But it wouldn’t be “The Walking Dead” if the lust for violence weren’t fully and generously sated. When Rick and Negan square up beneath the tree, the finishing move is a slash across the neck that certainly looks like a killing blow. It’s the best example of the plentiful non-twist twists littering this season, an unusually well-executed pseudo-execution.
The basic function of that bait-and-switch may be similar to, say, Henry’s implied death and surprise return. But where that particular narrative decision generated pathos (and rewrote Henry’s personality, just when he was growing into one of the show’s more conflicted characters — see him this week, dully pledging to be a good boy), this one has more vindictive, pleasurable results.
The catharsis stemming from the schadenfreude of Negan’s death isn’t canceled out when he survives the day. While the writing may be manipulative, the satisfaction persists because Negan still has to live with his own defeat. Negan must come to terms with the humiliation, with the emasculation, with the undeniable fact that he is the inferior. This is a just fate for him and not a sadistic one, threading a difficult tonal needle.
But aside from brief interludes of happiness — the playful back-and-forth between Ezekiel and Jerry, however short, was one of the episode highlights — the future promises more danger. With Negan effectively neutralized, the show needs a new villain, and this episode hastily whips one up with a rebel faction among the coalition. With Daryl and Maggie concerned about the weakness evident in Rick’s having permitted Negan to live, they agree that Rick must be stopped.
This isn’t the first time there has been a difference of opinion as to how things should be run, however. In the past, members of the coalition have had the presence of mind to talk out their differences and continue working toward a common good. The question of why Daryl and Maggie would now play saboteurs instead of directly approaching Rick nags at a viewer as the season winds up.
And as the final credits roll on another season, a larger picture coheres. The minutiae of the “All-Out War” story line were often frustrating week to week, with characters used as tools for easy drama, interrupting their developmental arcs. But considered as a whole, this season’s hard-nosed inquisition into the cost of long-term conflict stands up to scrutiny. The ideas weren’t always well expressed, and yet the perspectives the season offered on the personal compromises that members of militarized groups must make for the sake of a mission have value.
Those intrepid viewers still on board with the show are made to trek through miles of carnage every week; mercifully, at the end, there’s hard-won insight waiting for them.
A Few Thoughts While We Survey the Wreckage:
• Eugene remains a wordsmith of great intellect and silliness, speaking to those around him primarily as a form of amusement for himself. He explains his turncoat scheme to manufacture defective bullets with the elegant turn of phrase, “a modicum of phooey for a full kablooey.”
• Jadis mentions to Morgan that her real name is Anne, conjuring memories of Ezekiel’s full reinvention in this season’s fourth episode, “Some Guy.” The zombie apocalypse brought more strife than anyone had imagined possible, but for a select unmoored few, it was a precious opportunity.
• During this evening’s commercial breaks, AMC raised quite a ruckus over Morgan’s migration from “The Walking Dead” proper to its spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead.” Having bested his budding schizophrenia, Morgan is probably ready for a change of setting. And yet his departure leaves something to be desired. For a show so dogged in its creating a sense of momentousness for every plot twist, the episode’s big loss lands rather unceremoniously.
• The 10-second countdown in the climactic fight between Rick and Negan doesn’t amplify the tension as much as it does break the scene’s rhythm to create a new one. That false step aside, there’s a clear sense of forethought to the mise-en-scène; the quietly poetic quality to the open field, the tree and the delicate stained-glass panes hanging from it evoke old samurai films.