"We are worse than we were, me and you."
That's Morgan, talking to Rick at the start of The Walking Dead's season eight finale ("Wrath") and thinking back on how they both recently slaughtered their way out of the Saviors' grasp. In a meta sense, he's also be talking about what's happened to the two of them as TV characters. Television dramas generally favor redemption arcs, where seemingly irredeemable pieces of human garbage are inspired by circumstances to turn their lives around. Except this show has zagged where others zig. Over the past two years in particular, it has become an endless story about likable people turning lousy.
For you optimists out there, the good news about this episode is that this duo may have pulled themselves out of their respective tailspins. By the end of the hpur, everyone's favorite stick-wielding ass-kicker begins to right his psychological ship, inspired in part by Jesus' suggestion that he go back to aiming the pointy end of his shaft only the dead. ("Things will get better," the bearded Hilltopper promises if Morgan only uses the blunt end on the living.) Our terminally tormented hero takes what he's recollected about how to be a proper human and promptly hits the road, following the path that will lead to his new gig on Fear the Walking Dead.
As for Rick, when he's finally given a clear shot at ending the critically wounded Negan, he instead heeds his late son's warning that "there's got to be something after" and lets his nemesis live. He then frees the rest of the Saviors, urging them to go home, tend to their own and try living in peace for a change. To paraphrase a character from an entirely different fantasy saga: Ended, this "All Out War" has.
Now here's something for the pessimists to cling to: "Wrath" isn't the end of The Walking Dead. Writer Robert Kirkman's original comic book series is still ongoing, and the show's producers have said they've already roughly mapped out their next four seasons. The cease-fire between the Virginia's various colonies is unlikely to last forever. In fact, before the credits have rolled, the seeds of a new conflict are already starting to sprout, in unlikely soil.
Compared to past Walking Dead finales, this year's season-ender was strangely under-stuffed. It only ran a little bit over AMC's usual one-hour time-slot, with most of the action packed into the first half. There's a lot of build-up early on, as Negan cackles to a seemingly simpatico Eugene and a mortified Father Gabriel about his plan to lead Rick into an ambush, courtesy of planted bad intel. But then the Saviors' big surprise literally blows up in their faces, courtesy of their malfunctioning new ammo supply.
Give Eugene credit for the sabotage, inspired by the priest's previous modest attempts to fill the enemy's arsenal with bad bullets. The mullet-sporting uber-geek pretends to be all in for his leader, applauding the plot to annihilate the Alexandrian alliance. (It will "alpha to omega this thing in less than 10," he insists.) But after the bad guys' guns explode, Eugene sheepishly admits to Rosita that the recent angry lecture she lobbed his way encouraged him to "create a modicum of fooey for the full kablooie."
Is this a plausible character turn? Not necessarily. It's more a matter of narrative convenience than a carefully set-up heel-turn (or rather heel-re-turn). But the twist gets the story where it needs to go, with the Saviors kneeling in surrender, while Rick and Negan end up by the stained-glass-adorned tree that's figured into multiple flash-forwards this season. There, Sheriff Grimes slashes the throat of the man he hates ... then calls for medical attention. He proceeds to give a speech to the vanquished about how now it's time for humanity to band together against the zombies.
One problem with this abrupt act of mercy: Maggie wasn't consulted. In the epilogue, she admits to Jesus and Daryl that she's entirely on-board with building a new society where killing's kept to a minimum. But she still wants Negan's head. And she now considers Rick and Michonne untrustworthy traitors for keeping him alive – even though their intention is to punish the deposed Savior boss by throwing him into a cell for the rest of his life. Thw world will thrive without him, and he'll be forced to bear witness.
So here's where we are as another Walking Dead season ends: The bonds between the Hilltoppers and the Alexandrians are frayed, yet both are now committed to helping the Saviors rebuild, while even letting some of their former opposition (like the hunky Alden) switch sides). And what of Carol? Or King Ezekiel? They're mostly relegated to the background, while the finale finds time for a scene with Jadiss, who asks Morgan to call her "Ann" and accepts his invitation to join one of the groups … but still doesn't explain those damn helicopters.
Overall, the emphasis here at the end of Season Eight is on closure, rather than on teasing what might be coming next. Perhaps that's because this episode marks the end of Scott Gimple's tenure as The Walking Dead's show-runner. He'll now reportedly oversee the franchise as a whole, while longtime TWD writer Angela Kang will handle the parent show's day-to-day operation.
As was common in the Gimple era, this finale presumes a lot of viewer investment in where the characters have been, moreso than where they're headed. There are callbacks aplenty, from a lyrical reflection on the meaning of Rick's relationship with his son to Dwight belatedly apologizing to Daryl for taking advantage of him when they first met way back in Season Six. Even Ezekiel gets his own reprise, revisiting his "if this day is to be our last" speech from last fall's premiere, but with more humility.
Whether all of this dotting of "i"s and crossing of "t"s is enough the pull The Walking Dead out of the rut it's been in for the past 16-plus episodes … well, that ought to be evident pretty early in Season Nine. If everyone jumps right back into being crummy to each other, then this show will clarify that it's going to keep on being what it's always been: a long look at how human beings rot.
Previously: Simon Says