MAJOR Spoiler Warning for the Mid-Season Finale (Season 8, Episode 8) of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed.
Death is constant. Death is painful. Death is cathartic. Death is and always has been a necessary aspect of “The Walking Dead.” In the latest episode, the series establishes what will go down as the most tragic death in its eight-year run. With an insane and catastrophic battle on several fronts, All Out War reaches a climactic peak that utilizes every single character and pushes them to new limits. This 90-minute Mid-Season Finale is a harrowing tale of community, teamwork, choices, sacrifice and the costs of deciding to continue surviving in the post-apocalyptic landscape. What happens in this episode will forever change “The Walking Dead,” its characters and its millions of fans, but it remains to be seen if this will be a positive or a negative for the future of the series.
“How It’s Gotta Be” opens with a powerful sequence that picks up immediately where the previous episode left off, with Rick being completely blindsided after finding out that the walkers at the Sanctuary are gone and that the Saviors have apparently escaped. He links back up with Jadis and the Scavengers as they inspect the courtyard and spot the garbage truck still rammed into the side of the factory. Gunfire from the upper windows ring out and cause Rick to be pinned down behind a barricade as the dirty trash people once again prove that they are completely untrustworthy by fleeing the scene; this is the final time they are shown in the episode, making me wonder why they are still alive (I really hope Rick doesn’t try to strike up another deal with them after this, because that would be straight up ridiculous). I’m really questioning what the point of the Scavengers is at this point, because they are beginning to feel a bit like filler. As the gunfire continues to ring out, two real-life “Saviors” in the form of Carol and Jerry arrive in an SUV to rescue their friend. Intermixed within this action sequence is a touching flashback conversation between Carl and Rick after their first encounter with Siddiq in “Mercy.” This conversation plays into a recurring theme this season as Carl imparts wisdom on his father, making it clear that the future they’re creating has to be based around mercy, not wrath.
This episode spends a decent amount of time following Enid and Aaron after their departure from the Hilltop to carry out a mission. It’s revealed through dialogue that they are headed to Oceanside to recruit fighters to join the war; Enid is slightly worried that they won’t be welcomed into the community, but Aaron’s mind is still clouded by the death of Eric. Aaron asks Enid if she knows how to drive and she responds by poking fun at Carl’s horrible driving skills, a hilarious callback to last season’s “Go Getters,” when the one-eyed badass crashed a car on the way to the Hilltop. While driving, Enid decides to take a bit of a detour to a local distillery to collect some gifts for the Oceansiders. They eventually arrive outside of the community and decide to camp out for the night, but a mysterious shadowy figure appears and sets in motion a brutal plot twist. Aaron wakes Enid up and the two exit to investigate the figure, who is revealed to be Oceanside’s leader Natania; after angrily lambasting the two for returning after being warned, Natania is fatally shot by Enid to save Aaron from being impaled with a spear. Several women from Oceanside rush in and order the two to stand down as Cyndie finds her grandmother dead on the ground; the look on Enid’s face says it all: she may have just ruined any chance at a future alliance. The death of Natania wasn’t filmed all that well, but does serve as a necessary development for Enid’s character as she will now face the full weight of killing an innocent. The pairing of Aaron and Enid is also a highlight as they haven’t interacted all that much, so it’s rewarding to see two of the last remaining original Alexandrians working together.
A major portion of the episode takes place in the Kingdom as King Ezekiel continues to mourn the death of Shiva. He finds a note from Jerry, who alerts his king to the fact that he and Carol left to carry out the rest of the plan. Suddenly, gunshots and yelling from outside kick the downed leader into action as armed Saviors enter the theater, forcing him out and into hiding. In the center of the courtyard, the Saviors have rounded up the surviving Kingdommers to listen to Gavin give orders and proclaim the community as property of Negan. He lists off their new rules and demands that Ezekiel step forward and turn himself in, lest he wishes for the innocent residents to be dealt with the “Negan-way.” Gavin really struggles here as he obviously doesn’t want to harm anyone, but realizes that he has a job to do. Across the way, Ezekiel sets off an explosion to distract the Saviors before he rams a school bus into the courtyard, allowing his followers to escape; quiet Nabila is given her moment in the spotlight as she takes down a Savior and steals his gun. At the main gate, Carol finds Nabila and tells her to lead the Kingdommers to her cottage that was featured last season; Ezekiel arrives at the gate and uses Shiva’s chain to seal the entrance before telling Carol to “save them like you saved me.” Gavin captures Ezekiel and prepares to transport him to Negan, but Morgan creeps outside of the walls, clearly listening and formulating a rescue plot. The scenes at the Kingdom represent the power of Ezekiel’s leadership; he may have fallen on hard times, but he’s not down for the count and his people know that.
