My original assessment of “How It’s Gotta Be” was that it was all bark and no bite. Most of the episode plays out as predicted: Negan takes the fight back to Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom, getting a much needed win in the war against Rick. Shots are fired, a bunch of houses are blown up, things once again seem hopeless, and Rick looks worried about it. It’s quite literally in its final moment that this midseason finale rises above mediocre.
I wrote in my review of “The King, the Widow, and Rick” that I was annoyed with how the show was up to one of its oldest tricks: putting one of its main characters in harm’s way for shock value even though we knew Carl would survive. I was talking about the scene in which Carl and Siddiq faced off against a group of walkers on their way back to Alexandria. Carl was overwhelmed and thrown to the ground, walkers landing on top of him, but yet he seemed to survive the altercation as if nothing had happened.
It’s only in a sewer tunnel two episodes later, as Carl lifts his shirt to reveal a walker bite to his father, that the truth was revealed: the young Grimes had faced off against one walker too many. This is certainly the quietest death for a Walking Dead character ever. While the killing blow was dealt two weeks ago, the midseason finale lets all of that simmer until the very end. What seemed like a standard “settlement is destroyed” episode (poor Alexandria has sure suffered quite the beatdown over the years) turns out to be a coda for Carl.
I thought it peculiar from the start that the episode completely left Rick out of the action — dooming him to a purgatory of driving through foggy roads for most of the finale’s runtime — but there’s a purpose here. We spend the hour and a half watching how his son has grown into a brave leader over the years. Chandler Riggs was absolutely brilliant tonight, delivering a nuanced performance, as Carl deals with both leading his people to safety and his own impending death. That Carl even seems to make Negan stagger for a second during their conversation before the attack is a nice final moment between the hero and the villain.
There is some absolutely beautiful directing in this episode from Michael E. Satrazemis (taking over from Greg Nicotero, who usually handles the premieres and finales), especially as Alexandria goes up in flames. The sequences of Carl throwing smoke grenades as his home burns around him are movie quality. It’s a final lap for young Grimes, who is defeated in the end, and the excellent directing makes it all the better.
I don’t want to linger too much on tonight’s events as most everything is left up in the air. “How It’s Gotta Be” really feels like the first half of a two-part story. Tonight was about the fall of Alexandria, Carl’s final heroic moments, and hope buckling at the knees. The episode effectively ties up all of the different storylines from the first half, from Gabriel rescuing the doctor from the Sanctuary to Dwight revealing himself as the traitor among the Savior ranks. Maggie finally used her bargaining chip and Ezekiel saved his people one last time. Eugene may finally be able to sleep at night.
While the rest of the characters will move on, continue to fight, and hope for a better future, Carl’s fight is finally over.