Well, it took a very long time to get here, but now we know the cause of Rick’s tears from that flash-forward we saw way back in the season, when our former sheriff was seen sobbing under a tree: It’s because he and the rest of his people are the luckiest dummies ever to walk the face of the earth.
Mea culpa for my refusing to believe last week that anything as simple as two minutes of being yelled at by Daryl and Rosita would be enough to convert Eugene from a diehard member of Negan’s team to becoming the architect of Negan’s downfall. I should’ve known better than to dismiss an idea, thinking it would be too ridiculous, about where The Walking Dead could go narratively. Because getting nearly every Savior, Negan included, to fire their guns containing faulty bullets at the exact same time is the kind of theatrical absurdism that has increasingly become the series’ stock-in-trade. As Eugene explains to Rosita at the end of the fight, turning the “phooey” into “kablooey” was his way of doing something with his life, of taking the “come to Jesus” moment he apparently had after his brief kidnapping and switching back to the side of his old friends. It doesn’t really make much sense when compared to basically everything else he’s done since being captured by Negan, give or take a letting Gabriel and the doctor escape, but it certainly makes for gonzo entertainment, and provides a perfect way for Team Rick to survive a seemingly impossible situation. Deus ex machinery.
It’s not just the fact that we get a finale without the death of any major character that makes “Wrath” a noteworthy episode of The Walking Dead. It’s that this is a soufflé of happy endings, a series of opportune incidents one after another that found every character suddenly getting a contented second chance at life. (Maggie excepted, but we’ll get back to that.) It’s like the show saw the “mega-happy” ending from Wayne’s World and thought, “I bet we can top that.” Carol returns to the Kingdom per Henry’s wish, and even brings Morgan’s armor as a gift for the kid. Morgan goes from being a murder-happy stab-monster talking with ghosts to a guy who gets a 20-second pep talk from Jesus and suddenly decides to try to not kill any more, instead heading off to garbage land to recruit Anne, after which he presumably takes a cross-country flight to join Fear The Walking Dead. Dwight gets to take a car from Daryl and go have a new lease on life, trying to track down his long-departed wife. Gabriel smiles in a church, because that’s his whole thing. Even Negan gets to play a productive role rotting in jail, watching Carl’s insistence things could be better play out in real time. That may not make him happy, but it’s a kind of justice done.
But the most dispiriting of these supposedly joyful conclusions to this two-season-plus storyline of Negan and the Saviors is watching Rick hit reset on the promising darkness that invaded his character following the death of his son. Morgan even calls it out early, reminding Rick of that fucked-up moment when he promised his Savior captors they could return to Hilltop only to turn on them the instant they had served their purpose. “We are worse than we were,” Morgan tells Rick, and he’s right. Unlike Morgan’s all-over-the-map mental issues, Rick’s descent into a crueler and more Machiavellian manner was a genuinely interesting route for his character. Instead, he learns Carl died trying to prove Siddiq could trust him—“paying tribute” to the new character’s mother, as Siddiq puts it—and returns to being the noble spirit trying to shepherd his people to a brighter future.
There was a fleeting hopeful moment when Rick cut Negan’s throat that maybe the show was going to keep new, duplicitous Rick after all, which would’ve been a smart and sensible way to show his lying and deadly machinations weren’t a fluke. (Especially as Negan paused, seemingly casting aside all of his characterization to get teary-eyed at the thought of joining Rick’s people, which made Rick’s sudden violence all the more deliciously ironic.) But no—it was all in service of being the better man, of renouncing revenge in the name of progress. It’s a better message and a better symbol for the people of this new reality, but it’s a disservice to the character.
Negan, by contrast, goes down swinging, bat and body alike, the same as he’s ever done. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has gotten a lot of shit for the cartoonish, larger-than-life portrayal of his egomaniacal villain that he’s brought to this series, but at this point, I suspect he may actually have a better handle of what kind of show he’s on than most. He’s one of those actors who tends to rise or sink to the level of material he’s given, and on a show that has dropped all pretense of being some serious and “reality”-based notion of life after the zombie apocalypse, taking a character written on the page as over-the-top and simply playing that to the hilt, grinning all the while, actually fits. It’s hard not to laugh in grudging appreciation when Negan has taken the time to have a bale of hay wearing a T-shirt that says “RICK” on it set up inside the Sanctuary, just so he could have some impromptu target practice. That’s the kind of thing that can either make a viewer throw up their hands in frustration at the sheer gonzo wackadoo of it all, or go along for the ride and accept this is what the show has become. If you’re still watching, I hope for your sake you’re in the latter camp.
