This review contains spoilers.
I’ve never actually seen the show This Is Us, but I follow enough people on Twitter who love it to know that it’s basically sadness porn seemingly designed to wring tears from the eyes of anyone who happens to stop the dial on the channel. There’s nothing particularly subtle or understated about it; it’s a weepie and it makes people weep, and that’s wonderful if that’s what you’re into. Every commercial for the show is a quiet announcer speaking in a deep, mellifluous voice about how lives will be changed forever while Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown look in dire need of hugs. It’s all soft strings and tinkling pianos play in the background, and for a myriad of reasons, it’s one of the biggest shows on US television right now.
Cable’s longtime kingpin, The Walking Dead, comes from a somewhat similar place. It goes big, pretty much whenever there’s an option to do so, from its set pieces to its emotional beats (one has a burning crock pot, and the other has shoulder-launched explosives). The Walking Dead has never been subtle, and given that one of the show’s few remaining original characters is playing out his final moments, that gives Matthew Negrete, Channing Powell, and Greg Nicotero carte blanche to go directly for the feels, and they use every trick in the emotional play book to reach out for a reaction.
Perhaps it’s my mental state, but Honor was mostly successful at wringing out emotions from me as I watched Carl Grimes slowly die across an hour of television. It wasn’t particularly good, but it was executed well by the actors involved. It’s mostly three people huddled in varying shades of darkness, but between Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, and Chandler Riggs, Carl’s final episode hangs together and works in a clumsy, but effective way. Riggs gets several big emotional moments, and he sells them with more ability than he’s often given credit for. Guerira does a creditable job as Michonne tries to remain stoic and strong for Rick while still betraying her inner sadness, and looking upset and distracted is Andrew Lincoln’s stock in trade these days.
Any actor leaving the show gives the script writers a chance to show off, and Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell seize the opportunities provided. Rick gets a chance to give a long monologue, Michonne gets to have a nice couple of character moments with Carl, and Chandler Riggs gets a couple of solid goodbye speeches. Negrete and Powell have taken the opportunity to lampshade some of the changes that Carl has made in recent seasons, particularly going from the cold-blooded Murder Carl seen in the woods fleeing the burning prison to the pacifist Carl giving people like Siddiq chances to join the Alexandria community against his father’s wishes. That the show went all the way back to Atlanta, this week is refreshingly different than the usual forgetfulness any show in its eighth season displays. Carl has grown up in this world, for the most part, and he’s been absorbing Rick’s lessons all along. Even when Rick’s behaviour and attitudes change, his central motivation—keeping Carl safe—hasn’t. Carl’s behaviour and motivations have changed wildly, but it’s explained as a process of growing up and finding his way in the post-apocalyptic world of the dead. Carl’s character changes stem directly from his dad’s character changes.
Farmer Rick was a peaceful man, and that sense of peace and harmony is what informs the fantasy leitmotif throughout season eight. The hazy visions weren’t Rick’s at all, but the visions of a dying Carl. (I’m relieved to note that there are no snow globes in this episode.) Carl imparts this dream to Rick in his dying hours, and Rick promises to work towards a happier, healthier future for Alexandria, Hilltop, The Kingdom, and even, presumably, The Saviors. There has to be something after, for Rick, and for The Saviors, and as Carl notes, he can’t kill them all.
That’s a message that Morgan has been saying in various ways since he returned to The Walking Dead, and it’s a message that Morgan doesn’t really seem to believe anymore. Throughout the B plot of the episode, Carol and Morgan rampage through the Kingdom to take down Saviors and rescue Ezekiel. Unsurprisingly, since Carl is on one side preaching for peace (after being a cold-blooded killer), Morgan is now a cold-blooded killer (after previously being a peace activist).
Where Carl’s emotional moments feel a bit forced, Morgan’s serial killer rampage is very much within Greg Nicotero’s directorial wheelhouse. There aren’t many ways to make three people hanging out in the sewer visually interesting, a man stalking and killing armed assailants in a burning compound? That’s much more fun to look at, and it gives Greg Nicotero a chance to dig into his bag of horror tricks with some great horror movie soundtrack accompaniment from Bear McCreary. At certain points, particularly when Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) is hobbling away from a pursuing Morgan like a horror movie victim being stalked by a stick-wielding Michael Myers. Even Carol seems surprised by Morgan’s level of violence, especially considering Morgan stabs a guy’s guts out and removes a loop of intestines with the withdrawal of the blade in a nice Grand Guignol touch.
Certainly, the violence and terror of Morgan’s rampage makes a great counterpoint to the misery of Carl’s death. Morgan stalks across several empty screens at certain points, popping up out of nowhere and chasing down the panicking Gavin. Even the Savior, when faced with Negan’s bat or Morgan, picks Negan’s bat. Morgan doesn’t seem to take pleasure in it, like the better 80s slasher villains, he just does what comes naturally to him even at the cost of his own fragile mental health (and, I can only assume, his place on The Walking Dead and a move to Fear The Walking Dead).
As a return after a long break, Honor is fine. It won’t win the show any new fans and I doubt it will stop the ratings bleeding. On one hand, the emotional manipulation from Carl’s long death worked on me, but it’s grief porn. On the other hand, Morgan rips a guy’s guts out and multiple people get stabbed to death with long, sharp sticks, so it’s gore porn. I thought that part was pretty fun, but for a lot of people, their least-favorite part of The Walking Dead is the gratuitous violence. But if you like to have your guts ripped out while watching someone’s guts get ripped out, then this was probably your bag.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan wishes Carl could have stuck around a little more, perhaps becoming Morgan’s murder buddy. Still, there’s hope for a Daryl/Judith Lone Wolf and Cub web series. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.