It’s a little unclear at first what we’re seeing unfold at the beginning of this episode. Initially, it just seems like a flashback to the end of season two: Andrea is being chased through the woods by walkers, when Michonne and her pair of armless walker guide dogs happen upon them. But then, Michonne watches dispassionately and walks away as Andrea, overwhelmed by the attack, falls down and is torn apart by walkers. That, of course, never happened: Michonne saved Andrea, leading to the sword-wielding badass joining our team of heroes. So why the revisionist history? It’s a glimpse of the road not traveled, one that would’ve ended up in hatred and death—Michonne’s personal version of hell. She chose another route, one that led her to everything we’ve seen the past eight seasons. And with tonight’s events, she chooses yet another path, one that leads her away from everyone she loves and into the unknown. Farewell, Michonne.
Let’s be clear up front: Yes, this is Danai Gurira’s last appearance on the series. By ending “What We Become” with a shot of her happening upon a pair of needy travelers and heading towards a massive caravan of people marching god-knows-where, it would be easy to think the show was setting up another arc for the character, especially if you don’t pay attention to news about The Walking Dead. Indeed, it would be an intriguing twist to follow her new adventures among this giant population of survivors, and you could be forgiven for being disappointed that this is actually a narrative dead-end for her character, instead. (Yeah, yeah, maybe she’ll pop up in those stand-alone Rick Grimes movies we’re supposed to get, but news has been awfully quiet on that front for awhile now.) True, it’s very much in keeping with the show’s ethos that she leaves to join up with some other story happening in this larger universe, but it’s an unfortunate look to have one of your main characters depart into a “wider world of adventures,” only for a viewer to think, “Hey, wait, that actually looks way more intriguing, why can’t we see that?”
But aside from the ambiguous ending, this was an engaging and thoughtful installment, if one more instance of the “character goes through a dark night of the soul, only to arrive at a place of hope” tradition the show has been dealing out to nearly every protagonist for their final appearance. It’s difficult sometimes to parse out what the show still does well after almost 150 episodes(!), and this one highlights why. In following Michonne to a remote island where the mysterious Virgil has promised her weapons that could help in the fight against the Whisperers, we get a number of sequences that are executed very skillfully by director Sharat Raju, but because it’s the umpteenth time we’ve gone through the motions, it’s easy to adopt a “seen it all before” attitude, at least in the early going. Yet by the time Michonne has been imprisoned by the broken man and drugged so severely that she experiences a vision of an alternate life, darker and more isolating than the one she chose, “What We Become” offers something new: a demonstration of how heartache and pain aren’t necessarily the worst of all possible worlds. Welcome to It’s A Wonderful Walking Dead Life.
Michonne and Virgil arrive on the picturesque island he calls home, where she quickly learns his family isn’t waiting for him: They’re walkers, and he needed help breaking into the facility where they were trapped in order to kill and properly bury them. Of course, she soon learns a far darker secret: Exploring the buildings at night, she stumbles into a room next door to where Virgil has been keeping three of his former friends imprisoned, and he locks her up too, for fear that she’ll free them and allow him to be killed. (The idea it’s her fault is a bit rich, but Virgil’s “I trusted you, and you ruined it!” pretty nicely conveys his warped worldview.) He slides her some food dosed with hallucinogens, and Michonne is soon dreaming of a life where she never joined forces with our protagonists; in this alternate reality, she was found by Negan, instead, and became his “right-hand woman.” She helped thwart the season-six assault on the Savior compound, and even became the one to wield Lucille in that season finale/seventh-season premiere. It ends with an arrow to the chest, fired by Daryl, as she dies alone in the woods, full of anger and loneliness, Rick’s gun in her face the last thing she sees.
It’s not the most original idea in the world, but it’s a powerful one, largely because Gurira sells each step of the life not lived. From her frantic efforts to hail a ride on the road, to her being found by Negan, to her overwhelming fury at our heroes’ attempt to kill a bunch of Saviors in their sleep—it all gets conveyed via her expressive eyes and movements. The last sequence, in particular, is a good one, the show using some clever effects to insert Michonne into the scene where Negan first introduced himself, this time on the side of the Saviors. “What happens next, it’s your fault,” she says, recounting the Alexandrians’ attack, and as she prepares to bash in some heads, you can understand her rage—these people snuck up in the night and executed her companions. They are the villains here. And her death at the hands of Daryl and Rick is powerful precisely because we can see it from both perspectives: The pain of a violent and solitary death alone, made so much worse in that it gets carried out by the very people with whom she actually chose to share her life. No wonder she describes it as a vision of hell when she comes back to consciousness.
Before we get to her vision, though, the episode still pulses with energy and tension, albeit of the kind we know all too well. During the night, before Virgil locks her away, Michonne’s explorations of the empty building are staged smartly, with excellent sound mixing that made each little clack and creak of a door opening its own miniature jump scare. But again, these are the elements it can be hard to appreciate: One the one hand, Raju films and edits all of this like a solid little mini-horror movie, but if you take it in the context of the series as a whole, such minutely orchestrated moments can easily feel like the latest “boo” in a 150-hour-long scary story—in other words, been there, done that. If this were a season-two episode, people would be applauding the nervy pop of these sequences. Now, even fans still engaged in every beat can’t help but be a little inured to such machinations. Yet if you let yourself engage with it as a stand-alone episode of television, there’s some really great work being done.
And once we get to her act-long vision, and its consequences, everything feels fresh again. As a character, Michonne is so rich—and portrayed by an actor as good as Gurira—that her fantasy life is an absorbing way to contrast the pain she’s endured with how much worse it all could’ve been. And once she comes to, stabbing Virgil and freeing the others, there’s a renewed sense of purpose to her attempts to get the newly liberated (and extremely angry) people to see Virgil as a sad, broken man, not a monster. “Sometimes the most injured are the most forgiving,” she says, and by the time the others are steering the repaired little freighter back to the mainland, leaving Virgil on the island, the show has conveyed that feeling of reawakened optimism.
Especially once Michonne talks to Judith via walkie talkie. The big twist of this episode is when Michonne happens upon Rick’s boots, and the cell phone where he’s drawn an image of her and Judith. Suddenly, our characters have real reason to believe Rick didn’t die, that he’s somewhere out there. The person she had most relied on in this world may not be gone for good, after all. It’s not just a way for the show to ease Michonne off into the great unknown; it’s a way to plausibly send her on an adventure we may never see. Sure, it’s a bit hard to believe she wouldn’t at least come visit her kids again first (okay, really hard to buy that), but the script does a smooth job helping justify her decision by putting the decision in Judith’s mouth. “What if he needs you more?” says her adopted daughter, and given Michonne’s just been told that Alpha is dead, and her loved ones are safe and sound, it’s the push she needs to convince herself it’s worth heading off on a mission with dubious odds of success.
All told, this was one of the most successful farewell episodes the series has done in years: a sharp look at one of its better characters, and a potent reminder of how much Gurira will be missed. Michonne has her mission, and Lydia gave her blessing. It will be interesting to hear how the others react to the news Rick may still be alive, but for now, it’s enough to savor one last outing with this most elegant and driven of fighters. R.I.P., Michonne.
- It’s entirely possible that within minutes of this episode airing, Scott Gimple will come out and announce a stand-alone Michonne movie, too, but I’m not holding my breath. I think Danai Gurira is done with the Walking Dead universe. (I’d love to be proven wrong.)
- It’s rare that I actually want more of a drug-addled vision, but I really wanted to see alternate-reality Michonne’s life in greater detail, a compliment to how effectively it was crafted.
- The downside of an extended hallucination sequence: It took awhile before I believed we were back in reality again, and not just experiencing another extended fantasy.
- This episode was quite the reminder that I’m a sucker for stories in which you relive past events with an altered perspective. (Yes, I loved Endgame’s time heist.)
- I ended with R.I.P. because, when the show’s timeline has move on to a few weeks, or even months from now, I refuse to believe Michonne wouldn’t return to her kids if she was still alive. No parent is thinking, “Well, eight months and I still haven’t found my potentially dead-anyway partner, but hey, the kids can always wait another year to see mom.”