And Eugene’s misfiring-on-all-cylinders betrayal of the Saviors isn’t even the scenario during “Wrath” that most beggars belief in a genial, “Sure, why not?” kind of way. That prize goes to the magical arrival of the Oceanside women at just the right moment, saving the day at Hilltop mere seconds before Tara and her ex-Savior helper squad were about to (presumably) get shot to pieces by the enemy. Flinging Molotov cocktails with abandon, the women take out most of the Saviors nearly in tandem, and the scene ends before we get clarity on whether Tara and her guys went in to mop up with a bunch of well-placed bullets in heads. Either way, the scene is right up there with last year’s season-ending Kingdom-led rescue for timing that amounts to divine intervention.
The thing is, watching a years’-long story finally come to a conclusion, albeit in ludicrous fashion, is still satisfying. There’s a thrill in seeing all these stories finally come to a head, and even though the show chose to make them all as uplifting as possible (understandable from a purely fan-service perspective, given how much grumbling there was about the near-masochistic levels of gloom this narrative rolled around in, especially last season), it’s a fundamental pleasure in seeing something through to its end.
But the show couldn’t just give us nothing but sunshine and rainbows and a prison cell for Negan. So we’ve got a pissed-off Maggie making common cause with Jesus and Daryl about taking care of the Negan situation. She admits Rick was right about the Saviors, and Jesus was right about letting people live, and just about everything else. But letting Negan live? “That was wrong,” and we pan the camera around to see Jesus nodding in agreement, with Daryl coming out of the shadows like some avenging angel to give his blessing as well. The two long-running characters making a pact to go against Rick and Michonne and deliver mortal vengeance upon their big antagonist makes total sense: Maggie’s been clear all along that she had one goal, and that was ending Negan as payback for Glenn. And Daryl’s just that kind of guy. But Jesus? That was a very out-of-left-field choice, one The Walking Dead will hopefully justify upon its return. It’s left unsaid what they’re planning, but the idea they’re going to do something to Rick and/or Michonne would be even weirder, so let’s assume they just to do some killing.
The ending of this story means the series has a chance to do some firm rebooting next season, as we close on all this high-minded talk of a better world and a need to unite the living against that massive horde of the undead we briefly saw over the horizon. It’ll be interesting to see whether it continues the trend of drifting ever more towards outrageous and strange tactics, or if it takes the opportunity to try and once again anchor itself in some semblance of plausibility and grittiness. No one we care about, or really even know, died in this season finale, and it was all wins, hugs, and “one to grow on” moments. For The Walking Dead, that’s a bit of a miracle in itself.
- Glad Rosita still punched Eugene after he explained how he saved them all. “That’s for the puke.”
- Rick and his people continue to be incredibly poor planners. Crossing that open field where you’re basically surrounded on all sides by hills that prevent you from seeing anything, in any direction? Great strategy.
- I liked that Gabriel got a moment of pure batshit bravery, throwing himself out of the car in a futile effort to warn Team Rick.
- Speaking of that giant horde of walkers, am I the only one who found that to be a really weird and ambiguous introduction to what’s presumably a big threat next season? I was pausing the screen and squinting to see what the hell they were talking about with that first reference, and it was all very vague. Maybe people with 4k screens had better luck.
- Good on Jerry: “I ain’t accepting shit.”
- This was a silly ending to a silly season—two seasons, really—but it did possess an oddball charm that supersedes the unbelievable nature of the story. To quote Zack Handlen, who reviewed this show before me, “If it’s a choice between ‘dumb and mean’ and ‘dumb and optimistic and occasionally a dude gets his face eaten by a tiger,’ I’m going with the latter every time.” Garbage people, tigers, hundreds of flawlessly timed exploding guns...We’ll see if next year continues The Wacky Adventures Of Rick And The Gang or if the show tries to get back to some realism while its heart gets stitched back onto its sleeve. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to continuing the discussion with you all.