As a longtime viewer of this series, someone who’s been watching since the premiere of the very first episode back on October 31, 2010—nearly eight years ago to the day—allow me to state a clear, unequivocal analysis of the final episode for ex-sheriff Rick Grimes: Screw you, Walking Dead.
“What Comes After” craps the bed so spectacularly, and in such a ham-fisted manner, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a point at which they toyed with throwing some “Yakety Sax” over the soundtrack during that final chopper ride off into the sunset. After a mostly lackluster and uninspired series of dream sequences seemingly designed more around what ex-cast members they could get to come back for this episode than what would make sense to put in Rick Grimes’ head, the final flameout not only spits in the face of the whole season’s “goodbye to Rick” campaign, but gives it a comically absurd epilogue. When a brand-new group of survivors gets rescued by Rick Grimes’ pre-teen daughter, only to have her slowly and grandiloquently pick up his hat, put it on her head, and announce with an absurd amount of self-importance, “Judith...Judith Grimes,” the show may as well have had her turn to the camera, wink, and give a fucking thumbs-up.
There’s a difference between being disappointed a show didn’t give you what you were hoping for, and being disappointed because a show simply failed in its effort to tell a compelling story. If you take Joss Whedon’s storytelling dictum (about giving the audience what they need, not what they want) at all seriously, then narrative becomes about more than simply pulling Chekhov’s gun off the mantel in the third act. It’s about creating emotional heft for the plot choices, and making sure those beats land regardless of whether you think the audience will like them. There are ways the series could’ve let Rick Grimes live without it feeling like a complete cop-out (though not many), but this wasn’t one of them. Washing up in the river bank right alongside Anna/Jadis as she’s preparing to catch a ride into the mysterious unknown? Give me a break.
Anyone who saw the limp series finale of House will recognize this tactic, as it’s nearly a beat-for-beat recreation. There are no revelations here. Rick doesn’t learn anything in his final moments, or change, or come to some arrangement with his past—at least, not in any meaningful sense. It was fun to see Jon Bernthal show up as Shane for a chat in the cop car about rage and forgiveness, but it’s utterly extraneous character study. When was the last time we saw Rick express any lingering emotions over Shane? And it ends not with any illumination; it’s just one of several ways our protagonist’s subconscious tries to wake him up and keep him alive long enough to get to safety. Hershel’s cameo, bathed in hokey lighting that looked like B-roll from What Dreams May Come, mostly served as a reminder of the sad news of actor Scott Wilson’s recent death. Clean-shaven and spouting lines about the importance of family, the fever dream about the patriarch merely reinforces what we already know Rick thinks about the value of those closest to him.
The appearance of Sasha is even more arbitrary: The two characters were never that close, and while it’s nice to see Senequa Martin-Green, it mostly just reminds you of how many other characters that meant more to Rick Grimes could’ve popped up to deliver the “it’s okay to die” speech—about how he did his part, so no matter what happens to anyone, it’s all for the best, and things always eventually move toward the good, “toward love.” It’s a lovely sentiment, delivered by a fine actor, but it’s not earned by the scenes leading up to it—and worse, if taken at face value, it also basically serves to render his subsequent final actions moot. You do what you can, her words imply, and as long as you tried your best, we’re all fine here, even if everyone ends up ripped apart by walkers. So wake up! Because...none of it matters all that much? At least Spirit-Shane wanted Rick to get pissed off and hang in there. It’s especially dispiriting because that dream sequence begins with the most thematically tied-together scene of the whole episode: Rick, walking down the hall of the hospital from episode one, only to discover the barricaded doors, with graffiti now changed to read, “DON’T OPEN, DEAD OUTSIDE.” Pushing through to stand in the endless field of bodies of friends and strangers alike was strong imagery that could’ve paired with a significant farewell for this man who struggled for so long to be what he thought others needed in a leader. Instead, his sacrifice on the bridge (his obsession with building it through the previous episodes always felt a bit overbearing, and now it’s clear why) gets swept away in a rush of water and burning zombie bodies. Deus ex helicopter.
It all felt so drearily predictable, and safe, and the least inspired way of shuffling off a character. Too timid to kill him despite that decision making the most sense, instead The Walking Dead tried to have it both ways, creating a moving and explosive death for Rick Grimes so that we can watch every other character be sad, only to immediately walk it back. There was a brief moment of genuine tension when Rick realizes the bridge will actually support the weight of the walker horde; his “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression teasing the bold possibility that things could, at long last, go completely and disastrously wrong for our leader. But the show isn’t daring enough for that. Instead, he gets to go out on his own terms—and then survive for good measure.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t manage some successful emotional button-pushing. When you’ve spent this long with characters, there’s an undeniable catharsis in a goodbye. Watching the stoic and reserved Daryl shed a few tears for his dear friend is bluntly effective—and it didn’t even feel cheap until the show walked the death back. It wasn’t a very good episode, but had it ended there, it might’ve at least closed on a moving note. Instead, Anna pops up with her vague code-speak—“I have a ‘B’,” she says, throwing away her gun and pleading for aid from someone who previously seemed like they would give no quarter for such a nakedly vulnerable position—and then we leap forward in time to meet a new group of desperate people, and watch the infant/toddler of the past few seasons make like a pint-size Annie Oakley. It’s ridiculous, and slapdash; if this story, written by Scott Gimple and Matthew Negrete, has been set in stone for awhile, it’s amazing no one else stepped in to point out what a needle scratch on the record of the show this ending is.
And all of that doesn’t even take into account the abrupt come-to-Jesus moment for Negan. So all it took was Maggie coming to kill him to get the man to completely break down, weeping and begging for death? This same man who has never once shown the slightest indication of his cartoonish bravado faltering, even in the face of multiple past instances of almost certain death? Clearly, the show had to do something profound to change up Negan’s character—he couldn’t just continue to rot in jail, spouting aggro lines about how he would inevitably return, bigger and better than before. So while this is a welcome shift, it’s also as cheap as everything that surrounds it—a rushed conclusion to Maggie’s bloodlust and the former Savior leader’s entire persona leading up to their confrontation. Negan turns on a dime, and we’re left as nonplussed as Maggie, wondering who this broken man is, and where he put Negan. Maggie’s right: “Negan” is dead, and the shell of a person left in his body isn’t worth the moral cost of killing.
I’ve spent the past few years defending some of the later seasons of The Walking Dead against those who felt it had nose-dived creatively. To a certain degree, the show is more of a classic soap opera with zombies added than it is any other kind of story. We watch scenes and scenarios change, and characters come and go, but the overall structure has been repeated a few times at this point. But even the much-maligned Negan seasons had some elements to recommend them, the main one being that the gonzo and over-the-top action-adventurism the show had transformed into was at least a new way of conveying the same ideas the formerly grounded series will always explore. The new season has felt like a breath of non-walker-stale air in large part because the show is shucking off old habits and trying new narrative techniques based on thorny and complicated plotting about character, politics, and growing pains of a new society.
But the farewell of Rick Grimes is everything milquetoast about the show rolled into one: The insipid philosophizing on death, loss, and family; character beats that do nothing to move a person or plot point forward; lazy out-of-nowhere resolutions wholly at odds with the world the show has created; and squandering a rare chance for true closure on a meaningful part of the series’ history. If we didn’t have ads and AMC and the actors repeatedly informing us this was the end for Rick, nothing about this episode would leave a viewer thinking they’d seen the last of him. Hopefully, if this wasn’t a chance for Rick Grimes to die, it can at least be the last lingering remnant of the pre-season-nine morass of sloppy storytelling dying off. Sorry, Rick—you deserved better.
- There were plenty of little Easter eggs in this episode, from the return of the “come face me assholes” cabin to the flashbacks from previous locations to Michonne’s coffee mug forming a ring on the blueprints, but it was too dispiriting to slowly realize it was all in service of an episode unwilling to give us anything we didn’t already know about these people.
- Even the camper van Anna is driving briefly made me think we were back in another flashback to that early mobile base of operations for our characters.
- The heavy-handedness of Maggie demanding Negan “move into the light” just before the character completely breaks down was vintage subpar Walking Dead.
- I did appreciate Michonne eventually just handing over the key to Negan’s cell to let Maggie do her thing.
- Rick makes it to the camp, where we see the aftermath of whatever went down with the former Saviors confronting Carol and company. That’s...not good juggling of multiple storylines.
- If we’re really time-jumping again, that epilogue is an awfully ominous portent of how it might be handled. Which is a shame; this season really has been quite good thus far.
- Negan: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Amen to that.
- UPDATE: As has now been officially announced, AMC is continuing the story of Rick Grimes with some spin-off movies. If you’re going to do that, maybe don’t rely on a hacky bait-and-switch promotional campaign?