The following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead comic.
I started reading The Walking Dead in the summer of 2016 because I wanted to experience a story that would never end.
Total immersion is one of the best things one can experience in their art. It’s that immersion that made works like Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones such important hallmarks in my creative life. When it came time to find another work to become completely immersed in, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead seemed to fit the bill.
I’d watched the TV series from the beginning (and still do, unfortunately), and as I got into the show, I discovered that the various plot points from the comic seemed just as cool, if not cooler. Using some Barnes and Noble gift cards from the holidays, I ordered the first three compendiums of The Walking Dead, which contained 144 total issues.
The Walking Dead comic was a brilliant adventure story told both simply and capably. The adventure of Rick, Carl, Michonne, and co. was relentless and seemingly eternal. Kirkman had been quoted as saying the story could and would go on forever, and failing forever at least around 300 issues.
Now here we are at issue 193 and The Walking Dead is over. The rumors and online chatter were true. Kirkman and his partner-in-art Charlie Adlard have ended The Walking Dead story as suddenly as it started. What once began with comatose Rick Grimes waking up with a gasp in a hospital room now ends with his son resting in the brave new world they built together.
The covers that Kirkman and Image Comics released for 194, 195, and 196 were hoaxes, used to distract us from the truth that the story of The Walking Dead had run its course. The never-ending story has suddenly ended. What are we to do with that?
We can only start by breaking down that ending.
The final issue of The Walking Dead essentially comes down to a property law dispute. While the walking dead represented a violent threat and the life as we knew it on Earth for 192 issues, they represent something far different in this 193rd and final one. The narrative jumps forward many years to a quiet farm in the countryside. There we see an adult Carl Grimes, his wife Sophia, and their daughter Andrea, peacefully living out their days. That peace is interrupted when a walker stumbles onto the Grimes’ property and Carl puts it down with a very familiar sword.
Walker appearances are exceedingly rare nowadays. In fact, an elderly Earl Sutton later tells Carl that that walker must have been the first their civilization has seen in 10 years. But how could one singular walker make it past all of the city’s defenses? Well, someone familiar to readers is to blame. Maggie and Glenn’s now adult-ish son, Hershel Greene, has brought his walker carnival sideshow act to town. He has a group of walkers in a covered wagon that he charges townsfolk a pretty penny to gawk at. Sure enough, the walker that Carl put down was one of his.
But in this brave new world, Carl hasn’t just killed a walker, he has destroyed another citizen’s property. Actual walking dead are a prized and expensive commodity nowadays. Though the new sheriff (who is the Sheriff Kapoor revealed in the fake 194 cover) is loath to do it, he has to bring in Carl for a hearing with the local magistrate. While at the hearing, the President of the Colonies herself, Maggie Greene, turns up to have a word with the judge. Carl’s punishment, rather than a debilitating fine, will be to find a walker to replace Hershel’s property. Carl responds to this good news by killing the rest of Hershel’s heard in the dead of night.
It’s a little disappointing to see what’s become of Hershel Greene, more so for what it means for the character of Maggie rather than Hershel himself. There is no shortage of failsons in the Walking Dead universe. Just one issue ago, one of those failsons, Sebastian Milton, killed the hero of the entire series in a spoiled tirade. Problem is that the blame for these privileged little princes often lies at the foot of their mothers who were too busy rebuilding society to raise them properly. There’s no doubt that Maggie had to sacrifice a lot to keep the colonies humming, including the effective raising of her son. It just feels weird that Carl turned out a perfect Christ-like figure just like his father, even though his father dropped him off at Earl Sutton’s shop for 40-some issues.
Anywho, rant over. Carl’s job is that of a messenger. He travels out to the outer reaches of society to deliver important messages. After killing Hershel’s walkers, he heads out once more. We find out a couple of important things about this distant future world. For one, Rick Grimes remains a legend. The Grimes name goes far in these parts and it’s one of the reasons why Carl wasn’t hit with a fine. Also, the “colonies” led by Maggie are set to link up with the Western Alliance very soon. It sounds like the political landscape of the world is slowly putting itself back together and the continental United States may soon all be one political entity again.
Carl meets up with Lydia on the road. She still wears Rick’s hat, which must be worth a fortune as an artifact. Carl doesn’t want it back, though. Lydia has a family of her own now but is still clearly in love with Carl. Carl resists her eye socket-licking charms for the time being.
On their way out west, Carl leaves some supplies on the doorstep of a house in Springhaven. The Lucille grave marker in the yard outside makes it clear that this is where Negan lives. Negan is a hermit now but Carl still appreciates the connection they have, even if it is just leaving food outside his door and praying he’s inside. Carl and Lydia’s dialogue also reveals that Jesus and Aaron are still around, living their best lives. Also: the bird population is coming back and with a vengeance.
Carl reaches the Western front by train, where he delivers a message to a very familiar railroad engineer. Eugene Porter is finishing the most important work of his life: the railway that will connect East and West and further unite human society. Eugene is sad that his wife Stephanie is gone and that he seems to be coming down with a sickness himself. He’s happy to see Carl all the same. Less happy to see Carl is Laura, now one of Eugene’s workers. Laura still hates Rick for killing Dwight in the Commonwealth.
After the trip to the Western front, Carl returns home to face the music for what he’s done. Maggie must be pretty mad since she demands that he face an inquiry at a court in the Commonwealth. Carl will have to plead his case to the fearsome Judge Hawthorne. Judge Hawthorne is fearsome indeed as she is our own beloved Michonne. Michonne has put down the sword for life as a public servant.
The climax of the Walking Dead’s final issue sees Carl pleading his case to Judge Michonne Hawthorne. He says he is grateful for everything they have built together. But he just can’t suffer a walker to live. Everything can slide back to the way it was during “The Trials” so easily. Michonne agrees, citing the words that appear on the statue outside (which is literally just the book jacket description of The Walking Dead). She sets Carl free.
After the verdict, Hershel gets some light character redemption. He angrily informs Carl that he’s not just some opportunistic carnival barker. He carted the dead around to help people remember what life was like before. Carl has memories of his father. Hershel doesn’t. He doesn’t know what his father would or would not approve of. The best he can muster is the feeling in his gut. And now Carl has taken even that away from him. Carl doesn’t know how to respond.
Carl returns home once again to a grateful Sophia and Andrea. Andrea wants her dad to read to her from her favorite book, so he does. He reads to Andrea the story of Rick Grimes – how he lived, suffered, and helped build a better world. We see images of most of the remaining characters, living out their old age in peace, as Carl reads. Carl, Sophia, Earl, Hershel, Maggie, Lydia, Eugene, Laura, Michonne, Aaron, Jesus, Mercer, Princess, Elodie, Sebastian, and Pamela are still around thanks to the efforts of Rick Grimes.
Carl finishes the story and tells Andrea it’s about her grandfather. Andrea says she knows because Carl proudly reminds her every time he reads it. Father and daughter rock happily on a rocking chair in a Farm House. The end.
The Walking Dead’s ending is certainly abrupt and unexpected. But if an end were to ever come, it could only ever be like this. The walkers were never going to go away completely. What they symbolized, however, had to change. As Rick proudly states in issue 191 before his death, these characters are no longer the walking dead. They’re the living. And this ending finds the living doing what the living do best: living, loving, and exploiting the dead for a quick buck.