[Spoiler Alert: Do not read ahead unless you've watched "Honor," the Season 8 midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. You have been warned.]
And so, with a gut-twister of an episode called "Honor," the post-Carl era of The Walking Dead begins. It's an hour with much to prove.
Even as the furor over Chandler Riggs' surprise exit—one that especially irked fans of the comic series' father-son plot—cooled to a simmer, the show shuffled executives yet again, popular cast member Lennie James was shuttled to Dead's sister series Fear the Walking Dead, and others murmured their concern for the show's direction. Just days ago, media reports revealed that Lauren Cohan—contract-free when Season 8 ends—had scored the lead in an ABC pilot.
So then. Can the second half of "All Out War" also end the war the once-Teflon AMC juggernaut seems to be waging on its own survival? "Honor" is a solid start.
May these characters rest in peace.
The episode opens in the same fashion as did the midseason ender: A tight shot of a bleary-eyed Rick repeating Siddiq's mother's wisdom: "My mercy prevails over my wrath." And now we know for sure that the moment happened after Grimes Senior had to bury Carl and (we think) accept the outsider whose salvation helped kill him.
Those words also serve as the backbone of the hour as we watch Rick grapple with what his world will look like without his son as Carl makes the most of his dwindling moments. And as we watch various others—Morgan most especially—try to keep their mental marbles with the Saviors on the loose. And as we revisit the midseason finale's gauzy visions of a bucolic future—new ones this time—in which Judith has some interesting buddies, Siddiq proves his worth and Alexandria rises from the ashes.
But there is no arguing that "Honor" belongs to Riggs, from the moment Carl's eyes widen in horror as he takes the fatal bite to the moment he reaches for a firearm to own his destiny one final time. The episode reinforces the quality work the young actor is capable of and how underused his services were on a show that was ostensibly half his story. Too much time marching more and more and more people into the Dead universe. Too little time spent developing this interesting young man, played by an actor who was clearly coming into his own. It is a sizable shame.
But the Greg-Nicotero-helmed episode at least gives the lad a proper sendoff—and Carl fans ample opportunity to grieve—especially via a gratifyingly lengthy montage that demonstrates how Grimes Junior used his fading strength.
Set to Bright Eyes' deceptively toe-tapping 2005 warning shot "At the Bottom of Everything" ("While my mother waters plants/My father loads his guns/He says death will give us back to God/Just like this setting sun"), we see the doomed teen give safe haven to Siddiq in the sewer that will eventually shelter everyone, then do his damnedest to accept his fate and wonder if his dad and Michonne will make it back in time to say goodbye.
Just in case, he writes farewells to his loved ones, makes memories with his sister, plants a tree and turns his face up to the warmth of the sun. And, I am suspecting, sent a sizable number of TWD viewers scrambling for a tissue.
Lest we get too mired in one specific sorrow, the episode's writers Matt Negrete and Channing Powell set Carl's swan song against the Kingdom's current situation. Which is as equally dire as the rubbled Alexandria.
We start with a lesson on just how the Saviors got safe passage out the compromised Sanctuary, courtesy of Morgan, who is spying from across the way. Turns out, someone— probably Eugene—figured out that they could systematically shoot up enough walkers to fall a fence-like pile and create enough of a barrier for everyone that mattered to make a break for it.
The AMC series is also getting a new showrunner.
Meanwhile, with Team Gavin overtaking the Kingdom, Carol leads its residents to her long ago cottage before heading back to save Ezekiel. Someone wants to come with. Snub-nosed orphan Henry is itching to avenge his brother. "Morgan taught me the stick; you taught me the gun," he tells her. But no one taught you to fight yet, kid. This ain't practice anymore.
And then we are back where we left off at the end of the midseason finale, in the sewer where Rick and the rest are trying to process the first moments of realizing that those moments are also Carl's last. Poor Rick is rendered shades of Jadis: "They don't ... I can't ... It was ... ." No, says Carl. It wasn't. Not the Saviors fault. Not Rick's fault. Not Siddiq's fault. It just ... happened.
Back at the Kingdom, a totally over-it Gavin tries to bolster his inner tough guy by lipping off to Ezekiel: E's a dead man. Negan's gonna kill him. Him. Dead. Ezekiel doesn't flinch. "I ferried my people to freedom," he tells his captor. "What befalls me now matters not." Enh! Wrong answer, Gavin insists. See, Gavin liked the king. He liked their arrangement. Their agreed upon hierarchy. And now everything has gone to hell and E is going to die. "I made a choice I could live with," E says pointedly. "Now it's your turn to do the same."
