Well, we’re here. The Walking Dead is one episode away from writing off the de facto main character of one of the most popular shows in the history of cable television, eight years after he first appeared in Frank Darabont’s classic Halloween night series premiere in 2010. Rick Grimes doesn’t have long to live—about one more hour of television, in fact.
Whatever else happened on tonight’s Walking Dead (and quite a bit did happen, good and bad), that’s your takeaway. The looming departure of Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan has cast a momentous pall over everything that has happened in TWD’s ninth season so far. This hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing, as far as drama and tension are concerned. Knowing exactly when these two will depart has only helped AMC amp up the intensity of those emotions. They’ve been using the inevitability and dramatic catharsis of these deaths as a hook; bait to entice viewers to tune in to the first half of the season. You can’t help but wonder if ratings will plummet through the floor in the first few weeks after the death of Rick Grimes—even more than they’ve already fallen, nine seasons into this show. Regardless, you can certainly guarantee that a lot of people will be tuning in next week, at the very least.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s unpack a bit. Here’s a few things we learned in “The Obliged,” which was a pretty eventful 65 minutes.
— The bridge the crew has been working on this entire season is basically giving way, and it’s probably coming crashing down. It’s become a very obvious metaphor for Rick’s unwillingness to admit that his new society can’t work out the way it’s intended.
— Some kind of firefight kicked off at the camp between Carol’s people and the former Saviors, who somehow armed themselves and deduced that Oceanside was behind their recent rash of revenge killings. This got curiously little screentime, and one wonders if they’ll even bother checking in with it next week, when the whole episode is seemingly a navel-gazing vision quest structured around the death of Rick. The Saviors continue to be infuriating, in the sense that they all behave as if they have a death wish, and continuously instigate scenarios that can only end in getting killed. It’s a crutch of bad screenwriting when you constantly write characters who do things that will get them killed, with seemingly no sense of self preservation. Those aren’t real “human” characters.
— Negan is on a hunger strike at Alexandria, apparently with the absurdly roundabout plan of enticing Michonne into a series of conversations, whereupon he’s hoping to get her to empathize with him deeply enough to give him some kind of closure with his former weapon, the barbed wire-wrapped bat Lucille. I can’t believe that these long, emotionally charged, dialog-heavy scenes were all apparently in service of a reunion with a baseball bat, but there you go.
— The “Jadis and the helicopter people” storyline remains just as confusing and frustrating as ever. At one point, she hovers a zombie over a prone Father Gabriel, saying that this is somehow her ticket to being taken away by the helicopter people. Why? Are they collecting zombies? If that was what they’re looking for, there’s no shortage of them anywhere you look. Are they collecting recently infected? If that was the case, wouldn’t they be infecting people themselves, to study the transformation? I hate the opacity of this storyline, which is being presented as so much more complicated than it has to be. Just tell us what the hell is going on. Are we going to have to put up with these unresolved questions all season long?
Now that we have all of those loose threads out of the way, though, we can talk about the actual heart of the narrative right now, which is the interplay between Maggie, Daryl and Rick. Maggie is on her way to Alexandria to kill Negan, while Daryl (Maggie sympathizer all the way) tries to waylay Rick on the way to keep him from stopping her. This involves a precipitous, laughable fall into a perfectly formed, unrealistically uniform pit that is apparently located right next to the road, which for the majority of the episode becomes the Exposition Pit. As has happened so many times with Rick and Daryl in the last few seasons, the two have again come to blows and then immediately reconciled. Does it make sense? Nope, but you can’t help but feel a little verklempt at seeing them part for what may very well be the last time.
As for the conflict about the fate of Negan, it was Jesus who came in with the smart take of the episode. As he observed, two wrongs certainly do not make a right. Rick was wrong, he believes, to keep Negan alive at the end of the war because the decision of what to do with Negan shouldn’t have been his choice alone to make. But rightly, he observes that Maggie is now essentially in the same position—she is now in no place to decide whether a prisoner of Alexandria should live or die. If these communities are going to be run by law, she can’t randomly decide to take it into her own hands one day.
Ultimately, the best moments of “The Obliged” are its quietest. There’s a lot of pregnant tension in the air right now. Each interaction that Rick has with a supporting character seems steeped in it, whether it’s a discussion of bridges with Eugene or the acknowledgement that Carol and The Kingdom are essentially bailing on their pact with The Sanctuary. Is it cheating, on some level, to play these scenes as if Carol or Eugene somehow sense that they’re having their last ever conversation with Rick? Yeah, it’s cheating—but that doesn’t mean it’s not good melodrama. And you can be sure that these conversations will pay dividends for those characters down the line.
So, here we are. One episode away from putting Rick Grimes in the Earth. Two away (probably) from saying goodbye to Maggie Rhee. You’d call it the “end of an era” on The Walking Dead, but it’s an era that has lasted through eight plus seasons. It feels almost more like the end of one show, and the start of another.
What the hell is going to happen on The Walking Dead two weeks from now? Who will the central characters be? For the first time in ages, I honestly have no idea. And it’s equal parts frightening and exciting.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter.