Warning: Major spoilers for those who have not watched the season 8 mid-season premiere
I’ve been a big supporter of The Walking Dead since I was introduced to the series back in 2011, but as some of you already know, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the latest mid-season finale. To be honest, I was hopping mad. I’m also an avid comic-book reader, and knowing how critical Carl Grimes is to future comic storylines, I found it very disheartening that Scott Gimple and the writing team would purposely throw a grenade into all of those wonderful arcs. And what for? For mere shock value in a lame attempt to win back some of the viewers the series had lost over the past year and a half? This all being said I wasn’t really looking forward to screening the mid-season premiere, and that’s a big deal for me because I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t as excited as a teenage girl on prom night to see the next episode. However, I am very happy to report that a good deal of my fears and doubts have been allayed, and ironically, the mid-season opener may turn out to be the best episode of all of season 8.
A TEARFUL, PAINFUL GOOD-BYE TO A FAN FAVORITE
After that shocker of a mid-season finale, the return of the series has been building up for the past couple months, and as most of us expected, the majority of the episode is the Carl Grimes show. Chandler Riggs really stands out in the episode, which features some of the best work of the young actor over his 8 years on the show. The first time we see Carl in the episode is before the opening credits and in a series of flashbacks that depict the moment he had gotten bitten (which I think all of us know by now) and the events immediately following, up to Negan and the Saviors attacking Alexandria.
When Carl first arrives back at Alexandria, sees the bite up close in a mirror and fully realizes what has happened, the initial look on his face is despair. But, after taking a shower and cleaning himself up, something changed, and that look of despair quickly turned into one of resolve. Even though Riggs may be 18 years-old, Carl is only about 12 or 13 in the series, and any other boy his age would likely be flipping out after having been bitten. Not Carl. Instead, he proceeds with a certain level of maturity and even more so than a great deal of the adult characters on the show. He writes letters to the people closest to him in case they don’t make it back before he passes. He makes hand impressions of Judith and himself using blue paint on the front porch of their house. He takes several Polariods with Judith, so that she’ll know what her brother looked like. He plants a tree and just enjoys the sunshine on his face. He makes the most of the time he has left and doesn’t let his predicament slow him down. All of this to the tune of “At The Bottom Of Everything” by Bright Eyes. Perhaps not as addictive as “Easy Street” but still very catchy. Hey, I caught myself humming “We must stare, we must stare, we must stare” as I was driving this morning, and it’s been over 2 weeks since I screened the episode!
Then, we fast-forward to the ending of the mid-season finale with Carl revealing in the sewer tunnels that he has been bitten. This is when everything gets emotional, and so, it should be your cue to get the tissues ready. Throughout these scenes, Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira give phenomenal performances, and the emotions are very raw and very real because no one wants Riggs to leave the show. Tears flow freely for the entire episode, and you can bet they’re not fake. And, while some of us may have already forgotten about him, newcomer Siddiq (Avi Nash) also gets a good deal of screen time in these scenes and in a good way. For those not familiar with the comics, Siddiq is a fisherman and a construction worker in the original source material, and while the writers may have stayed true to the back stories of some of the other characters — like Abraham, Eugene, and of course, Rick — this couldn’t be further from the truth with Siddiq. While Rick and Michonne are trying to keep Carl as comfortable as possible, Siddiq offers some anti-inflammatory drugs that he claims may help with the fever, or as he puts it “at least it did with my Mom and Dad.” This gesture makes Rick wonder, and so, he asks Siddiq whether he’s a doctor. Siddiq then responds that he was a resident before, and so, yes, that means he’s a doctor. Now, if that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. Ever since Dr. Cloyd was killed last season, Alexandria has been without a doctor, which is quite dangerous especially when you’re at war with a group like the Saviors.
Did you know he was a doctor? Is that why you brought him here? — Rick to Carl
He wasn’t going to make it alone. He needed us. That’s why — Carl to Rick
Rick then gives Carl a look of utter amazement, completely shocked at the words that had come out of his son’s mouth. It isn’t a look of anger, but of surprise and the realization that his son has changed, and he didn’t even know it. This sets the stage for further conversations later in the episode and as Carl gets closer to death.
