Back in October, The Walking Dead‘s eighth season began with an exciting, even somewhat hopeful montage, cutting between Rick Grimes in multiple scenarios – some immediate, some potentially imminent. He was seen rousing his troops for a surprise attack on the Saviors (classic Rick!) … but also standing over a gravesite, leaning despondently against a tree and living in a hazy future where Alexandria is thriving. In the midseason premiere – titled, cryptically, “Honor” – both the burial plot and the happy fantasy return. But while the show had previously seemed to suggest that Sad Rick and Contented Rick could be two separate, branching possibilities, this episode shut that idea right down. The death is real. The utopia? Maybe not.
The biggest news from this week is that the confirmation that Carl is indeed gone. One of the series’ longest-running characters – he’s been around since Day One – the younger Grimes suffered a walker bite in last fall’s finale. Now, after an extended deathbed scene, the teen with the eye-patch is six feet under, buried along with a lot of Rick’s reasons for being who he is. How many times has Sheriff Grimes justified some of his most questionable decisions by saying that he’s doing it to keep Carl safe and to make him a better man. Well, his son just died. Now what?
Part of the reason why this week’s episode is so long – way too long – is that it tries to answer that question. What will motivate Rick now? (Besides his daughter Judith, that is. She’s mostly left out of all his ruminating, for some reason.) “Honor” builds its case for The Walking Dead‘s ongoing purpose and meaning by shifting between three main storylines – each of which is so somber and muted that it’s often hard to tell right away when a scene transitions from one narrative to the other.
In the main plot, Rick and Michonne watch Carl die. Yes, it’s as grim as it sounds. Initially, Alexandria’s leader comes in angry, convinced that his town’s aflame, his enemies are loose and his boy is suffering all because his people were too impatient and distrustful to follow orders. So a large part of this extended farewell involves the kid setting his dad straight, explaining that his mortal wound is just a fluky thing (brought about by him trying to help the vagabond loner Siddiq). The final message the teen intends to deliver before departing this Earth is to tell his friends and family to be more compassionate to others and less hardened. Otherwise, this world will never heal.
The longer Carl’s death drags out, the more it feels like the show’s writers are struggling to give the moment meaning – especially when you consider that they’ve largely ignored him for much of the earlier part of the season. The Siddiq subplot was introduced in the fall premiere, but it wasn’t really a running thread until right before the fateful zombie encounter. To compensate, this episode lingers for over an hour on Carl’s halting, rasping last words.
The other two storylines are intended to reinforce the first. In one, the Savior Gavin holds Ezekiel captive inside the Kingdom, and the two of them have a winding conversation about the choices they’ve made. Again and again, Gavin reminds Ezekiel that he’s always tried to be merciful, and that he doesn’t like it when circumstances take a violent turn.
Meanwhile, Carol and Morgan skulk around, looking for a way to sneak in and free the King. This all culminates in a moment where Morgan’s preparing to assassinate Gavin, and Carol and Ezekiel try to convince him that he’s a better man than that … right before one of the Kingdom kids they trained does the murder instead.
The point of all this is clear. Repeatedly, characters talk about what they “have to” do, even though they don’t really want to. What Carl’s saying – and Morgan’s maybe learning – is that, “There’s got to be something after.” Killing in the name of peace isn’t just oxymoronic. It’s also driving everyone in this post-apocalyptic Virginia completely mad.
It’s tempting to see this as a turning point in the series, setting the stage for a different kind of Walking Dead – maybe one that isn’t just a heavy-handed dialectic, always ultimately landing on the side of “survival of the meanest.” But we’ve been in this place before, including last fall. What this midseason premiere lacks is any kind of sense of where the story goes from here. It’s telling that, in what feels like one hell of a padded-out chapter, writers Matt Negrete and Channing Powell somehow couldn’t find time for Maggie, Jesus, Gabriel, Aaron or, with one exception, Negan. There’s still a lot of mess to clean up and a lot of human obstacles before Carl’s vision can become a reality.
Negan – and Eugene as well – do make surprise appearances in the Fantasy Alexandria, as beloved members of a peaceful community. But their very presence seems to suggest that this future’s an impossibility. None of these characters are ever going to be merciful enough to share their delicious skillet-cake with the men responsible for slaughtering some of their best friends. Instead, the more likely direction the series is going to take is to keep showing how these people are missing their best chance at paradise.
That could still be an interesting and exciting Walking Dead. It has been before. But between the season premiere and now this latest episode, the brief glimpses we’ve seen regarding what’s definitely coming – and not just what could be – are: more mourning, more regret, more scenes of a crying, bloodied Rick. There’s bound to be some cold, dark months ahead. Best brace yourselves, folks.
Previously: The Son Also Rises
Actor Tom Payne tackled the latest ‘Walking Dead’ fan theories. See below.