This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers
The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 16
Imagine, if you will, a meter. A meter like a gas gauge on the side of a house or even Politifact’s fact-checking meter.
There are only two dashes on the meter. On the far right (don’t read politically into this, far right and far left are just directions on the meter for our purposes) there is the text “In a violent, amoral, and dangerous world it is OK to kill other human beings to survive.” On the far left there is the text “Even though the world may be dangerous and amoral, taking another life is too big a cost to bear. Maintain morality at all costs.”
That’s it. That’s The Walking Dead. It’s that meter. For eight seasons, 114 episodes, and countless millions of AMC’s dollars, that’s the only story the show has wanted to tell…or has been capable of telling.
Sometimes the meter swings far to the left and sometimes it swings far to the right. It’s never a notch below either side and it’s never in the middle. Thematically The Walking Dead is little more than a Philosophy 101 lesson over and over and over again.
At this stage in the game that’s not going to change. The show is what it is. If it could ask better questions than “is it OK to kill?” it would have asked them by now. The thing is though – that central question “when is it OK to take a life?” is kind of a big one. It’s an important one. It’s not a question we should mind seeing on a cable show about zombies. It should add tremendous depth. But all the swinging back and forth from answer to answer dilutes the question.
When taken as part of a whole, The Walking Dead Season 8 finale is a failure. Intuitively we know that the epiphanies about non-violence the characters come to aren’t going to stick. There is too much story left and the show’s only storytelling technique is that meter. It will continue to swing back and forth.
But…and this a big “but,” if we pretend that no other episode of The Walking Dead has ever existed, “Wrath” is actually a fairly satisfying episode of television.
In “Wrath” the meter swings harder to the left than it ever has before. Despite enduring two seasons of unthinkable trauma at the hands of Negan and the Saviors, Rick comes to a final, seemingly conclusive decision that violence will only beget more violence. It’s time to break the cycle now and start building, fam. It’s not perfect by any means but if we squint we can kind of see the makings of emotional and moral maturity in The Walking Dead.
It helps that something actually happens in “Wrath.” After two seasons and what feels like 400 episodes of Rick and Negan squaring off, the war against the Saviors comes to a swift, decisive end.
Negan’s plan to ambush Rick’s ambush works perfectly. Borrowing a tactic straight from the Allies in World War II (Negan absolutely looks like the kind of middle-aged dad who would watch hours of the History Channel), Negan plants a map on one of his nameless Saviors marked for death. So when Rick and company find and kill those Saviors they believe they know where to go to take Negan down once and for all. Negan, and an entire company of Saviors are waiting at the top of the hill, however, ready to strike.
“Wrath’s” greatest asset is its unashamedly artful visuals. One of my favorite random Walking Dead scenes is two brief shots of something I like to call “existential zombie.” They occur in season two’s excellent “18 Miles Out.” Rick and Shane (remember him???) are driving to find supplies when they see a lone walker, stumbling and struggling to make it through and open field. Then after an entire episode of violent, stressful shenanigans, Rick and Shane drive back to Hershel’s farm and on their way see that same lone walker, stumbling through the field having made virtually no meaningful process.
Through its visual language showing something so silly and seemingly unimportant, The Walking Dead was able to communicate something far cooler than its weird “killing: y/n?”obsessive philosophy. It was a visual that imparted uncomfortable feeling sand drove home a message of “even through all of your bullshit, an uncaring world marches on.”
“Wrath” is filled with such visuals. There is the flashback of a pre-apocalypse Rick and Carl walking down a dirt road, happy and unconcerned. There is the setting of the final battle – atop a lonely hill where miles away the largest horde of walkers ever witnessed can be scene, shuffling around like a mirage.
Rick Grimes has never been the greatest orator or most poetic soul but even he is moved enough to recognize the setting’s significance. After the war is over and the Saviors have surrendered, he gestures to the horde out on the distance and says “That’s the dead. We’re the living. The new world begins. All this is just what was. There’s gotta be something after.”
That’s pretty cool stuff, even for a show that has literally two possible moral settings and thematic outcomes.
Also cool is how the battle is won. Rick and friends really do look well and truly fucked. The Saviors have them surrounded. Gabriel has a gun held on him. They’re so fucked in fact that it becomes far too guessable how they’ll get out of this jam moments before it happens.
Welcome to deus ex Eugene. We never lost hope. After Rosita chewed Eugene out and he puked on her in response, Eugene took a hard look at his life and his new friends. He decided that maybe Gabriel had the right idea screwing up those bullets. Eugene has sabotaged all the bullets he made for the Saviors. With absolutely no firepower to speak of, the battle is pretty much over before it began. Maggie accepts the Saviors surrender and Rick takes off after the only remaining loose thread.
Rick chases Negan down the hill, running out of bullets himself and breaking some pretty stained glass hanging from a lonely tree. The two men battle each other, each sustaining wounds.
“I’ll get out of it. I always do,” Negan tells Rick. “It’s just you and me, Rick. I am bigger, I am badder, and I got a bat.”
And for a moment it looks like he will. Rick has no weapon and Negan advances on him but Rick asks for ten seconds. Just ten seconds so he can share his new vision for the world with Negan before Negan cuts him down.
Negan obliges. Rick slashes his throat.
Rick then sees that he is before a captive audience. He mutters “save him” to Siddiq and Siddiq rushes over to fix up Negan.
“Nooooo! NOOOOO! It’s not over until he’s dead,” Maggie screams, undoubtedly echoing the sentiment of many fans.
Rick leaving Negan alive is the right move both thematically and narratively. The only hope that this show has of saying something new and exciting is to pick a part of that “meter” and stick with it. By choosing mercy over wrath in not killing the man who most deserves to die, the finale doesn’t say anything new. But it does say something old stronger than ever before.
Still, I empathize with those who want Negan gone. Two years. Two full years it took to get to this point. That includes two midseason finales and one “regular” season finale in which Negan could have been dispatched from the story and still he hung on. And he hung on for repetitive, boring reasons.
That, however, is The Walking Dead’s fault. It’s not “Wrath’s” fault. Viewed in context of the rest of The Walking Dead there is almost no such thing as a good episode. View “Wrath” as its own entity with its own story to tell and its clear that this is the only ending.
The Negan storyline wraps up satisfyingly enough. Little else does. Morgan Jones goes from being one of the show’s strongest assets to being treated like spinoff bait. Morgan as a character swings back and forth between those two “yes killing” and “no killing” poles more than any other character. “Wrath” does a laughably bad job of getting him back to “no killing” just so he makes a shinier introduction into the world of Fear the Walking Dead. Jesus is a convincing guy but no one is that convincing.
Morgan also appears to get Jadis (now called Anne) back to the community, which is not a fair trade at all. You take away Morgan, you gotta get someone cooler than a woman who spends all her days in a dump. What’s the deal with that helicopter by the way?
In the battle of the dueling crossbows, Dwight gets sent on his merry way. Daryl takes him out to the woods as though he’s going to kill him but then just tells him to GTFO and find his wife Sherry. It’s a shame because I didn’t realize that Dwight and Daryl were operated on a Highlander “there can only be one” level but if I had known I would have cast my vote for Dwight.
“Wrath” in many ways feels anti-climactic. The episode’s biggest post-climax climax is Rick and Michonne informing a hospitalized Negan that he will be imprisoned for life and then Rick composing his own goodbye letter to Carl. In a way though, “Wrath” benefits from some anticlimax. The story of Negan and the Saviors went on far too long and carried far too falsely climactic moments
“Wrath’s” ironically non-wrathful conclusion serves as a nice, at times elegiac transition to Rick’s upcoming days of peace and rebuilding.
The Walking Dead is probably fundamentally broken. It’s stuck inside that meter pinging back and forth between competing, now boring and repetitive moral philosophies. Given the show’s desire to last precisely infinity seasons, this likely cannot be fixed. But if future seasons commit to similarly subdued, visually striking finales, there may be at least one episode worth watching per year.