Morgan is the first to spot Henry stealthing his way toward big trouble with Carol, as Morgan shoulders up with her to rescue Ezekiel. They're at odds about how to get that done. Morgan would prefer to mow down every last Savior. Carol would prefer to "avoid them till we can't."
Back in the sewer, the sounds of destruction rage on until a grieving Michonne can't take it anymore and begs Dwight to go tell the Saviors to stop. But Dwight is decidedly team Grimes now. He says their best chance is to stay put until the enemy retreats: "They're almost done. They have to be. It wasn't about destroying the place. They don't have the ammo for that." Um, what was it about then?
Anyway, D's not entirely convinced that everyone congregated in one place is such a great idea when they do get out. Daryl is. Clutching Judith for dear life, he snarls, "Everyone together will be their worst damned nightmare." That means you, too, Dwight. Time to shoulder up with Darry and get some !@#$ done. #TeamDwiryl
At the Kingdom, Morgan and Carol begin their assault, which Morgan decides is a fine time to overkill the bejesus out of a pair of Saviors. Meanwhile, Gavin is having a prescient moment: "Is it going to go bad Ezekiel?" he wonders about the prospects for this raid to succeed. "Is it going to turn into something else?" "You are the author of this night" responds the King in his fancy King language that I suspect is as much for his own benefit as it is for Gavin's.
Meanwhile, with Morgan starting to edge into more animal behavior, Carol decided to treat him like one. When they spot two more Saviors making off with supplies, Morgan grabs his staff and advances. "Leave it," Carol warns. "Leave it." Sit, Morgan. Staaaaay. It's, at best, an odd moment. And of course, Morgan doesn't stay. Carol doesn't rub his nose in his mess. Good God, let's move on.
Gavin and Ezekiel continue their impromptu therapy session. Gavin has dropped his bravado in favor of wistfulness. All he wants is for things to settle. Just a little goddamn equilibrium. Why must things always get dark and ugly and inhuman? E tells him that it's not too late to walk back from something decided. "You did," Gavin retorts. "Look where it got you."
And that's enough of that. Gavin grabs his walkie to move the proceedings along and not-so-slowly realizes that it's more than just "dingle-picking" that's keeping his men idle. He palms his gun. Ezekiel repeats his wisdom. Morgan and Carol have eyes on their prize.
Before we return to Alexandria, there's another vision of the future. Eugene, dressed straight outta J. Crew, is back in the fold and cooking up an apple baker. And when it's done," he tells Judith, "it would be my honor if you would be the sous to my chef. Or I can be said sous and you shall surely chef." Except we all know Eugene is ever more Team Eugene, not Team Dessert.
Meantime, the sounds of the Saviors' assault slow, then stop. Michonne wants to get everyone to Hilltop, Carl included, but Rick has reached a sort of hazy acceptance. Carl goes nowhere and neither will he. Michonne can take Judith to safety. Daryl volunteers instead.
Carl sits up to say goodbye to his baby sister. He tells her to be good, but not too good, because sometimes kids have to show their parents the way. Turns over his hat to her. Tells her that he couldn't uphold their mom's prophecy that he would beat this world, but she will. He knows she will. A wailing Judith would like to start the process at Hilltop, thank you very much. Daryl takes her, but makes sure Carl knows that he saved everyone.
Then it's poor, guilt-ridden Siddiq's turn pay homage. "You were helping me honor my mom," says Siddiq. "Not just yours," Carl reminds him. "Mine, too." "You gave me a chance," Siddiq continues. "I know I can never repay you. But I can honor you. By showing your people, your friends, your family that what you did wasn't for nothing. That it mattered. That is meant something. Because it did."
Carl smiles. "Congratulations," he tells Siddiq. "You're stuck with us." It's a nice moment, but I'm still surprised when Rick doesn't murder Siddiq on the spot.
Back in Ezekiel's theater, Gavin is now barking orders. Gotta settle this "under the penalty of that goddamned bat." "No, you don't," says E, earning himself a punch and a lecture: "I'm the author; you're the dead man. This is who I am. I live. You die." E gets one hell of a mic drop: "The petty comprises I made to avoid conflict were always done in the name of saving my people's lives," he sneers. "Now I realize—I was saving yours. No more."
And here comes the two-man cavalry, enter stage left. That whole "the King must arrive alive" thing goes right out the window as a shootout ensues. Carol and Morgan manage to knock off every Savior, save for Gavin. Well, and the guy whose intestines Morgan opts to relieve him of via a gaping bullet hole. Everyone looks a little concerned about that one. Gavin makes a run, er, limp for it.
