Rest in peace, Carl Grimes.
As expected, the extended mid-season nine premiere was a heart-wrenching swan song for Carl Grimes. We’d learned the gut punch during the mid-season finale: while helping new recruit Siddiq, Carl was bitten in the abdomen, sealing his fate. We spend most of our episode this week with our teary goodbyes, while also following the much more action-packed adventures of Carol and Morgan rescuing Ezekiel.
We left off at the mid-season break with our beleaguered Alexandrians holed up in the sewers beneath their neighborhood, which was under violent attack by the Saviors. The Saviors had recently broken out of the zombie barricade thanks in large part to the incredibly ill-fated plans of Daryl, Morgan, and Tara (which no one brings up or addresses, so far).
It’s there that Rick returns to find Carl, beginning to succumb to his bite wound after helping provide smoke bomb distractions and get everyone to safety during the attack. If you’re gonna kill off Carl Grimes, you damn well better make sure he goes out a hero.
It’s fashionable to hate on Carl. He had the dubious role of being the annoying kid in a hostile environment. His main role (initially) is simply motivation for Rick. As the years and actor Chandler Riggs grew older (something the comics don’t have to deal with), Carl evolved into his own character.
I’ve always been a fan of Carl and how he’s portrayed in both the comics and the show. He has his share of teen angst but he’s also empathetic, clever, resourceful, and incredibly brave. Mercy killing your pregnant mom is beyond fucked up and would ruin most young people’s entire lives, but Carl is able to come out the other side an even stronger person.
With his fatal bite we knew this was not exactly going to be a feel-good episode. Our heroes make the choice to stay until the bombing above them ends, then hightail it over to the Hilltop – the only location that was spared an all-out attack.
Rick opts to stay behind with Carl, and Michonne joins him. Daryl takes Judith. He says some nice stuff to Carl but, dude, you’ve been a fuck-up all season and in some way caused this whole attack to happen.
There’s a heart-wrenching scene where Rick gives Judith The Cowboy Hat, and promises that she’ll beat this world even though he couldn’t. More gut-punch scenes follow between he, Rick, and Michonne.
I do like that the focus was always on Carl, instead of using Carl’s imminent death to focus on Rick. In fact, Andrew Lincoln barely spoke this entire episode, manifesting his anguish as near speechlessness.
The theme of this season has been Mercy vs Wrath, with Rick as vengeful badass versus peaceful farmer. Carl has been trying to appeal to the latter. They’re in the middle of a war, but Carl is looking at the after, towards the peace that can, and should follow, and how to unify and build that community. Good dude, Carl.
But the war still wages outside, as we see with our other major scene this week. Carol joins Morgan at the Kingdom, where they quickly stage a rescue operation for Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s antics during the mid-season finale ultimately saved his people, but put him in captivity by the Kingdom Savior liaison Gavin.
I couldn’t think of two better badasses for Operation Stealth Assassins than Carol and Morgan. Sure Morgan’s a bit unhinged, hunting down enemies when it wasn’t necessary, but Carol’s there to point him in the right direction.
Gavin and his crew hole up in Ezekiel’s theater, and our heroes come in gun’s blazing. At one point a man gets on top of Morgan, wrestling him to the ground. Morgan responds by reaching into a wound in the man’s stomach and PULLING OUT HIS GODDAMN ENTRAILS.
Morgan has lost all fucks at this point. Ezekiel is saved but Gavin runs away. Instead of letting him go, Morgan picks up his sharpened spear and hunts him down.
The scene between Morgan and Gavin is cut together with Carl pleading to Rick about a peaceful future. Carol and Ezekiel likewise plead to Morgan that he doesn’t have to murder everyone. The point was to show the dichotomy between mercy and wrath, but it comes off a bit sloppy.
In the end it’s Henry, the younger brother of the slain boy whom Morgan had mentored, and whose death pushed him over the edge, who kills Gavin. Spear through the back of the throat. It shakes up everyone there, even Morgan is visibly upset. Carol is furious but Ezekiel, being the astoundingly patient, kind leader that he is, immediately forgives the boy and puts his arms around him.
It’s revealed toward the end of the episode that the cryptic, brightly-lit flash-forward scenes we’ve been glimpsing since last year’s finale are actually Carl’s dreams, not Rick’s. Carl dreams of a peaceful community like they briefly had at the farm and prison. In the dream Rick is older, bearded, and limping (comic fans know what’s up). We interact with a few characters, including Jerry and Eugene. But the biggest twist is Judith running up to a smiling, friendly Negan.
***MASSIVE COMIC SPOILERS***
In the comic, Rick is able to beat and subdue Negan during the big climax (while also sustaining a nasty leg injury), but he makes the very important decision not to murder him on the spot, but to imprison him, which is the first step toward creating a new world of law and order.
Eventually (the comics literally jump ahead several years) Negan’s role expands to become Rick’s confidant, and they continue to have an interesting relationship.
Is revealing Negan in the dream the show’s way of testing audience reaction? Is AMC afraid people will flip out if Negan doesn’t die? Is this their way of showing us that yes, Carl’s plan even includes clemency toward Negan? In any case it’s an important step to take for Rick, and perhaps Carl’s death will help him view granting mercy to Negan as a way of honoring Carl.
***MASSIVE COMIC SPOILERS***
Carl’s time draws near, and he grabs his gun. He knows neither Michonne nor Rick will be able to do it. Carl’s always been the strongest one of them all. We hear a shot from inside the building as Rick buries his face in his hands. The next scene he and Michonne are digging his grave, and we, the viewers, are kept at a distance.
Rest in peace, Carl Grimes, the second most tenured character on The Walking Dead (technically Morgan but he was gone for a few seasons so…). Despite your perceived character immortality, even you couldn’t make it through unscathed. Eight and half seasons is nothing to scoff at, and I think the show will be much poorer without you in it. Your legacy will live on through Rick, and through the important choices he’ll have to make in the episodes to come.
Carl Gimes: Carl is a great character, and he was great all the way to the end. This episode smartly kept the focus squarely on him, allowing ample time for him to explain how his father molded him and how he evolved and grew in a zombie apocalypse. I’m upset to see him go, but at least they did right by him in his send off episode.
Morgan & Carol: When Carol’s about to leave to join up with Morgan, one of the rescued Kingdommers tells her, “You versus all of them? They don’t stand a chance.” Amen, sister. This duo makes rescuing Ezekiel from armed guards looks easy, despite Morgan being a tad unhinged.
Carl’s Musical Montage: The opening montage provided a brief flashback into Carl getting bitten and hiding it, which we frankly didn’t really need to see. I also didn’t at all care for the song that played over the whole thing. A bad start to an otherwise solid episode.