This review contains spoilers.
At the end of the eighth season of The Walking Dead, there’s been a dramatic shift in the way the world works. The balance of power, in which Negan is on top and everyone else labours beneath, has been completely upended. And yet, it still feels like basically nothing happened all season.
Throughout season eight, lots of people said lots of things. Jesus (remember him?) has been preaching pacifism and second chances. Morgan, who once had a second chance escape from him and nearly kill everyone, has become completely unhinged and ready to kill at a moment’s notice. Other characters have also undergone shifts back and forth from one end of the murder spectrum to another. Allegiances have shifted back and forth, characters have turned heel and then gone back to being faces, and so on and so forth. So many moving parts, so little forward momentum in the end.
Throughout Wrath, it seemed as though something big was going to happen, and the episode edged near some big fundamental change before carefully skittering back again. Rick and Negan, finally squaring off. Throughout the season, Rick has been breaking his word to the saviors, pledging to kill every last savior, to get revenge on his enemies and damn his son’s dying wishes for peace between the factions. Rick, at times, has been brutal. Then, with a slash of a piece of broken stained glass, Negan’s throat is slashed open and he’s bleeding at Rick’s feet, his last smart comment gurgling in his throat.
Then Rick blinks, makes a big speech, and all the Saviors—who just literally tried to gun down everyone Rick’s ever known only to be betrayed by Eugene’s faulty ammunition—are suddenly free to go with the caveat that if they step out of line in the new world, they’ll pay the price. Unlike Eugene’s kablooey surprise, All-Out War ends with a fizzle, rather than a satisfying boom. And while the Saviors are no longer a threat—apparently, a little glazing goes a long way when it comes to rebuilding friendships, Rick is facing a new threat from within, yet again (assuming Lauren Cohan doesn’t leave for greener financial pastures).
While the various shifts in character attitudes are reasonable enough if you don’t look too closely at the script (from Scott Gimple, Angela Kang, and Matthew Negrete)—they’re all in mourning and no one is thinking all that clearly—it doesn’t make for a satisfying episode. Maggie wants, and deserves, revenge. Rick’s taken revenge on plenty of people over the previous eight years, and to have Maggie denied what she wants is more than enough to turn her around on Jesus’s pacifism and Rick’s leadership; I don’t think Jesus would be okay with Negan revenge, but… apparently he is?
At least the scenes with Dwight work fairly well, and while Eugene is clearly not going to turn on his old friends, they try to sell it and Josh McDermitt does a good job with making Eugene look like a Negan follower. The performance is managed well by Greg Nicotero, with McDermitt and Seth Gilliam coming across strongly. Lennie James, who has one of the harder things to sell, also continues to do a great job of showing Morgan’s mental breakdown via physical tics; in the opening of the episode, as Morgan tries to talk to Rick, Morgan’s confusing dialogue is only muddied all the more by the sheer amount of struggle Morgan has with communication; it’s painfully uncomfortable to watch Morgan’s pained attempt at explaining himself.
Nicotero also handles the show’s big set piece admirably, as well. Nicotero’s always had a strong visual skill owing to his background in special effects, and when the Negan followers come out of nowhere to form a firing line aimed at Rick’s team, it’s downright chilling. Just because you know that the Saviors won’t mow down Rick’s group that doesn’t mean it’s not a great-looking scene, and the sheer variety of backfiring gun deaths and maiming is impressive indeed. Nicotero does a good job with tension; the fact that there’s no real danger for most of the major characters doesn’t stop the potential deaths of several minor characters from causing a little dread, but for a show known for big cliffhanger finales and large death tolls, there’s very little blood shed at the conclusion of the war that’s of any consequence.
There’s going to be peace, at least for the moment, but as long as Negan is alive, I have no doubt that he’ll continue to cause problems, whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally. As we’ve seen with the Saviors, just because some of them can be turned away from the dark side, not all of them will be. Will the remaining Saviors make an attempt to free their boss? Will Maggie actually go through with her revenge plot? Just how long will bygones be bygones?
One of the problems season eight had was with its pacing. No one’s particularly sure just how much time has passed between the death of Glenn and the demise of the Savior threat. Two and a half seasons of Negan discussion in the real world has been plenty, and Negan’s going to continue to be a major figure next season, because you don’t keep an actor like Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the payroll and don’t use him.
Negan will be back, there’s no doubt about that. How he comes back remains to be seen, but The Saviors aren’t gone, no matter how desperately the show needs a fresh antagonist. After all, as Negan reminds Rick, he always gets out of it, whatever it might be. Rick’s idea to throw Negan into jail forever only gives him a change to recover and figure out how to escape justice in one way or another.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Worth, here.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan wonders if Morgan will be back in the world of The Walking Dead soon. Perhaps he’ll be the magic ingredient that helps Fear The Walking Dead catch fire again. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.