yelled at; Carl turns 50 shades of grey. Was it overwrought? Of course it was — isn’t everything on this show? But damn it, the melodrama was effective. Carl may have been annoying at times — or all the time, perhaps — but he’s a TWD OG. By the end of the night, I looked like Rick in those cutaway scenes, shaken and in need of some Visine.
Given that most of the episode takes place in only two locations — the sewer and the Kingdom — and Carl’s swan song dominates the story, there’s still a lot to chew on. (Rimshot!) Carol conveniently knows of a little cottage that the Saviors have somehow not discovered and directs the Kingdom survivors to take shelter there. Henry, not surprisingly, insists on joining her mission to rescue Zeke. “Morgan taught me the stick,” he says. “You taught me the gun.” Carol, perhaps knowing she does not have a good record with child care, tells him to stay put. That sets up the kid to do something dumb, like run off to the Kingdom on his own.
Meanwhile, Morgan bears witness to the Savior escape plan: strategically shoot enough zombies to create a wall of walker bodies that gives them a chance to make a run for it. Morgan makes it out alive and finds Carol — the stick and the gun united at last. Didn’t think the stick would turn out to be a weapon of mass destruction, though. It’s soon quite clear to Carol that Morgan has drifted back to his bad place, turning his staff into a Savior skewer.
What follows is a double shot of shock, as Carol and Morgan decide they’re going all-in with an assault on the king’s throne room. Bullets fly, Saviors die, and Morgan ends up with a big bad dude on top of him. Desperate times call for … holy shit, did Morgan just jam his fist into that guy’s wound and pull his intestines out? Yes. Yes he did. Even his captor Gavin can only mutter, “Jesus!” before limping away in utter horror. Morgan has officially turned from a pacifist to Jason Voorhees. The violence is juxtaposed with Carl’s vision for a better future (more on that shortly), and Carol and Zeke’s argument for sparing Gavin fails. But before Morgan can finish the Savior off — thwack! style — Henry shows what he’s learned from his teacher (and once again, a child left in Carol’s care turns into a homicidal maniac).
Down in the underground, once the Saviors are done firebombing A-town, the gang decides they’re all sneaking out to Hilltop. (Also, can someone move Carl to a spot where he’s not eating dirt every time there’s an explosion?) Daryl makes the most of his brief screen time, offering to take Judith so Michonne can stay behind, giving Rick a bro shoulder pat and telling Carl he’s done good. Daryl also shuts down Dwight, who thinks it’s a bad idea for everyone to gather in one place. “All of us together,” Daryl growls from the shadows. “We’ll be their worst damn nightmare.” Horrible strategy, but great for a TV show. I fully endorse that plan.
But who are we kidding here — this night is for Coral. As an angsty teenager who was constantly at odds with his old man, had almost no age-appropriate friends, one potential girlfriend and one good eye, Carl looked awfully at ease with his fate for reasons I can’t quite comprehend. He writes his letters, collects some tea-light candles, hand paints with his sis, grabs a cot, and gets busy dyin’. As Rick and Michonne struggle to comprehend what they’re seeing, it’s Carl who’s the calming influence. Sad violins and piano play as he tells Michonne not to be sad: “Don’t carry this. Not this part.” There’s an especially sad irony that Carl died helping Siddiq honor his mother’s belief that killing walkers freed their souls; now Carl’s dying and thinking of his own mom, and Siddiq is pledging to honor Carl’s sacrifice.
Then come the good-byes, which play out like a Springsteen song if the Boss grew up in a zombie apocalypse (go ahead, fill in your New Jersey joke here). To Judith: Momma said I’d make it, but you’re the one who’s gonna live! And here, take my hat. It made me feel strong like our Daddy! To Michonne: You’re my best friend. Keep that beautiful chin up! And to Rick: Daddy, you showed me how to live when you took in those castoffs from Woodbury. You can be that man again, Daddy! I know you can! I’m guessing his note to Enid says something about being a lonely rider on Highway 9 and going down to the river with his baby.
What we eventually realize is that those gauzy, dream-like flash-forwards weren’t in Rick’s mind — they’re Carl’s visions. He sees little “Jude” bonding with Jerry, getting an apple from Eugene, and greeting a friendly flannel-clad beefcake who says. “Well good mornin’ to you, darlin.’” Wait, what? Somehow, Carl can imagine a future in which even Negan is playing nice. Maybe that’s why the kid looked so serene after he was bitten, fully accepting his impending demise. He could see a world at peace. (They could have called this episode “Imagine.”) Carl’s final act of mercy is refusing to let his dad put him down. Standing outside what’s left of Gabe’s church, Rick and Michonne hear a single gunshot from inside, and we finally see what we assumed they’d been digging — Carl’s grave.
Rick promises his son that he’ll “make it real,” and the first line he utters in the episode — “My mercy prevails over my wrath” — suggests that maybe, just maybe, he’ll find a way to end the Great Savior War without wiping them all off the map. (That line is also what Siddiq said his mom quoted from the Quran, suggesting that the new guy is going to become a significant figure.) But that last scene doesn’t look like Strawberry Fields forever. Rick is red-eyed again, sitting alone under a tree as a stained-glass panel swings from a branch overhead. There’s an expanse of green behind him, he’s exhausted, and his right arm is drenched in blood. No idea where this is going, but it suggests something both dark and new, a gory end and a wide-open future. I like it.