Once the Saviors finally leave and they now have the opportunity to make a run for the Hilltop, that’s when things get really emotional. Rick admits there’s no way Carl could make the trip, and so, Rick and Michonne decide to stay behind with Carl while Daryl takes Judith to the Hilltop, along with the rest of the survivors. In other words, it’s time for some painful good-byes. Perhaps the one that is the most gut-wrenching — and most definitely the one that fans will likely remember — is the good-bye to Judith. Ever since the rumors began late last Fall that Carl may be dying mid-season, the speculation has been that Judith will replace Carl in the future comic book storylines. While we don’t know for sure and probably won’t know until at least early season 9, this scene strongly hints that may be the case, with Carl effectively passing the “torch” on to Judith.
You gotta honor when people tell you stuff. You don’t have to always. Sometimes kids got to show their parents the way. This was Dad’s before it was mine. Now, it’s yours <hands Judith his hat>. I don’t know, just having it always kept Dad with me. Before Mom died, she told me I was going to beat this world. I didn’t. But, you will — Carl to Judith
Once everyone has left, Rick and Michonne manage to get Carl to the church, which is burned but the flames have already gone out. While Carl has been with the series since the very beginning and every season is memorable in its own unique way, the focus in this episode seems to be on season 3. There is one great tieback to season 3 related to Carl’s final conversation he has with his father, and because it’s so significant, I’ve reserved discussing it in its own section later in this review. So, stand by for that. However, another callback to season 3 is related to Carl’s death. In the season 3 finale, Andrea is bitten by the zombified Milton, and instead of putting Michonne through the pain of putting her down, Andrea decides to take the noble approach and does it herself. Well, this is what Carl decides as well. By now, it’s already dawn, and with Rick and Michonne waiting outside on the porch of the church, we hear a single gunshot.
It is then that Rick and Michonne begin to sob uncontrollably, which I think is symbolic for the entire fandom. Fans mourn every last character we have lost in the series, and while no character is ever forgotten, moving on has never really been a problem. But, Carl’s death is different. It feels different. Unlike the deaths of other characters — Glenn Rhee, for example — Carl’s came out of the clear blue sky, and no one could have seen it coming. Plus, it has always been understood that The Walking Dead is about a boy — i.e. Carl — growing up in the apocalypse. It was, and has always been, Carl’s story. Now, Carl is gone, and I suspect fans will be feeling lost, like a big piece of The Walking Dead is gone too. I know I’ve personally felt that way since the mid-season finale, and I’m not sure when — or even if — that feeling will ever go away.
RICK BECOMES MORGAN AND MORGAN BECOMES RICK
When the promo photos for the mid-season premiere were released by AMC and it was revealed that Morgan (Lennie James) would also be featured in the episode, I was initially upset. Don’t get me wrong, I like Morgan, but I felt that most — if not all — of the episode should be devoted to Carl, and I surmised that the Morgan arc was simply added as a kind of “filler,” just to pad it out to the advertised 86 minutes. The Walking Dead has done this in the past, and so, it wouldn’t surprise me if they pulled the same trick again. Well, after I screened the episode for the 2nd time, I finally realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. While the Carl and Morgan arcs may appear to be independent and not related, there is actually a common story being told in both.
As Carl is dying in the burnt-out church, he relays to this father the story of the boy from Woodbury he encountered when they came under attack by the Governor in season 3. Most fans should remember this scene. The boy was armed but was attempting to surrender, and knowing what Carl was thinking and was about to do, Hershel instructs Carl to put his gun down. But, Carl doesn’t listen and shoots the boy anyways. What Carl did at that moment was an unsettling statement of what they had become. As Carl said himself, killing became so “easy,” and no one seemed to care anymore. At first I thought Carl telling his father this story was an isolated incident, but after watching Morgan and Henry’s encounter with the Saviors at the Kingdom in tonight’s premiere, it finally dawned on me we were getting a replay of that scene with Carl and the boy from season 3 — but with different people playing the roles.
Before even the opening credits, Morgan appears in a flashback that depicts how the Saviors escaped from the Sanctuary. Likely by Eugene’s instruction, the Saviors begin shooting walkers from the 2nd floor of the Sanctuary, and judging from the pattern of their shots, Morgan is able to quickly deduce they are trying to make a path with the walkers’ bodies, thus creating an effective barricade. It works too, and so, Morgan heads back to the Kingdom, knowing the Saviors would go there to capture Ezekiel (Khary Payton).
