Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
The Walking Dead always tries to hold a big reveal for the end of their mid-season finale, and I think it’s safe to say that this one delivered fairly well—once you revisit Carl’s previous meeting in the woods with Saddiq, that is. What I missed then, at the time—I presume you did as well—was that they at least hinted at the fact that Carl had been bitten by a walker on his abdomen during the scuffle. Realizing this is imperative to understanding what has happened during the reveal at the end of tonight’s episode, “How It’s Gotta Be.” But it’s also imperative to understanding Carl’s actions throughout the episode.
Quite simply, Carl is obviously cognizant throughout of his pending mortality, and it makes him both brave and sentimental. His conversation with Rick in the episode’s beginning is a conversation we’ve heard any number of times throughout The Walking Dead, but coming from Carl’s mouth it bears repeating: “You have to do more than hope.” Carl is trying to impart in Rick a responsibility to save souls such as Saddiq’s, because he needs his own death (sustained as a result of finding Saddiq) to have not been in vain. Likewise, the knowledge that he’ll soon die from the infection makes Carl much more earnest in his offer to Negan—the offer to be the one from Alexandria who dies. Knowing his death is already incoming, Carl would be more than willing to make that trade if he thought Negan would actually make it. This is of course what makes Carl a protagonist in a world of moral ambiguity. What did you think of the mode of his undoing?
And speaking of Negan, one must think that nobody (besides Rick and Michonne) will be more sorry to see Carl gone than the leader of the Saviors. The guy had a strange, special kind of bond with that kid, presumably seeing something of himself in Carl’s determination and unflappability. Hell, he just told Rick in this very episode that he saw Carl becoming one of his “top guys” within a few years, but it would seem this is sadly not to be.
Now with all that said … everything Carl-related was the high point of this episode. The rest of said episode was unfortunately replete with low points. To hit just a few:
— I’m so glad that we spent portions of several episodes returning to the lair of the Trash People. They really factored in big tonight, right? Really important stuff. Can we just forget about them and never see them in this show again, please?
— Enid got an itchy trigger finger and blew away Natania, the matriarch of the all-female Oceanside community. Excellent recruiting tool, right there. I’m sure they’ll join right up with your war now.
— The editing. Good god, this episode was almost as bad at times as the stuff in “The Damned” and “Monsters” that we criticized so heavily. There are random buildings and cars exploding throughout in Alexandria for reasons that don’t seem physically possible from what we’re allowed to see. Every community looks exactly alike, so it’s never immediately clear which one we’re in when locations change. Even the fight between Rick and Negan was herky jerky and ended strangely, with Rick flying out a window and then immediately escaping any kind of pursuit.
That seems to be a theme of The Walking Dead these last few seasons, Josh. The show manages pockets of interesting character development or individual interesting characters/scenes, but then undermines them with increasingly shoddy nuts and bolts construction. It’s like they’re so focused on programming tweetable moments that they often forget the basics of continuity or storytelling.
A few questions for you:
— Okay, so Rick, Jerry and Carol are driving in a car. Something happens and the car either crashes or is ambushed. A badly injured Jerry is taken by the Saviors. An unscratched Carol teleports instantly to The Kingdom. An uninjured Rick simultaneously teleports to Alexandria. What the hell am I supposed to think happened here?
— How great was Maggie in this episode? Lauren Cohan is rapidly becoming the MVP of this show in any kind of objective ranking. She’s the only one I can see staging any kind of effective resistance to Negan at this point. And we saw just how cold-blooded she could be when she needs to be.
— Eugene’s rebellions are always so minor. Why does he insist on walking this weird middle line where he dabbles in this and that, ostensibly to help people, but won’t fully commit to a much MORE helpful task, like killing Negan? It’s like he’s playing a “true neutral” D&D character.
Are you looking forward to waiting until February to see Carl’s grand death sequence?
One thing The Walking Dead has mostly done well is big finishes. The whole idea of a “mid-season finale” may be a little oxymoronic, but it’s now part of the show’s familiar rhythm, and expectations were high. As you said, they delivered in places: Carl’s arc in particular. But the one thing the show shouldn’t be right now—with the size of its budget and seven and a half seasons of practice—is amateurish. And that’s what the editing of this episode (and much of this season) was. I think they must have filmed more of the crash scene, where Carol and Rick escape but Jerry gets taken captive, right? And some intern accidentally deleted it? We just watched Elf on our Southern snow day this weekend, and it reminded me of the missing two pages at the end of the kids’ book when Walter decides to ship it anyway. No one’s gonna notice, right?
Correction: An alert reader has pointed out to us that Rick, Carol and Jerry split up before the crash scene. Both Jim and I missed this.
It also seemed crazy to me that the Saviors wouldn’t even bother returning to the Hilltop with Maggie to establish some kind of dominance. Collect all their guns, maybe discover that Maggie is holding a few dozen prisoners? It’s a really dumb tactical move that is starting to make my favorite villain, Simon, seem kind of incompetent. But it did give Lauren Cohen an opportunity to shine, as she has the last few seasons.
The build up to Eugene’s genius plan to rid the Sanctuary of the walker herd was huge, but the reveal sounds like it was another version of the giant speaker truck we’d already seen two episodes ago. Maybe the big twist on the idea was classical music? Zombies love classical music, Jim. I was really hoping to be surprised by his cleverness. Or do you think there’s more to it we just haven’t seen?
And when Gavin stops his fellow Saviors from killing King Ezekiel because “he’s more valuable than all the others,” only to later reveal that the plan for Zeke is to kill him and put him on a spike as a warning outside of The Kingdom, did that make sense to you? As much sense as Gavin sending all of his soldiers to go investigate the mysterious explosion? Not a great episode for Negan’s lieutenants.