Season 8 has been excellent when it comes to evoking shades of previous scenes and situations, but the most prominent case of this comes in the form of a tense standoff featuring Maggie. In a car, the Hilltop leader rides with Jesus, Dianne and a background resident as they discuss the remainder of the plan being carried out; they are optimistic for the most part, but a downed tree in the road sends Maggie straight back to the horrific day when she and her friends were bounced around the Virginian countryside by Savior roadblocks in “Last Day on Earth.” A convoy of trucks arrives and holds the Hilltop army hostage as Simon steps out from his vehicle to speak with Maggie; at the same time, Jerry is thrown from a truck after being captured in a rather cheesy car accident earlier in the episode. Simon brings Maggie up to speed on the situation, letting her know that Eugene is responsible for the Saviors escaping the Sanctuary. He presents her two options, one results in her dying as a warning to the Hilltop and the other allows her to return home and fall back in line. It’s a bit surprising that this is an option that Simon presents, especially after it seemed as though Maggie was to receive a public death, but it is explained that the Hilltop needs to stay standing for the reason that they provide food to the Saviors; still, this does take away from Negan’s menacing plot to capture the three leaders and display their heads at the Sanctuary.
Maggie takes the option that spares her, but Simon lets it be known that they cannot return without punishment and he shoots the Hilltop blacksmith without any hesitation. Simon brought along a wooden coffin to transport Maggie if she were to choose the first option and he pokes fun at Sasha’s death, a still-touchy topic. Maggie asks for the coffin to bury the blacksmith and Simon obliges, allowing the convoy to return home. This entire sequence is eerie as it hearkens back to the lineup and Negan’s first appearance, specifically the trauma that Maggie underwent that night. Upon returning to the Hilltop, Maggie makes her way straight to the prisoner pen and is forced to listen to more of Gregory’s annoying complaining; she orders Kal and Eduardo to remove Dean, the Savior from “The Damned” that threatened Jesus. Dean calls Maggie “cupcake” before she pulls her gun out and shoots him in the face, an “eye-for-an-eye” revenge for the Hilltopper that the Simon killed. Jesus seems stunned by this as Maggie walks away, breaking down from the stress of the moment; multiple emotions are present on Maggie’s face as she comes to terms with all that has happened in the past few hours. Later, Dean is placed in the wooden coffin and Maggie writes “we have 38 more. stand down,” a warning to the Saviors that the Hilltop is in possession of prisoners. She sends Kal and Eduardo out to leave the coffin where their enemies will find it; this is a darker Maggie and I cannot wait to see her continue to develop into a hardened leader who must make difficult decisions to keep the community standing.
A brief amount of time is spent at the Sanctuary while Negan is away, checking in on Eugene following his “heroic” victory in defeating the herd. He is clearly having a difficult time sleeping and he consumes even more alcohol as the fact that his “traveling companions” are currently facing the wrath of Negan weighs on him. He visits the infirmary to wake up Dr. Carson and Gabriel, both of which are confused by the entire situation. Eugene slipped a homemade laxative into one of the guard’s coffee, giving him a small window to help in an escape attempt. He slips Gabriel keys to a vehicle outside of the Sanctuary, but warns that leaving in his condition may lead to the sickly priest dying. Gabriel begs Eugene to escape with them, sharing his belief that Rick and the others will welcome him back just as they did after his own betrayal in Season 5. However, Eugene refuses to leave, likely knowing that Negan would hunt him down after realizing that he fled. Eugene helping Gabriel gives me faith that he still isn’t fully on the side of the Saviors, but he won’t give up his luxurious life to return to the threats outside of the factory. The question of whether or not Gabriel will get Dr. Carson back to the Hilltop remains; Maggie mentioned that the farming community will be the final stand in this war, so it is both the safest and most dangerous place to be right now.
The meat of the episode takes place at Alexandria, which is oddly peaceful and hopeful at the beginning as Daryl and Tara return home thinking their mission was successful. There is a beautiful scene where Michonne says goodbye to Judith, representing the fact that she has become the mother figure in the toddler’s life; there’s also a humorous scene as Rosita unloads the weapons that she collected from the Savior outpost onto Tara, who maintains her comedic touch. In his room, Carl writes letters to his family, including one that simply says “Just Survive Somehow,” a touching callback to the note Enid left him in “JSS.” Night falls and Michonne plans to lead the Alexandrians to meet up with the other communities, but she speaks with Carl for a moment about Siddiq at the entrance to the sewer that was featured in “Now.” Their conversation is interrupted by a series of bangs at the main gate, followed by the voice of Negan over a loudspeaker, demanding that the residents surrender lest they wish to be bombed. He gives them a few minutes to come up with their apologies, but Carl snaps into action and sets in motion an evacuation plan, reminding Michonne that “it’s his show now.” A convoy of four vehicles driven by Daryl, Rosita, Tara and Michonne prepare to drive through the back exit as Carl comes face-to-face with Negan at the main gate; he’s in charge and he wants the tyrant to know it.