By the time he gets there, the events of the mid-season finale have already transpired. Ezekiel is being held prisoner and is to be transported back to the Sanctuary to be executed, but fortunately, Morgan runs into Carol (Melissa McBride), and the 2 of them begin working on a plan to get the King back. Morgan also spots Henry, who was supposed to go with the rest of the survivors to Carol’s old cottage, but he disappears into the night before Morgan can get to him. Morgan and Carol’s plan is supposed to be simple — incapacitate as many Saviors as necessary, find Ezekiel and bring him to safety. However, it seems that Morgan has trouble understanding what “incapacitate” means. To Carol, that just means knocking them unconscious, but for Morgan, that’s not good enough. Instead, Morgan makes a point of killing every Savior they encounter, and in some cases, he shows excessive cruelty and even seems to try to maximize the Saviors’ suffering. In one scene that is particularly gruesome and difficult to watch, Morgan reaches into a stab wound of a Savior and completely disembowels him with his bare hands.
It all culminates with Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) being the last Savior standing at the Kingdom, and Morgan has him cornered. Gavin has his hands up, has no weapon, and Ezekiel tells Morgan to stand down and that killing this man would serve no purpose and would be “the coward’s way.” Now, doesn’t that sound a tad bit familiar? Insert Hershel for Ezekiel and the boy from Woodbury for Gavin, and you have virtually the same scene of Carl pointing the gun at the boy in the woods from season 3 that I just described. Well, almost. The one big difference is instead of a young boy about to kill someone who has just surrendered, you have a grown man. But, when Morgan raises his stick and is about to impale Gavin, that all changes. Blood begins gushing from Gavin’s neck before Morgan can strike, and when he falls to the ground, Henry is standing there holding his stick.
So, while Carl is back in Alexandria dying and trying to convince his Dad to stop killing, history is repeating itself back at the Kingdom with Morgan and Henry. Both are consumed with anger and the lust for revenge over Benjamin’s death, just like Carl and Rick were with the Governor and his followers back at the prison. Same shit, different day, but some fantastic storytelling, I might add. It’s subtle, but sometimes, it’s the subtle stories that turn out to be the best ones.
A FATHER’S PROMISE AND MAKING IT REAL
While the mid-season opener is already a good episode with the gut-wrenching Carl storyline alone, what makes the episode even more compelling and really pushes it into the strong “A” territory is a couple of perfectly-timed and completely unexpected twists. You think you have the Old Man Rick visions from the premiere episode all figured out? There’s been a great deal of discussion surrounding these scenes on social media, and most fans seem to think they know exactly what they mean. Well, as we find out tonight, no one came even close.
The episode opens with 2 very brief scenes — one of the “Red-Eyed Rick” that we saw in the season premiere and the other of a partial playback of the Old-Man Rick “visions” also from the season opener. Given that they serve as the lead-in to one of the most pivotal Walking Dead episodes in recent history, you can bet they’ll turn out to be quite significant, and they do. I think virtually every fan (myself included) had assumed the Old-Man Rick flash-forwards were Rick’s own vision of the future, perhaps just something he was thinking about to calm his nerves as he prepared for battle in the premiere episode. However, towards the end of tonight’s episode and right before Carl takes his own life, Carl begins to tell his Dad a story that begins “Things can be better. I know you can’t see it now, but I do.” Then, the replay of the Old-Man Rick visions starts once again, and within a few seconds, fans will no doubt have the mother of “Holy crap!” moments. It’s the moment we realize we had it all wrong, and the visions we took for granted to be Rick’s turn out to be Carl’s. What’s more, in the premiere, it seems we were provided only the first half of the vision, but in the final moments of tonight’s episode, we finally get to see the remaining half.
First, we see Eugene (Josh McDermitt). He has returned to Alexandria — obviously forgiven by Rick even after his betrayal — and he’s greeted by Rick and Judith as if nothing had happened. It should be noted that Eugene now seems to be allowed to put his very valuable technical skills to good use by creating a device for cooking apples. In the past, Rick never really attempted to harness Eugene’s abilities, which was one of the reasons why he decided to join Negan and the Saviors. Perhaps a hard lesson learned? However, the huge shocker comes at the very end of the vision. The camera had focused earlier on a man in a flannel shirt working in the tomato garden, but because his back was to the camera, we couldn’t really make out who he was. But, when Judith comes running up and says “Good morning!,” the man stands up, turns around and holy shit, it’s none other than Negan (Jeffrey Dean-Morgan) himself!
Well, good morning to you too, darling! — Negan
I don’t know about everyone else, but I was completely, utterly shocked by this reveal. And, I mean the entire thing. The visions turning out to be Carl’s, Eugene, but most importantly, Negan being a part of the community and working alongside Rick and his family. Well done, The Walking Dead, well done. I don’t shock very easily, but man oh man, you really got me good this time.
