SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers to the Season 8 finale of The Walking Dead.
Rick and Negan went mano à mano in the finale of The Walking Dead‘s eighth season. While the fact that they fought wasn’t a surprise, the outcome was (at least to those who had not devoured the comics). In an interview with Deadline, showrunner Scott Gimple talked about the “closure” of the finale as he prepares to hand over the reins and move into a franchise oversight role. The episode definitely had the feel of everyone taking stock before a whole new chapter begins.
The Rick-Negan duel unfolds in a rolling meadow, just out of sight of the Saviors, whose ranks had been decimated by Rick’s resistance fighters. The two grappled and traded punches and kicks. “You’re beat,” Rick boasts. “Your people are down.” Negan shrugs, “We’ll get out of it. We always do.” But before he can wield his infamous baseball bat to prove it, Rick slits his throat. While blood gushes out of the wound and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gurgles his last line, he falls over, presumably dead.
Rick’s troops arrive and look at the fight’s aftermath in shock. He meets their look with a rueful expression. “Save him!” he calls out, breaking the tension, and some resistance fighters (with extensive medical training, presumably?) rush over to treat Negan. Moments later, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) proclaims, “Negan’s alive.” Lest anyone think he’s gone soft, he adds, “But his way of doing things is over. Anyone who can’t live with that will pay the price. I promise.” In a monologue apt to be quote-tweeted extensively, he declares, “We are life — that’s death [he points to the desiccated fields where the zombies have been]. … All this, all this is just what was. There’s gotta be something after.”
Somewhat miraculously, Negan does survive, but Rick and his followers deliver his sentence as he lies in a hospital bed, bandages wrapped around his throat. “You’re going to rot in a cell for the rest of your life,” Rick says. “You’re going to be evidence that we’re making a civilization.”
The show had been building for two years toward a showdown between Rick, a mainstay of the show since its premiere on Halloween night in 2010, and Negan, who was introduced six years later in Season 6. Teasers for this week have shown Negan grinning as he took target practice, shooting at a dummy wearing a “Rick” T-shirt. Rick had vowed to kill Negan last season, to avenge the gruesome clubbings of Glenn and Abraham.
Grace, not revenge, is the main theme of the final few minutes of the super-sized episode, which ran 1 hour 10 minutes in linear, ad-supported time. Gabriel, the nearly blind priest, has a moment of gratitude in an empty church. As the sunlight streams through the window, he says, weeping, “I understand. You’ve given me so much. I can see.” That leads into the final tableau of Rick remembering a simpler moment before the zombie plague. He is shown walking hand in hand with his son Carl, who was killed off earlier this season. Despite that tragedy, Rick draws on the purity and goodness of his relationship to guide him through the moral complexity of his decisions. “Dear Carl,” he says in a voiceover as images of him hugging a young Carl dissolve into each other. “I remember. I forgot who I was. You made me remember that feeling, walking with you that day.”
It should be noted that not everyone was quite so kumbaya about Rick’s decision to spare Negan. Maggie, Glenn’s wife, had the most visceral reaction when Rick’s people finally got to the scene of the fight. Wailing over the decision to revive Negan, she shrieks at Rick, breaking down, “It’s not over until he’s dead!” She later plots with other resistance members to take Rick down over what he did. (Double-crosses, the show’s specialty, also came into play when bullets that Eugene made for the Saviors turned out to be sabatoged by him, killing dozens of the Saviors and badly wounding Negan.)
The episode began on a more meditative note, with a nostalgic series of overlapping images meant to evoke a more innocent time. In the opening scene, as guitar picking and synthesizer washes in the score established a warm tone, a sun-splashed country road stretched out into the horizon. Rick and Carl (though the viewer only learns the boy’s identity at the end) walk hand in hand (an image reprised after Negan is slain and Rick processes what he’s done). “I remember,” the voiceover says, suggestively.
While ratings for The Walking Dead are no longer at the stratospheric levels of earlier in the show’s historic run, the still-lofty level of reach lends broadcasts like tonight’s something of a playoff atmosphere, to borrow a sports bromide. Major studios behind summer movie releases like Jurassic World, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Deadpool 2 all ponied up for ads. The latter used the running mash-up gag of “Walking Deadpool” with segues voiced by Ryan Reynolds before spots unfolded.