The Walking Dead, looking back, I could think of the gaffes–there were plenty after all.
I could think more fondly of the incredible visual effects and the showcase zombie kills that seemed to be a mandate for each episode no matter what else was going on. I could think of the action set pieces that, at different times, were riveting or drawn out too long, or the alternatingly poignant or awkward story decisions.
The Walking Dead has been an imperfect, sometimes frustrating series with incredible highs and lousy lows for the last 12 years of my life, but in the end, I’ll think back on the characters more than anything.
Its long-awaited series finale manages to give the ensemble cast, some of whom have been in the story since the pilot episode, heartfelt character closure across the board, retroactively making the good times shine brighter and covering up some of the show’s blemishes.
This review contains spoilers, including details on character deaths.
The super-sized 70-minute episode is, like a lot of series heading off into the sunset; it’s a tale of two halves. The first half is one of chaotic action, a marathon of zombie kills and a few character deaths that struck me harder than I’d have expected before I saw them myself.
As the Commonwealth falls to a horde that Pamela Milton’s goon squad attracted in order for her to signal for martial law and cling to her vanishing power, the show finally found its courage to kill off some recognizable faces, something it really hasn’t done since Jesus was killed by the Whisperers years ago.
Jumping between several setpieces from last week’s cliffhanger, the writing definitely takes a few shortcuts in the spirit of the Rule of Cool. Judith was thought to be bleeding out and dying after a gunshot wound last week–an obviously bogus drama to begin with, since there’s no way she would die before Rick and Michonne find her in the forthcoming spin-off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Instead of being on death’s door, Judith manages to get on her feet and create a desperate blockade just seconds before a horde could storm through a glass-paneled building in which she and Daryl, knocked out by Commonwealth guards, were left stranded. She then quickly faints by his side, which is a nice surrogate daddy and daughter moment, but it’s not as riveting as intended given the plot armor surrounding both characters.
Elsewhere though, where basically half the ensemble cast was being bottlenecked by walkers, things are more serious. It’s here where characters like Negan and Maggie, both of whom have pre-ordained series coming next year, aren’t caught in the struggle, so it feels like anyone could die. First, Jules is taken out by the horde in a gruesome scene that suggests the heroes aren’t even able to recover her body when the dust settles. Then Luke is bitten too, which segues into the episode’s first really affecting scene.
As Luke bleeds out in a hospital lacking any doctors or nurses, the rest of his original group–Magna, Yumiko, Connie, and Kelly–quickly pivot from having to save his life to simply saying their goodbyes. It’s delivered with authentic performances from the fivesome, alongside some of the best music in the series–this is true for the whole episode, in fact–and reminded me of how good Angela Kang and the latest iteration of the writers’ room has been about mining the past.
Giving these five characters their moment as a subsect of the show’s larger survivor group is gratifying, making it feel like Kang is a fan of the show’s own material as she leans into their shared history to tug on the right heartstrings. Luke was out of sight for many episodes–a circumstance due to actor Dan Fogler’s role in the Fantastic Beasts series, and yet here in the finale, his death was so touching and well-delivered, with him surrounded by the friends we met him with, that it choked me up more than I thought possible.
The most saddening parts of this finale, however, belong to Rosita. On the show since Season 4, Rosita grew to be one of its best characters, especially in the time since she became a mother and her worldview shifted to that of a tireless protector. As she, Gabriel, and Eugene complete a rescue mission to get the heroes’ kids back from the Commonwealth, she falls while scaling the side of a building, landing into a sea of walkers, only to re-emerge like a phoenix seconds later with dramatic slow-motion effect.
With the music swelling, she expertly carves through the walkers surrounding her and Coco, it’s simply triumphant. Again, it feels like the Rule of Cool here–her ability to stand from her compromised position is very unlikely–but such little annoyances fade quickly as it’s the sort of hero moment I want in a finale to a show like this, and I was just so relieved to see she and Coco were okay.
The Walking Dead has long been a show where a lot of the front-and-center stuff is so compelling that it hides some of the issues found when you think about it for a bit longer. This is a great example of that, and I think it’s forgivable.
Rosita and Eugene
Sadly, we learn later, in maybe the episode’s best scene, that Rosita was bit on the shoulder amid the scuffle. Importantly, this isn’t a place that could be amputated quickly to stave infection, so Rosita knows, as do those watching, that she will be gone soon. A bittersweet moment with Eugene again pulls from their long history in a way that every fan could rightfully expect from a finale. These two came onto the scene with the long since departed Abraham eight years ago, and their words in their final scenes together hit like a ton of bricks.
As the horde surges through the lower wards, it predictably finds its way to the gates of Pamela’s posh Estates. It was always going to end this way, of course, after Pamela last week instructed the military to divert the horde to the low-income neighborhood in order to spare her own safe haven.