I’m also really confused on the timeline. When does Rick have that conversation with Carl at the beginning? Is that before he leaves to meet with the trash people? If so, Carl has survived a really long time with that walker bite. Which brings up my main question for you? The big rule of thumb on The Walking Dead is that if we don’t see a character die, we don’t assume that they’re actually dead. Could Carl be somehow immune to the bite? One trope of the zombie/apocalyptic virus genre which we haven’t seen yet is the medical miracle—the lone person immune to the virus who holds the key to humanity’s survival. I’m not current on the comics, so maybe Carl is really about to die, but I do remember him getting shot (twice) and surviving, so I’ll believe he’s really dead when Rick is forced to put a knife in his brain.
But Alexandria did look cool with all those smoke bombs and explosions. And the set up is there for an exciting end to the war come spring. Right? We’re not going to end Season 8 on a cliff hanger with the Saviors still fighting, are we?
I have to believe, deep in my heart of hearts, that the Savior storyline will come to a conclusion at the end of season 8. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure I can continue on with this show. It’s the obvious time for it to end and embark on a wholly new chapter—it’s what needs to happen. Let’s hope to God that this is the case. One would think that with the show’s depressed ratings in season 8, the producers would be open to this idea as well.
You are right, of course: We can’t 100% count Carl out, despite the fact that we’ve never witnessed a bite to be non-fatal unless it was on an immediately amputated limb. The fact that they used these events as a mid-season finale is a little bit suspicious—it recalls John Snow being stabbed to death by the Night’s Watch at the end of Game of Thrones season 5, when EVERYONE and their mother assumed that he would somehow be brought back to life. The show’s writers at least want us to be having this discussion, whether Carl could somehow survive. As for “the lone immune person” trope, it has never, ever appeared in The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up for that. But then again, Carl is still very much alive in Kirkman’s comics series (at least as far as I’ve read, which is past the Negan storyline), so to kill him here represents a pretty serious diversion from the comics plot.
My two cents is this: You’re right that nobody is ever truly dead on this show until they get an indisputable bullet or knife in the head, but I think Carl is done for. As for why he was able to survive for so long after being bitten with no apparent ill effects (until he’s limping around strangely in the second half of this episode; we were confused if he was supposed to have been shot), I’ll simply fall back on what has become the safest rationale for anything in The Walking Dead right now, which is BAD WRITING. Who cares if other characters who were bitten were shown to succumb to the infection (or at least look sick) far more quickly? These writers don’t care if this stuff doesn’t make sense, Josh. They are past such things. They just write what they want, and to expect consistency and logic from them is a losing proposition. You just gotta roll with the goofy revelations as they come. We will never see or hear anything about Eugene’s plan to get rid of all those zombies again for the exact same reason.
Case in point: The Saviors’ handling of Maggie was incredibly stupid, for a bunch of guys who are supposed to be evil masterminds. As I wrote in my notes while watching, the only reasonable thing for Simon and Negan to do if they actually want to hold on to some kind of control is to just go ahead and kill Maggie. You can’t leave the fighters and charismatic leaders alive! If The Saviors were smart, they’d kill anyone like Maggie, instill puppet rulers in the mold of Gregory, or hell … why doesn’t each community have a Savior governor, Josh? And a contingent of Savior soldiers that lives there and keeps and eye on things? They could root out and put down any potential rebellions before they even had a chance to get started. It would be simple, Josh. But no, their decision is to kill one random guy and then send Maggie back home so she can reinforce The Hilltop’s defenses and carry on the war effort. Didn’t we JUST hear a couple episodes ago that Negan’s goals were to capture “the king, the widow and Rick”? Why the hell did they just let the widow go? It’s maddeningly stupid, and before the business with Carl came along and somewhat redeemed the episode, it was all I could think about.
All too often now, it feels like characters such as Simon and Gavin are seemingly aware that they’re on a television show. They interact with Main Characters among the protagonists, and they just know instinctually that “I’M NOT ALLOWED TO KILL THIS GUY.” They don’t get to kill a Maggie, or an Ezekiel, so they shoot someone like that random dude in the back of Maggie’s car. Those deaths are too important, and they must be saved for Big Important Hashtaggable Moments in the closing minutes of episodes, because The Walking Dead comports itself like a midday soap opera. At least Game of Thrones understands well enough that the rhythms of these things often work better when they’re more naturalistic.
Here’s a prediction, based entirely on my cynicism over the bad writing: At a key moment in the second half of this season, a major, full-on battle between all the forces of the Grimes Coalition and The Saviors will come to a head. Things will look bleak, when suddenly … the Trash People crest the top of a hill! And the Oceansiders are with them! And literally any other character we’ve forgotten from the last seven seasons of this show who haven’t yet died are there too! And despite none of it making a lick of sense, they sweep through the Saviors like the charge of the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep.
What do you think?
You really think we’re going to see a last-minute save from an unexpected group? That’s a bold prediction for The Walking Dead. I’ll see your trash people and raise you the mysterious owner of a military helicopter, swooping in to rain on Rick’s victory celebration.
But until then, we’ve got another half-season of gun fights, drama between the women of Oceanside and Aaron/Enid, and trash people betraying someone. Fortunately, we’ll also have Maggie turning into the true leader of the new world, Carol and Daryl being their badass selves, and Rick and Michonne coping with the loss (or miraculous recovery) of Carl. In other words, another mixed bag.
Until then, see you in February, Daryl Dixon.