To call this episode “anticlimactic” is perhaps a bit too strong, but I can’t help but feel like I expected more from the conclusion of this part two. The last three episodes have been good or even great, and expectations are high as we round the final turn toward the series finish line. From the mysterious opener with Lance at a Hilltop in ruins to the ominous closing montage, the stakes can’t be much higher now — it’s the Coalition (or what’s left of it) versus the Commonwealth to determine the future of roughly 50,000 souls, including the handful that we still (mostly) care about. But even with two deaths and Hornsby’s full transformation from slimy bureaucrat to psycho rogue warlord, nothing that transpired here will keep me in delightfully painful suspense until part three arrives later this year.
The opening sequence is promising, perhaps a little too much so: With Hilltop in flames, Lance steps in something gooey, which appears to be what’s left of a fresh, unidentified corpse. Arrows are on the ground, though that surely can’t be Daryl’s body. Lance looks displeased as he gazes upward, where loud insects are buzzing about. Lest we wonder about the bugs for long, the timeline shifts to “19 hours and one act of God ago.” Of course, there are plenty of biblical references to locusts, most notably in Exodus, as God sends a swarm to blanket all of Egypt. But they also appear in Revelations, emerging from the abyss to punish and torture the non-believers — this grim reference seems more fitting for the matters at hand, as Lance decides that it’s now his way or the highway to hell. Whatever the interpretation, those swirling black bug clouds are a foreboding symbol of judgment that’s soon to come.
But for whom? Lance decides to spare Leah by proposing a classic win-win scenario that will end with Maggie’s death: “You get the scalp of the woman who killed your family, and I finally get to do my job without interference,” he says. “Everybody wins. Well, not everyone.” After Maggie’s previous Hilltop showdown with Hornsby and his goons, she knows she’s in trouble. Her solution: Drop off Hershel with the man who butchered her son’s father, then set a trap for Lance. In another moment that establishes both Negan’s redemption and AMC’s upcoming Negan-Maggie spinoff, Neegs is concerned (rightfully) that Hershel doesn’t trust him. “I’m starting to,” Mags replies, much to his amazement. “You have big balls, Maggie Rhee,” Negan says, looking a wee bit misty as he speaks. “I got you. And I got your boy.” Dropping her married name is no accident; Negan finally puts his gift for gab to good use by giving her — and Glenn’s memory — some much-appreciated respect.
Elsewhere, Daryl’s team is stuck with Lance’s lackeys on a bogus mission that’s really designed to keep them separated from Maggie and, Lance hopes, take them out. Of course, Daryl’s trio senses this; his crew and the Commonwealth troopers exchange suspicious looks while the tense music swells, Daryl nods to his boys, and a gunfight ensues. Spoiler alert: The heroes overcome steep odds to emerge victoriously! They also learn that Hornsby’s plan is to “clear the field,” which Gabe translates to mean “leave only allies behind.” This is very bad news for Maggie, among others. However, as Lance’s soldiers move to take her out, they learn the hard way that Mags is willing to blow her whole damn settlement to pieces. (And if you noticed what a wreck Hilltop was on the inside, really, it was a no-brainer.)
Then there’s the bigger puzzle to solve, as Eugene’s secret society plots to unravel the mysteries of the Commonwealth and that list of names. Max is increasingly nervous about betraying Pam, especially when the guv’s coke-addled man-child son nearly ruins Max’s attempt to steal a top-secret file folder conveniently labeled “Resettlements.” (The minutiae of municipal government, not spy craft, is Max’s comfort zone: She really lights up when discussing the $50,000 surplus in the Founders Day budget that she hopes can be used for scholarships. Could a TWD/C-SPAN spinoff be far behind?) To buy Connie more time to keep digging, they hatch a ballsy plan to distribute a story about Sebastian’s heist featuring the subtle headline, “Pamela Milton Is Lying to You.” That will serve as a major distraction, but now they’ll deal with the wrath of two Miltons while trying to decipher that list. Perhaps Pamela is more like her old colleague — well-respected former A-town leader Deanna Monroe — than we realize, and in the end, she’ll help put a stop to Lance’s hostile takeover.
The people’s leader, Maggie, finds her victory at Hilltop short-lived, as Leah shows up guns blazing to send everyone running for their lives (just what we need — more nighttime hide-and-seek in the woods). Well, everyone flees except for Marco, who turns out to be the corpse from the opening scene. No wonder Lance is pissed when he arrives: His men are dead, Hilltop is on fire, Leah didn’t take out Maggie like she promised, and the takeaway is that they killed Marco? Don’t come back until you kill a character with a friggin’ last name! Leah assures Hornsby she’s finishing the job like Sinatra — doing it “my way,” which means making a classic villain mistake. When you tie the hero to a chair and proceed to engage in a long, satisfying conversation that reinforces the hero has lost, you are actually buying time for a Criss Angel–esque escape that leads to said villain’s death. Maggie and Leah deliver one of the tremendous knock-down drag-outs, and Maggie nearly ends up with a knife through the chest. But this could only end one way: With Daryl putting a fatal bullet in his ex. (A crossbow shot would have worked too, but you know what I mean. D was destined to do the deed.)
As the soldiers close in and Daryl and Maggie somehow escape, Lance is left with a nasty scar and a new plan: “Now we take it all,” he declares, looking slightly out of his mind. Cue the slo-mo montage! Mags, Daryl, and company trudge through the tall grass after yet another hard-fought battle, while the River Benders emerge from their underground hiding place. Negan’s new crew should play a pivotal role in the upcoming third act, especially since they now appear to be the only community that isn’t under Commonwealth control. At both Hilltop and A-town, the Commonwealth banner is unfurled as storm troopers stand guard on the walls; the Coalition has now officially been “resettled.” Worse yet, Lance has rounded up the Oceansiders at gunpoint, and his “with us or against us” philosophy reaches its ugly climax. He tosses that “lucky” coin of his in the air and slaps it on his hand as the screen goes black. Could this be to determine whether the Oceansiders live or die — a decision left to chance, or more accurately, the act of a God-complex megalomaniac?
It’s a tense ending, but with only eight episodes before the curtain falls on the series, I wanted a cliffhanger that drops jaws and lingers in the mind. In a sense, perhaps we’re all Lance Hornsby — Marco and Leah bite it, that’s all ya got? Let’s hope the locusts aren’t also a sign of a letdown that’s ahead as the show winds down.