Feeling reminiscent to the scenes where Rick argued with Negan from atop the lookout point in the Season 7 Finale, Carl finds himself in the same position. This time around, however, he has far more confidence than Rick did as he pleads for Negan to stand down and spare the community; he points out that children and families live inside Alexandria, but Negan retorts by stating that the same is true for the Sanctuary. Carl really gets under Negan’s skin as he asks why he is the way that he is before offering to sacrifice himself to save his family. Negan is taken aback by this offer and takes a moment to ponder it as Daryl and the convoy bust through the back gate, catching Laura and her fellow Saviors off guard; Dwight planned ahead for this and continues to play his former colleagues while secretly aiding in the evacuation of Alexandria. Carl has fled from the lookout tower as Negan realizes what has just taken place at the back exit and orders his soldiers to fire grenades over the walls, causing massive explosions. Carl sets off smoke grenades as he makes his way through the flaming community, witnessing homes and even Father Gabriel’s church being blown up around him. There are a few close calls, but Carl ultimately makes it to the safety of the sewer entrance while Negan bursts through the main gate and heads to Grimes house to make spaghetti and wait for Rick. The cinematography of Carl’s escape is particularly noteworthy, focusing in on the child soldier as he stumbles around the flames and smoke.
Down the road, Michonne, Daryl, Tara and Rosita prepare themselves to ambush Dwight’s group while also questioning how the Saviors escaped; Rosita showcases more of her growth as a character by reflecting on her own botched mission with Sasha. Dwight drives his team straight into an ambush and even goes so far as to gun down his own men, but Laura pulls a gun on him and fires a shot at his shoulder before fleeing into the forest. Daryl’s group surround Dwight after all of the Saviors are killed and they agree to put aside their differences for now; Daryl reclaims his vest and it’s clear that there is still unfinished business between him, Dwight and Tara. They return to Alexandria and sneak into the sewer entrance one-by-one, but a teary Michonne takes a moment to view the destruction of her beloved home; Dwight apologizes for his role in everything as walkers pile into the safe-zone. Michonne closes the sewer lid on Rosita, mirroring Sasha splitting off to attack the Sanctuary by herself in “The Other Side.” Wandering into the smoke, Michonne is grabbed by a Savior, who she quickly dispatches by sliding the sword into his eye before slicing and dicing him repeatedly as flaming buildings crumble around her. She reunites with Rick, who had just been involved in an epic fight with Negan in the Grimes’ living room, resulting in Rick flying through the window; this is yet another callback, paralleling the fight between Rick and Pete Anderson in Season 5’s “Try.” Their home is destroyed and they retreat into the sewers, where the devastation is only worsened.
What will probably go down as one of the most powerful scenes in “The Walking Dead” history, Rick and Michonne make their way through the darkened sewer tunnels to find their surviving friends and family resting. Everyone has their heads bowed as the two leaders walk through, unable to make eye contact with anyone; Tara and Rosita look somber, while Daryl’s face is concealed by Judith, everyone aware of something dark at the end of the tunnel. Rick and Michonne find Siddiq before they are startled by Carl’s weakly voice. He sits on the floor, looking more disheveled than ever before as his parents (yes, I consider Michonne to be his adoptive mother) watch Carl pull up his shirt and lower a bandage to reveal a bite mark on his abdomen. Yes…Carl Grimes, the future of the series, has received a fatal bite and there is no going back. He is going to die and both Rick and Michonne immediately realize that their son is in his final moments of life. The powerful acting from Chandler Riggs is matched by looks of absolute devastation on Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira’s faces; I’m fully convinced that their performances aren’t even acting, but rather genuine emotions at what is taking place. Carl was bit while dispatching walkers with Siddiq back in “The King, the Widow, and Rick,” and in reviewing the footage, this brief moment is actually really noticeable now. The camera pulls away as the Grimes family find themselves in a tunnel of misery and sorrow; the light of the dark apocalypse is about to be extinguished forever.
“How It’s Gotta Be” is the best episode of Season 8 for many different reasons, but most notably the musical score, cinematography, action, character and story development, as well as the performances; there isn’t one weak performance in the bunch as the entire cast is utilized fully. The shocking moment that was promised will forever change the series, but it remains to be seen just what effect this death will have. To be clear, Carl is not yet dead and it is very likely that the Mid-Season Premiere will be his final farewell. This death is a massive departure from the graphic novels, wherein Carl essentially overtakes Rick as being the main protagonist following All Out War. While I definitely see story potential moving forward, Carl’s impending death rubs me the wrong way, not it it’s execution, but for the reason that it feels like another case of shock value overtaking the story. While I have said from the beginning that “The Walking Dead” isn’t any one character’s sole story, the drive of Rick to protect Carl has always been the primary focus; with Carl out of the picture, what long-term future does the series have other than Judith? It was always my belief that the story would follow Carl should the time come that Rick dies or is incapacitated, but this is simply not the case anymore. The Mid-Season hiatus will provide fans some time to process what happened in this episode and what is to come, but I believe that I speak for the fandom when I say that nothing can prepare us for the final breath that Carl will take next year…nothing.
“The Walking Dead” will return for the second-half of Season 8 on Sunday, Feb. 25 at 9 p.m. on AMC with a 90-minute premiere. Stay tuned to the Niner Times for continuing coverage of the “TWD” franchise.