Ezekiel says it's time to leave, but Morgan says they don't have to because intruders are all dead. Then he heads off to make sure "all of them" means just that.
On Sunday it was announced that James' character Morgan Jones would cross over from 'The Walking Dead' to 'Fear the Walking Dead.'
Back at Alexandria, it's just Rick, Carl and Michonne now. Carl addresses Michonne again: "I don't want you to be sad after this," he murmurs. "Or angry. You're going to have to be strong. For my dad. For Judith. For yourself. Don't carry this. Not this part. You're my best friend, Michonne." "You're mine too," she tells him. "You're mine." I'm not crying, you are.
Rick decides his boy is not going to die there in the sewer. Interspersed with a shot of Morgan loudly dragging his staff so Gavin can chart the course of his own looming demise, Rick makes poor Carl stumble through the wreckage of his home so he can die in the church.
I get over my ire quickly as we watch the final moments of two lives tick down, one with his horrified parents in a place of peace, the other at the hands of a man who may be committed to killing more out of personal hopelessness than a sense of justice. It's pretty punchy.
Carl thanks his dad for getting him "here"—not just to the church, but to a place of understanding that killing will never be the way. He remembers the kid in episode 316 who he gunned down even as the poor guy was handing over his rifle. Says he thinks about him all the time, how easy it was to pull the trigger.
No, says Rick. What happened, what Carl lost, what he was forced to do as a boy ... . Exactly, Carl says, and Rick saw what that did. It made him change—at least for a time—so Carl could change. So he could be who he is now. When Rick stopped fighting, it was right. It still is. Rick can be like that again.
On the subject of back to how it was, at the Gavin-Morgan showdown, Gavin tells Morgan that he did the best he could. Kept his word. Kept the Hilltoppers safe. "You think you can beat Negan?" he gasps. "You can't." But they can go back to their dicey brand of commerce.
One word from Morgan: No.
Gavin tries again, revealing a fatal flaw in his thinking: Morgan taking out all of Gavin's men wasn't just about avenging Ben; it's about the next part of Gavin's plea. That they'll all still wake up in the same hell tomorrow. Morgan lugs Gavin to his feet, but Ezekiel tells him ending Gavin is cowardly. If he lives, Gavin will see what his actions have done—and having to live with that is the worst punishment of all.
Carol tries her mommy voice. Not the one she used on Henry. The "I don't believe in timeouts" one. "You don't want to do this," she cajoles. "You told me we could be better than this. You said that to me. You don't want to do this. I know it. I can see it." "I have to," a blank-faced Morgan says. "I have to."
Except he doesn't. Henry does it for him. Another boy killer is made.
Back at the church, Rick tells Carl he can't ever be who he was, that it's different now, but Carl repeats his conviction that you can't kill your way to peace. "There has to be something different," he tells his dad. "For you and for them. There has to be something after. You can't see it yet. How it could be. I have."
Ohhhhhhhh. Those visions were Carl's, not Rick's. And here's another one. Alexandria is verdant. And Judy's on her way to greet another pal. One wearing a plaid shirt to weed the tomatoes. Rick, sort of missing the point, tells Carl that everything he's done is for him and then for him and Judith. But he will make Carl's hopes a reality. He promises.
Just when you thought you'd seen it all, 'The Walking Dead' proves you wrong.
Ezekiel comforts Henry, who says he had to make the kill. All will be resolved, he says. All will be resolved.
Rick agonizes that he didn't do a father's primary job and protect his son. No, says Carl. It's love. It's just to love. Then the boy reaches for his gun and tells his dad he, too, has to demonstrate love and how much he has grown. In an episode full of powerful moments, what comes next is arguably the most powerful of all. Rick and Michonne wait outside the church. Agonizing seconds pass until a silencer whistles. Rick's hands shoot skyward; Michonne's shoulders fall.
And then we see who's tending the veggies when Judith bids him good morning. It's Negan. But that grin is still utterly creepy. And this is still The Walking Dead. We don't end in the halcyon moment. We end with bleary-eyed Rick, all of him, this time. He's sitting beneath a tree as stained-glass panels waft in the wind. His hand is covered in blood.
So what say you, Dead fans? Satisfying end to Carl's journey? Is Morgan at the abyss once again — and might that signal the cause of his impending run for Texas and Fear the Walking Dead? Things are really different now, so who will Rick become? And are we supposed to believe that it might be Negan who picks up Carl's path to moral leadership?
The Walking Dead, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC