Even if you're the most faithful of Walking Dead viewers, you're forgiven if you find yourself heading into the midseason premiere (which debuts on February 25th) with only the haziest memory of what the hell happened on the show last fall. Producer, writer and (now ex-)showrunner Scott M. Gimple made the decision to spend eight episodes on just a couple of days in the life of Rick Grimes and his Alexandrian allies, at the very moment they launched their long-in-the-making attack on Negan and the Saviors. As the season reached its halfway point, pretty much all we'd seen unfold, week after week, was a lot of incremental movement and subtly shifting loyalties in this "all out war."
Yes, some of it was slow. Some of it was bloody, and downright disturbing (we're looking at you, "Some Guy," which was one rough episode). And some of it even mattered a lot in the Big Picture of what's going to happen to our band of brothers and sisters fighting to survive against tyrants, terrors and the occasional toothy walker. Here's everything you need to know as you prepare to dive back into the depths of TWD Season Eight. Things got ugly – and are about to get even uglier.
1. Carl's in trouble – and Rick's pissed.
At the end of last fall's finale, Rick returned to Alexandria, only to find his people huddled in an underground bunker, all fretting over his son Carl, sporting a nasty zombie-bite on his belly. (Without giving too much away, the midseason premiere does address the teen's ultimate fate. Viewers won't have to wait all spring to see happens.)
But just as importantly: We left Rick facing the worst situation he could possibly imagine all because his troops didn't believe in him. Their fearless leader had come up with a solid scheme to defeat the Saviors, with a multi-front surprise attack followed by a long “hearts and minds”-converting siege of the Sanctuary. But Daryl and Tara grumbled about all the waiting involved – as well as the lack of vengeful slaughter – which led them to try and accelerate the endgame. Bad move.
As a result of that meddling, the enemy's now liberated themselves, Alexandria's in flames and Carl ... well, he was fading fast when the midseason finale faded to black. Before the good guys move on to their next battle, they're going to have to reckon with what went wrong.
2. Ezekiel is finally re-awakening.
One of the biggest bummers in the first half of Season Eight was seeing one of The Walking Dead's most unambiguously lovable characters – the kindly, flamboyantly theatrical King Ezekiel – suffer a setback on the battlefield that left his pet tiger (no!) and much of his army dead. Since then, the regent has been paralyzingly despondent, wracked with guilt about having let down so many people who trusted him.
Fans of the Kingdom's cheerful royalty feared that he was bound to follow the arc that Carol and Morgan and so many other of TWD's super-cool bad-asses have been through before: becoming moody and ineffective for months. Instead, in the midseason finale, the King rallied, saving the rest of his subjects while fighting the Saviors who'd come to capture him. That's an encouraging sign that maybe we'll have the Awesome Ezekiel – and not be stuck with the Traumatized, 1,000-Yard-Stare Ezekiel – for the rest of this year.
3. Maggie's toughening up.
Mommy-to-be Maggie Greene has been getting more ferociously maternal as her due-date nears, treating the entire Hilltop as her nursery. Although she acquiesced to Paul "Jesus" Rovia's insistence that the community house and feed enemy prisoners, the new leader is currently keeping them penned up, living in constant fear for their lives. She's already executed one Savior as a show of strength; and the lady is keeping the colony's former leader Gregory imprisoned, in retaliation for him working with Negan.
Maggie's mad, she's mean and with her own territory to mind, she doesn't necessarily feel obliged to follow Rick's orders amy more. Her situation could become especially intense and interesting in the weeks ahead.
4. Eugene is … something.
One of this season's more fruitful storylines has involved the cowardly genius Eugene Porter, who sold out to Negan for security and comfort. Yet he still thinks of himself as a good guy, aiding his former friends whenever he can. When last we saw him, our man with the mullet had just come up with the plan to help the Saviors escape their walker-besieged Sanctuary. But he also helped the sickly Father Gabriel sneak away with Dr. Carson.
Is our Mr. Porter a hero again, or did he permanently mark himself as a villain when he switched sides? The show's unwillingness to answer those questions definitively has been a smart move, lending an extra jolt of tension to any scene featuring Josh McDermitt's verbose opportunist.
5. The allies (and the enemy) are dangerously scattered.
If everything had gone as Rick intended, the Sanctuary would've been starved into surrendering, Negan would've been publicly executed and all the Savior outposts would've been plundered for food, medicine and weapons. To accomplish this, our good-guys collective split into separate mission-forces, which meant that when everything started to go awry a few episodes ago, the lack of communication and manpower exacerbated the spiraling problems.
The good news is that the Saviors are just as diminished and isolated at the moment, even after Negan and the largest number of his people have slipped away from Rick's ghoulish blockade. They'll be regrouping soon, surely. But so will our heroes. And Daryl promises that once everyone's back together, "We'll be their worst damn nightmare."
6. There are wild cards aplenty, yet to be played.
Easily the dumbest narrative detour in last fall's Walking Dead was when Rick took a break from overseeing his multi-pronged attack so he could could make one more stab at bringing the Scavengers aboard. For his trouble, he was captured and had to fight an undead warrior; and even after he pressured Jadis into accompanying him on a trek to see what had become of the Sanctuary, she and her team turned tail and ran as soon as they saw that Rick's siege had failed. Sigh.
Nevertheless, the surprise return of the Scavengers was a reminder that they're still out there – and still heavily armed. Also, in the midseason finale, Aaron and Enid journeyed to Oceanside to make peace, and stumbled into another violent clash with the matriarchal enclave. In other words, there are more clans out there than just the Saviors and the Alexandrian coalition. At some point, they may play a role in how this war ends … and what happens after.
7. Grave days lay ahead.
Back in this season's first episode, we saw a flash-forward to a distraught Rick standing over a burial marker. That same image recurs in the midseason premiere. Is this freshly dug plot for Carl? Or somebody else? Wherever the story's headed this spring, it's clearly going to involve some dark times and tragic losses.
The bigger question for The Walking Dead creative team might be: Is this the right time to be wallowing in despair? The ratings last fall dropped into the single digits for the first time since Season Three, with the midseason finale drawing the lowest Nielsen number since year two. Fans of the show could maybe use a few signs of hope right now, to keep them hanging on into season nine.
And who knows? The next eight episodes may eventually bring a little sunshine. But right now there are only clouds, as far as the eye can see.