“What you did then, how you stopped fighting… it was right. It still is.”
Despite my dolorous post of my woes recently, life goes on. Well, in the sense that The Walking Dead has returned to little fanfare and probably less interest. Still, it helps me, in the sense that, in all the current chaos of my life, I want to get back to normal… whatever that is. And writing about the steady decline of this once-great show certainly feels like normal these days.
As you’ll doubtless remember, the mid-season finale was the usual bunch of sound and fury that signified nothing… up till the point when showrunner Scott Gimple played a whammy by sentencing Carl Grimes to death.
I was equivocal about it then, and still am. It’s a bold move to divert so significantly from the source material, and opens plenty of new possibilities. On the other hand, it closes off plenty too, and a lot of Carl’s later development in the comics was interesting and important to the overall plot. If I had to bet, I’d say Gimple pulled such a move to counter the (all too justified) criticism that the show was getting stale.
One person who seemed genuinely upset about it (albeit diplomatically) was Chandler Riggs, who’s been playing the part since way back in episode 2 of season 1 – all of eight years ago, now. Like the kids in Harry Potter, we’ve pretty much seen him grow up onscreen, and from what he’s said, he was looking forward to what was coming up for Carl from the comics. It’s all he’s known – so this must have felt pretty devastating.
So I guess it felt only fair for screenwriters Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell to give him a lion’s share of screen time for his final appearance, letting him be a Big Damn Hero on his deathbed, and giving him the chance to flex his acting chops in a heartbreaking death scene. And then another one. And then another one. No disrespect to Riggs, who was clearly acting his heart out, but by the fifth time the scene cut to him wheezing his “last” to the tearful Rick and Michonne, I was starting to check my watch.
Yes, Carl was a beloved character (well, maybe not in season 2 when he kept putting everyone in mortal danger for no good reason), but did he need this many death scenes? Each of them played out like a standard one, with Carl dispensing sage advice to his father. The theme of “the child becomes father to the man” was pretty heavily played. And each of these scenes cut to the B plot of Carol and Morgan rescuing Ezekiel at just the point you’d expect Carl to breathe his last, only for us to return to more of his tragic dying moments a couple of minutes later.
Plus, didn’t he seem a little too sanguine about the prospect of his approaching death? We’ve seen the character grow to some sort of maturity over eight seasons, but one thing he’s never seemed to be is at peace. The opening montage of him putting his affairs in order calmly and with an occasional smile felt out of character somehow – even if it was beautifully soundtracked by Bright Eyes’ deceptively upbeat “At the Bottom of Everything”. To be charitable though, maybe the song was part of the point. Carl had reached the ‘bottom of everything’ – perhaps there was nowhere to go but up. That certainly resonates for me right now.
It was at least a smart decision to allow his ultimate death to play out so low key. After all those earnest deathbed speeches, Carl’s actual death played out offscreen, signified only by a muffled, silenced gunshot. Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, having drawn short straws in the acting stakes compared to Riggs, had little to do but mournfully react to the dying teenager for most of the ep – at least once he was gone, the characters got something to do besides hold his hand and cry.
We also got the revelation that the ‘future visions’ of hilariously-bearded Rick were actually a utopian fantasy of Carl’s all along. This felt simultaneously inevitable and disappointing, somehow. Plus it’s hard to be particularly enthralled by a cliffhanger revelation that Negan is there too and has turned ‘nice’. It’s only a fantasy after all, and I don’t think Carl even told Rick and Michonne that bit.
It does at least play into the dying Carl’s earnest conviction that there “has to be something after”, a sentiment also displayed by Jesus (the one in the show, not that other one). It’s a fair point – even if our heroes win this “all out war”, they have to find a way to live with these people afterwards. Well, unless they kill every last one of them, but I’m not sure even this show has shades of grey as dark as making its main characters mass murderers.
The issue’s obviously there, though, and Morgan, over in the B plot, seemed to be embodying the dilemma. Pairing him up with old sparring partner Carol in the attempt to rescue Ezekiel was a smart way to foreground how Morgan’s character is developing; from the madman, to the man who refused ever to kill, to a man driven by vengeance to… well, kill every last one of them. It’s telling that Carol now seems the more peaceable of the two.
If I’m honest, this plot was more interesting than Carl’s massively prolonged death. The virtues of a compassionate versus a pragmatic attitude to survival have been one of the show’s key debating points since way back in season two, and Morgan’s development here works as an inverse mirror of Carl’s – as one became more peaceable, the other became more warlike.
In the event, I would have liked to have seen how Morgan would ultimately have decided to deal with smarmy Savior Gavin, but the choice was taken out of his hands by his pointy stick acolyte Henry. It does at least extend the sell by date of Morgan’s internal struggle, which Lennie James always sells very well.
Gore of the week
This wasn’t a particularly gory episode, with not very many Walkers in evidence. So leave it to Morgan to step up and kill a wounded Savior by actually pulling his intestines out of a handy bullet wound.
Jeez, Morgan, I know you’re going dark but that’s extreme.
So, a fairly ‘meh’ mid-season finale, despite the emotional heft of Carl’s death and Morgan’s descent into madness. I think Chandler Riggs was genuinely brilliant in his final scenes, I just think they would have had more impact if there hadn’t been so damn many of them. There was nothing particularly bad about this ep… but there was nothing particularly good about it either. Which is kind of the way I’ve been feeling about the show for the last couple of years, like it’s exhausted all the possibilities of its premise and now it’s now just going through the motions. Nothing I saw here made me change that opinion, I’m afraid.