With another brilliant tieback to season 3, Carl goes on to explain that his vision is actually based upon something his father did back when they were living at the prison. At the end of season 3 and after Andrea commits suicide, Rick brings the remaining survivors of Woodbury back to the prison to live together with them. As Carl explains, “We were enemies, and we were living together now. You can be that person again, Dad.” And, how does Rick respond? Before Carl described his vision to his father, Rick was still resistant and continued to claim he can’t go back to who he was, even with his son dying right before his eyes. But, Carl’s vision and especially tying it back to Rick’s actions while living at the prison seem to have finally brought him around.
Carl, it was all for you. Right from the start. Back in Atlanta. The farm. Everything I did, it was for you. Then, at the prison, it was for you and Judith. Still is. Nothing is going to change that. I’m going to make it real. I promise you that — Rick to Carl
So, what does this all mean? Is this vision implying we should expect to see Negan wearing flannel and harvesting tomatoes in season 9? Uh, given that one of Negan’s lines in his famous Lucille monologue is “I’m not growing a garden,” I’m not entirely sure if I’d bank on that. But, that’s not the point of the vision. The point of the vision is 2-fold: 1) Eugene, and more importantly, Negan will likely be spared at the end of the war. Carl knows full well that his Dad intends on killing Negan out of revenge, and he wants his father to show compassion and forgiveness instead. Given that Rick promises Carl that he will “make it real,” I think that is pretty damn close to a confirmation that Negan isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I’m a huge Negan fan, and so, I was beyond ecstatic, but not everyone may share my sentiment. There’s plenty of fans out there who want Negan dead and gone ASAP, and so, you can be sure they won’t be happy campers. 2) Negan may end becoming part of the Alexandria community. While Negan doesn’t go so far as live in Alexandria in the comics, he does eventually become allies with Rick. So, taking it a step further and having Negan become an actual member of the community wouldn’t necessarily be too off base from the original source material.
Lastly, what about that final scene? It lasts for barely 3 seconds and simply depicts Rick sitting under a tree, where he appears to be wounded. The stained glass also indicates it may be outside of the church in Alexandria. Well, as I had said earlier, the episode opens with “red-eyed Rick” saying “My mercy prevails over my wrath,” and if the pattern of ending the episode the same way it began continues, this final scene should actually be a continuation of that opening scene. I’m sure there’s going to be a whole slew of interpretations of this scene, but my guess is it’s a flash-forward to the end of All Out War in the final episode of the season. For those familiar with the comics, at the end of the war, there is a final showdown between Rick and Negan, and both are seriously wounded. Negan severely injures Rick’s leg, and Rick has the opportunity to kill Negan and end this thing once and for all. But, he doesn’t. Instead, Rick gives Negan only a superficial wound on his neck and spares his life. Well, I think this may be the tail end of that scene. Rick is there outside the church where Carl died, and so, I’m sure he’s reminded of the promise he made to his son. Which would also explain why he mutters “My mercy prevails over my wrath,” the very quote we may remember Siddiq uttering the first time Rick met him at the gas station in the season premiere.
All in all, “Honor” is a very good mid-season opener, and probably one of the better ones in recent years. While it is 86 minutes, no time is wasted, and the episode doesn’t drag like in other extended episodes, especially those from last season. It also gives a proper and memorable send-off to one of the most beloved characters whom we have literally watched grow up over the past 8 years. The only question that remains is will it be enough? While I was angry with the events of the mid-season finale, there was never a question of whether I would continue watching the show. I have dropped coverage on some shows over the years, but The Walking Dead was never going to be one of them. I’m here for the long haul. But, I’m not so sure about the fans, especially the die-hard ones who also read the comics. In some people’s eyes, Scott Gimple and Co. just re-wrote the source material, a move that many people view as unwelcome and unwarranted. And, to then try and just slide Judith in and replace Carl? Again, to the fans it appears to be an unnecessary move. After all, if Judith is just going to morph into Carl, why kill Carl in the first place? Good question. Regardless, given that the series now has a new showrunner, I personally would encourage fans to stick around and see where all of this goes. Whether that will actually happen, only time will tell.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
Critic Grade — A-
Geeky computer and math nerd by day and TV fanatic by night. My beats are The Walking Dead, The Strain, Person of Interest, Z Nation, and anything that most people would call freaky. Editor-In-Chief and Lead Writer of TVGeekTalk.com