No longer secure, the heroes and villains clash for a final standoff that remixes some of what comic readers will have seen already. Pamela would sooner let the refugees at her gates die with the horde on their heels, but Daryl, borrowing Rick’s line from the comics, argues that they have to come together, delivering the iconic line in demanding a better future, both short- and long-term: “We ain’t the walking dead!”
The heroes gain the favor of Pamela’s last-remaining troops, she accepts that it’s over. Arrested by Mercer and locked away like Negan was so many years ago–which he calls a fate worse than death for someone like her–Pamela cedes her power to the new regime that won’t, as Daryl says, build the new world to be like the old world, as the Commonwealth’s class divide was its fatal flaw in the end. The group once known as Alexandrians detonate all of the Estates, destroying the horde, resecuring the walls, and claiming the land for a more compassionate future.
The Dead At The Gates
Most of the heroes regroup when the dust settles to let out a collective sigh of relief, as nearby, Maggie and Negan deliver an incredible moment that finales are made for. With the camera in close to capture the full sadness of them both, Maggie painfully tells Negan that she can’t forgive him even still, after all these years and all his redemptive behavior, for what he did to Glenn.
He seems to get it, even as viewers might feel conflicted. Hasn’t he done enough to help her move on? It depends on who you ask, and better than most times, it provides some great philosophical gum to chew on.
At a family-like gathering after their victory, it’s soon made clear to the group that Rosita isn’t long for the world. In a touching and almost heavenly-lit scene, Rosita is given her final send-off. Falling weak and weary, she’s tucked into a bed, cradling her daughter until it’s time to pass her off to Gabriel, and eventually drifts off to sleep as though she was euthanized.
Despite the fact that Coco is losing her mother, it is, as best I can remember, the most pleasant way anyone on the series has ever died, and does well to bridge the chaos before it with the rebuild that will come next. In its abundant comfort and compassion, it marks a new beginning.
The episode jumps ahead to one year later. Alexandria is reborn, now led by Ezekiel and Mercer as the benevolent Governor and Lieutenant Governor respectively, and it seems like the heroes might finally have an extended period of respite.
We don’t see any more walkers after this time jump, though we can be assured they’re out there, but the feelings the show wants to leave us with in these final moments harken back to Rick’s quote from years ago: “What happened, what we did, what we lost…There’s gotta be something after.” After everything they’ve done and lost, the heroes have found their something after.
Not all of them, certainly. Far too many didn’t make it along the way, but with a more optimistic outlook than they’ve ever had, they can perhaps finally sleep comfortably at night.
Daryl and Carol get their own heartfelt goodbye, as well. Now that the Commonwealth is doing well, some characters, such as Maggie in one direction and Daryl in another, are setting off on missions to keep bridging the world back together, and though both he and Carol survive to see these brighter days, they’re left to experience more commonplace sadnesses, like saying goodbye to a friend not because they’re dying, but because they’re going away for a while. Like Rosita’s death with dignity, this starkly contrasts all the brutality and mayhem these heroes lived with for so long. Today, they catch their breath.
You Spin Me Right Round Baby Right Round Like A Record Baby Right Round Round Round
The chemistry between Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus has always been spectacular, and their final scene together is actually their best ever, seeing them express their platonic love for each other comes off as so authentic as it’s clear the actors are long-time friends in real life too. Along with the poignant scenes of Rosita and Eugene, or Maggie and Negan, it’s what I’ll think of first for years to come when I look back on this series.
As Daryl rides off into better days ahead, AMC couldn’t help but include a long teaser for Rick and Michonne’s return, which is currently expected to debut as a new series no earlier than 2024. I’d written before about worrying that this finale would just feel like a long prequel to the spin-offs, but I actually think the writers did the show justice while still attaching an appropriate and Marvel-like stinger to the end.
The three major spin-offs, starring Daryl, Maggie and Negan, and Rick and Michonne respectively, didn’t feel like they mattered until this teaser. The episode was thankfully allowed to stand on its own. These characters deserved that, and I give Angela Kang and her crew a ton of credit for defying the odds I felt were stacked against them in the face of the Walking Dead Universe roadmap.
Maggie And Negan
The Walking Dead doesn’t deliver a perfect finale, but it does end much better than I expected. It’s hopeful without breaking the story universe that is still importantly hostile abroad. It delivers its final thesis, which I worried would be totally absent as the series pushed right into the spin-offs ahead. It pulls from and alters the comic material in enjoyable ways. Most importantly, it gives every survivor their flowers. While the show has been up and down over the last decade-plus, what’s been consistent are these characters and the brilliant actors who portray them.
Up and down the ensemble cast, they deliver many of the best performances of the entire series. It has a washing-away effect on the series’ lesser arcs across 11 seasons. It’s a flawed show, sometimes cited by detractors as an example of a series that outlived its usefulness or artistic merit. But in its final moments, The Walking Dead fittingly finds new life, retroactively making me more appreciative of everything that’s come before as the heroes now look toward something after.
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