This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 5
In previous seasons of The Walking Dead, there was something of a running joke. Whenever a secondary character got to deliver a speech of some sort or start giving out their backstory, it never went well for that person. If Billy Background suddenly has a dead wife and children that he has to tell a lead character about, then Billy Background is going to die in a hurry. Typically, talkativeness would lead to immediate, tragic death, while everyone around them gawked in horror. (See also the kid in the first episode of season nine who is introduced and gets killed within the same episode.)
Not so with Rick Grimes. The ending of that character’s time on the show didn’t come swiftly, or as a sudden surprising end, but as a media circus. The focus of the ninth season hasn’t been the change in showrunner, or anything behind the scenes, but the final episodes of Rick Grimes. The show’s marketing campaign has been based around Andrew Lincoln’s departure, and rather than try to give viewers a surprise, they’ve been clear. This is the last episode for Rick Grimes (as of right now). Other things happen in the episode, but essentially, it’s a 45-minute farewell to the lead character and the promise of repercussions to come.
With “What Comes After,” Rick Grimes comes full circle. The show started with Rick waking from a coma, and ended with Glenn calling him an asshole. Get used to Rick being called an asshole, and get used to Rick being told to wake up. Waking up becomes Rick’s mantra, and he keeps repeating it to himself—either as himself or via the memories of all his old friends—time and time again as he struggles to keep himself moving. Rick’s being followed by thousands of zombies, too many for their struggling city-states to handle, and if Rick fails, then this herd will find its way to Alexandria, or Hilltop, or any one of a number of outposts full of Rick’s closest friends and family. Rick’s a fighter, and he’ll need to be to keep everyone he loves from being wiped off the face of the earth.
That loop, the closing of Rick Grimes’ journey, is accomplished via a lot of fever dreams and a lot of Rick passing out. He’ll go gray and wake up staring at himself in the hospital, trying to goad himself into waking up from a coma to save his family. He’ll gray out and wake up looking at himself on the back of his horse, leading a very similar walker horde into Atlanta, or wake up in his squad car eating burgers with Shane (Jon Bernthal), looking at the very accident scene that led to him being shot and put into a coma in the first place. Shane exhorts him to find his inner Shane, to be the asshole, to do the dirty deeds that he knows have to be done to keep everyone safe.
He’ll gray out and wake up in the barn with Hershel (the late Scott Wilson), looking out over the beautiful farm while Hershel tells him not to grieve for all he’s lost, because they’re not lost. As long as humanity survives, Rick’s family and friends—Rick’s legacy—will survive. Rick grays out and walks through a field of bodies, the thousands of people he’s lost over the years. Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) stands up behind him, with a message. She tells Rick not to regret the dead. They played their part, like she played hers. Like he plays his. Little things end, she reminds Rick, but it’s not about one of us, or a few of us, it’s about all of us, and the world we’ve been building.
Certainly, the producers of The Walking Dead hope that the message of “What Comes After” resonates with fans in more than one way. Rick Grimes, the linchpin of the show since it began, is leaving, but the world will continue on without him (unless he decides to return) and lean more heavily on those friends and family he’s so desperate to get back to. That’s leaned on heavily in the final moments of the episode, in which Rick stands on the opposite side of the bridge they’d built together while Michonne, Maggie, Daryl, Carol, and the rest watch on from the distance.
Greg Nicotero has proven to be a steady hand, both with the action sequences and with the actors. I’d imagine the time they all spend in the make-up chair helps Nicotero and company get to know the actors, and know their strengths, weaknesses, and character motivation. He does a wonderful job with this episode, and all of the flashbacks with faces from Rick’s past are beautifully crafted.
Granted, Sasha doesn’t have the kind of relationship with Rick that Shane and Hershel do, but her interaction with Rick isn’t so much about their personal relationship, she’s a stand-in for all the other people Rick has lost along the way. The episode’s pace is maintained well, and the story moves seamlessly from fever dream to sobering reality with a clever series of match cuts: Shane’s screaming face morphs into a zombie’s snarl, Hershel a gentle reawakening on the back of a horse, and Sasha a sobering collapse onto the ground that wakes Rick with a startle.
Nicotero’s eye works to his advantage. The episode doesn’t contain any real crazy camera movements, but the match cuts are well constructed. The dream sequences are especially well done, and as Rick’s condition gets worse, Nicotero makes sure to show it with simple, effective signifiers—the darkening of blood on his shirt, the increasing pallor of Rick’s skin, the smear of blood from Rick’s hand on the side of his horse, the drops of blood splattering at Rick’s feet with every slow step.
The climactic shots of the survivors watching Rick’s last stand (or what they feel is his last stand) hit hard, and the shots of flaming zombies falling over the side of the shattered bridge is some of the special effects crew’s best work to date. It looks beautiful and horrifying at once, which is the highest praise The Walking Dead can receive.
The B plot—Maggie’s confrontation with Negan—also plays well. The exchanges between Maggie and Michonne are tense and brief; it’s subtle, the threats exchanged in looks and body language more than the words in Matthew Negrete’s script, but it’s pretty clear that they won’t hesitate to go after one another if pushed. Danai Gurira and Cohan have good chemistry as antagonists, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has done a good job at deflating Negan’s bluster into nothing more than a pathetic attempt to have someone else kill him because he lacks the wherewithal to kill himself. Negan is pathetic, pathetic enough that Maggie decides to let him live in his broken state, as death would be an improvement on his condition.
The departure of Andrew Lincoln could potentially become a fresh start for a show that seems to need one. Ratings are sinking, cast members are leaving for other things, and the constant drama behind the scenes can’t help but contribute to the show’s difficulties. However, a new show-runner and a chance to freshen up the cast and plots might be enough to pull the show out of its doldrums. After all, it’s not about Rick, Carl, or any one person, it’s about the world they’ve built, and the future of that world seems to be in steady hands.