Two in a row. This twisty-turny, action-packed episode marks a mini-streak of back-to-back excellent chapters in a season that, to be honest, has been sluggish — especially for a three-part, megalong series finale. The Riverbend raid and a secret mission for Daryl and Rosita each feel urgent and become revelatory, shedding new light on key characters and mysteries. It’s all proof that TWD is at its best when both the story and the slaughter keep us on the couch’s edge.
The opening image of Riverbend rooftop victims slowly animating on the ground below sets the scene and foreshadows a righteous demise that’s to come. As Carlson bro-chats with Lance Hornsby back at HQ — the weapons cache is still missing, and Carlson is ready to burn this mother to the ground to find it — Maggie’s hit squad is on the move inside the building. She gets snuck by Negan’s pal Annie, who in turn gets surprised by Lydia and Elijah, who in turn get ambushed by ol’ Negan himself. Among the many shockers: Not only are Neegs and Annie a couple, they’re married, and she’s three months pregnant! We’ve done some timeline hopping this season, but damn, this is one warp-speed relationship. (Which I guess is appropriate in a world where the motto should be carpe momento.)
Though Annie is justifiably sick of explaining that her people didn’t steal the Commonwealth’s supplies, Aaron has a fair and darkly funny reason for skepticism: “Your boss had skulls on his bookcase, so yeah, I’m inclined to call bullshit.” As Annie and Maggie unite to clear out the Commonwealth invaders, Negan makes a surprising (if rather implausible) discovery — little Hershel stowed away in Maggie’s truck for the ride to Riverbend and is now his to protect. This obviously freaks out Hershel’s mom, but Annie serves a great narrative purpose: She’s the final piece of Negan’s humanization, for both the audience and Maggie. Who better to convince Mags that Negan is capable of reform than the woman who is carrying his child and displays Maggie’s own leadership traits? It’s a bit absurd, really — we barely know Annie, but she’s already sort of a Michonne/Connie combo of fierce and compassionate, despite hinting about some dark moments in her past.
But nothing tops the moment when Negan, in an effort to put Hershel at ease, walks right into the kid’s trap. He admits he used to be a bad man, to which Hershel responds by whipping out a gun. “My mom told me a bad man killed my dad,” the kid says. “It was you, wasn’t it?” Daaaaaaamn, Hersh! The kid just saw Negan butcher a Commonwealth soldier and senses what he’s capable of doing. Negan masterfully talks the boy into lowering his weapon for the sake of the innocent Riverbenders they’re protecting. Maybe it’s impending fatherhood that’s given Negan a new perspective on life, or perhaps it’s the switch from biker chic to a more emo-goth casual-activewear ensemble. Whatever the reason, Neegs gets all choked up at the thought that Glenn’s young son carries the burden of his murderous actions. It seems his slow transformation from ruthless villain to redeemed hero is nearly complete.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Daryl’s plans to lunch with Carol at the local diner are interrupted when he and Rosita are recruited for a secret mission beyond the Commonwealth walls. Not coincidentally, only moments before, he humiliates Sebastian — the douchiest and only surviving member of the First Family — in front of his gal and some troopers. So it’s no surprise this patrol is off the books and orchestrated by Seb himself. The mission: wade through a herd of undead and raid a mansion where Seb’s dead pal’s dead pappy stashed a ton of cash (along with possibly some cocaine, which is very on-brand for this apocalyptic Guy Who Just Bought a Boat). Mama’s cut off Seb’s cash flow; now this bro needs Daryl & Co. to go HAM on that stash house, pronto. However, he makes two critical mistakes: calling Rosita “sweetie” and threatening their kids as motivation. If wanting to watch this shitbag get slowly torn to shreds by hungry “rotters” is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
Inside the manse, they find a woman named April trapped in a (literal) safe room — it turns out she’s one of a dozen who were sent here on the same mission and the only survivor. A garage strobe-light zombie party is followed by a home security alarm, which results in a walker mosh pit that’s certain to spell doom until shots ring out. When Daryl missed his lunch date with Carol, she grabbed Mercer and the cavalry rode to the rescue. When it’s time to escape the mansion, Daryl delivers my new favorite phrase — “Gut up,” he instructs when it’s time to depart — and poor April, apparently inexperienced in the art of the zombie tango, freaks out and ends up as a buffet.
All story lines end with highly satisfying conclusions. Carol learns that Lance Hornsby knew about Sebastian’s schemes, and when the two part ways, it’s clear neither trusts the other. Mercer executes the two troopers who covered for Sebastian, suggesting once again that he’s going to side with the good guys when the Commonwealth revolt eventually pops off. Riverbend delivers three major moments, beginning with Carlson, who gets his just desserts in a most righteous way. As he begs to be spared, Aaron shoots him just perfectly — not to kill, but to send him screaming to the ground below. A sick thud suggests he’s paralyzed from the fall, unable to move as the River Siders he tossed from the roof stir and inch forward for a gory meal.
As the carnage is cleaned up, Hershel looks at Negan like he wants to add one more body to the pile. Neegs makes the kid a deal: Go home, be a good boy, help your mom, and in a few years, come find him, and they’ll settle their “unfinished business.” This is no hollow promise, especially given the new series that’s been announced for Negan and Maggie, who will somehow make it to Manhattan. Smart money says that a grown-up Hershel will get his revenge by the time that show ends.
Lost in all of the action and “son confronting his father’s killer” drama is a question that Gabe poses: Who hijacked that Commonwealth caravan and set off this whole unfortunate chain of events? Cue the flashback to two weeks ago and said caravan, littered with dead troopers. There’s one still alive, bloody and crawling, begging for mercy until her assailant slits her throat. The camera pans up and the killer is none other than ex-Reaper and former Daryl hot-minute flame, Leah. And she looks pissed. I can’t wait to see what kind of monkey wrench she becomes for both the Commonwealth and the survivors, as it seems Leah is not looking for a new gang to join — she’s out for blood.