The Walking Dead
Say what you will about what The Walking Dead has become, but even if you loathed tonight’s ending, there’s no denying that “What Comes After” delivered a full-circle Rick Grimes tribute and season-finale-level game-changers. Negan is broken. Rick is gone, but still breathing. Cue a major time shift and a band of new survivors. And meet Lil’ Ass-Kicker, a.k.a. Judith Grimes, who came here to do two things: hand out beatdowns and color — and she’s all out of crayons.
As shocking as Rick’s exit was, the signs were really everywhere. The episode has been promoted as Rick’s “final,” with no mention of his death. The fallen friends he met while slipping in and out of consciousness kept saying, “We don’t die.” We know there’s no way Rick simply croaks alone on a concrete slab. And please allow me an honorable mention for saying this last week (and yes, I’m about to quote myself): “It seems that any chance for Rick to get out of this thing alive has disappeared (unless Jadis-Anne’s chopper comes to airlift him to a hospital).” Not exactly a prediction, but pretty damn close!
Before Rick flies off into the great unknown, he embarks on an agonizing journey that straddles the physical and metaphysical worlds — or more simply put, slowly bleeds out while taking a wild “This Is Your Life” head trip. The opening scene carries new meaning now that we know how it all ends. At first, it looked like a nod to the first episode of the series, when Rick woke up alone in a hospital. But there were no skyscrapers outside his window back then, and what looked like a swarm of crows in the distance turned out to be … helicopters. The unrecognizable voices asking him, “What is your wound?” might be members of the rescue chopper posse. All hints at what was yet to come.
To get there, though, Rick had to remove his belt, toss it over a piece of metal above his head, and pull himself off the rebar spike that impaled him. Is that possible? With a surge of adrenaline and two zombie hordes closing in, probably. But if you’re still judging this show based on plausibility, you might want to find something else to do on Sunday nights. Things certainly don’t get more realistic from there: Rick survives an immense loss of blood, has enough energy to ride/fall off that jittery horse, scraps with some zombies, and most impressively after all that, gets blown clean off a bridge into raging waters and washes ashore, alive.
But how about those dream sequences? In an obvious nod to the iconic image of season one, Rick leads the newly formed megaherd into downtown Atlanta; the outbound lanes are jammed with abandoned cars, while the inbound lanes are wide open. Soon he’s reunited with Shane in their sheriff’s car, like they were before Rick was shot and the world went to shit. As they eat fries and bust balls, Shane hits Rick where it really hurts — cracking wise about how Judith is his daughter. You think he’d say, “Hey brother, thanks for taking such good care of the kid I had with your wife.” Then again, Rick did kill him. They’re probably right — they’re both assholes. (Kudos for the jump scare as Shane lunges at Rick and the scene fast-cuts to a zombie preparing to take a bite.)
The best cameo is Hershel, who looks so wonderfully healthy and wise and two-legged. Hershel’s farm is basically heaven, and after Rick stops apologizing for everyone who’s gone and every bad thing that’s ever happened, Hershel tells him he can’t stay (i.e., don’t die yet). Sasha’s appearance was a bit of a head-scratcher — her over Glenn or Abraham or T-Dog or even the kid that was eaten in the revolving door? — but that sea of bodies was impressive. (Cue another first-episode reference with the door marked “Don’t Open Dead Inside.”) There’s a lot of talk in these scenes about Rick’s guilt, making amends, endings, and finding his family. Rick never finds Carl and Lori, but Sasha is pretty clear that’s not in the cards: “Your family — you’re not going to find them because they’re not lost. And you are not lost.” He will be soon, though.
While Rick is walker-walking along the line between life and death, Maggie arrives at Hilltop with a crowbar in her hand and murder on her mind. It only takes a minute of debate and a few tears for Michonne to cough up the jailhouse keys and step aside. From behind bars, Negan’s ploy is pretty transparent: He’s not trying to get in Maggie’s head, he’s trying to push her over the edge so she’ll put him out of his misery. Can’t blame her for doing him that favor after Negan says he delighted in hearing Maggie’s screams and “cracked open [Glenn’s] skull and popped out his goddamn eyeball.” When Maggie opened the cell door, it seemed like a trap. Would he wrestle that crowbar from her and escape? One of the episode’s biggest surprises was seeing how truly broken Negan has become — begging for death, ugly crying, following orders back into his cell and dropping to his knees. Even Maggie can’t believe what she’s seeing. She delivers a line that might sum up how a lot of people feel about Rick’s good-bye: “You’re already worse than dead.”
About that good-bye — it is a doozy. Rick somehow makes it to the other side of the bridge and friggin’ Eugene’s calculation that the megaherd would cause its collapse was all hooey. As luck would have it (over and over again in this episode), someone left a crate of dynamite on site, and Rick still has at least one bullet left in his Python. The gang arrives in time for Daryl to snipe a few walkers with his crossbow, but after that, they can only watch helplessly as Rick takes aim and blows the bridge — and it’s reasonable to presume, himself — to smithereens. Just as heartbreaking as Michonne’s grief was seeing Daryl see it all happen, losing his recently reconciled bro, and being unable to save him. There was also a gruesome poetry in the heaps of walkers who were drawn to the fire, who went up in flames, and then plunged into the surging river below.
That’s when the show began to feel like the third Lord of the Rings movie — just when you thought it was over, boom, another ending! Jadis-Anne appears, and frankly, with all that was going on, I was not in the mood for her bullshit. But somehow, Rick washes up on shore and Jadis-Anne is just as lucky: She not only found a passenger, but she’s upgraded from an “A” (Gabe) to a “B” (Rick), whatever the frick that means. Inside the chopper, Rick has a tube in his nose and his eyes roll back, possibly from the unimaginable pain he’s in, or more likely, at the thought of his future with Ziggy Trashpile. (Note one of the more obscure callbacks to the series debut. If you’re wondering about the oddly upbeat music in that scene, it’s Wang Chung’s “Space Junk,” which we heard when Rick was trapped in the tank and heard Glenn’s voice for the first time: “Hey you! Dumbass. Hey you in the tank. Cozy in there?”)
But wait, there’s more! As the chopper disappears into the sky, the shack in the foreground suddenly ages. I’ll tell you what I didn’t need in this moment — more randos. Yet that’s what we got; couldn’t quite make out their rushed introduction, but the interwebs tell me four of the five are Magna, Yumiko, Connie, and Luke. Far more important is who’s behind the child’s plea that leads them to safety. If you didn’t know from the second you heard that voice, she’s got a gun, and a sword … and a sheriff’s hat. “Judith,” she says. “Judith Grimes.” She even has the James Bond thing down cold.
By the looks of Judy Kick-Ass, we’ve jumped ahead approximately five years, if she was roughly three and is now somewhere around eight. I don’t know where to begin with all of the questions this raises. A-town and the other settlements are sure to look different; the guarantee that windmill Michonne talked of building last week (and we see in the opening credits) is up by now, and let’s hope Maggie fixed that tractor. What state is Negan in? Did Carol and Zeke have a royal baby? Have the Saviors assimilated? Who’s in charge? When and how will Maggie make her exit — leaving to join Georgie, perhaps? Did someone erect a statue of Rick, and if so, is it Bearded Rick or Five O’Clock Shadow Rick or Clean Shaven Rick? My only complaint is that they didn’t jump even further ahead, so we can see young Hershel and Judith as the power couple they’re destined to be some day. I’ve been saying the show needed to shake things up for a while now. Love this or hate it, consider it — and us — shook.