The Walking Dead: Season 9, Episode 5 – What Comes After

“You need to wake up.”
“What’s your wound?”
“I need to find my family”.

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well that was a bit of a game changer. I’m still not all that sure it was a great episode, but The Walking Dead is not going to be the same after this one.

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It seems I was right in the last review; Rick’s Big Farewell is now, rather than at the mid-season finale. Having spent most of last week saying his goodbyes to the longstanding characters still alive, this week he spent much of the time doing the same to ones who are long dead. Yes, weird, but the show’s got form at this – this was like nothing so much as Tyreese’s last episode, which had a similarly delirious, hallucinatory quality, and also featured the (imagined) return of characters long dead.

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As a TV show, The Walking Dead has rarely been self-referential, but the departure of the guy who’s been the main character since the very opening moments of episode one perhaps deserved some reflection (self-indulgent though a lot of it felt). This ep was deliberately full of callbacks to that very first episode throughout, even starting with Rick back in that hospital bed he awoke from on his first day’s duty in the zombie apocalypse.

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Memorable images were recreated throughout, cleverly skewed from the originals. This time, that barred door said “DEAD OUTSIDE“; and Rick’s horseback trek through the deserted streets of Atlanta took him not to an abandoned tank, but to the police cruiser he shared with old partner Shane. Who was, naturally, there to greet him.

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Shane was just the first of several cameos on Rick’s final journey through his own head, and Jon Bernthal played him like he’d never been away. It was a believable meeting of friends with issues – the primary issues of course being that Shane screwed Rick’s wife and Rick later killed him. I’ve had some awkward moments with friends, but that’s a whole nother level.

Of course it wasn’t really Shane – all these returns from the dead were conjured out of Rick’s own head, meaning he was using Shane and the others to, in effect, talk to himself. It’s a good dramatic device for this kind of narrative, where a character can use an imagined version of another to face truths he knows but can’t face.

Thus, dream-Shane could say things real-Shane never would have, such as acknowledging that he’s likely Judith’s real father. And also of course replaying their eternal arguments over survival, an argument which Rick seems to acknowledge that Shane won – why else would his version of Shane try and rekindle the rage that led him to bite out a man’s throat?

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More affecting than Shane though was the return, in an idyllic farm setting, of Hershel Greene. Formerly the group’s moral compass, and obviously viewed by Rick as a father figure, Hershel’s backdrop of that beautiful sunset showed him to represent peace and tranquility to Rick, who felt the need to apologise for his perceived failings. Hershel, who was of course really Rick anyway, brushed it off – Rick in effect coming to terms with his mistakes and forgiving himself. I can really envy that right now.

It was most affecting though because of the knowledge that, between filming these scenes and broadcasting them, actor Scott Wilson had died of leukemia. That added an extra poignancy to the scene, and I hope he knew how fondly he’ll be remembered by fans of the show.

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The final return from the dead was Sasha, as played by Sonequa Martin-Green who has since departed to lead Star Trek: Discovery. I liked Sasha, so it was nice to see her back as a representative of the fighting side of Rick’s personality. For me though, it would have been more dramatically satisfying if the final visitor had been Glenn, particularly since the previous ep established how crucial he’d been to everything since episode two. I gather that Steven Yeun had been sounded out about a return, but scheduling conflicts intervened; a shame.

The scene with Sasha was obviously Rick’s attempt to come to terms with all the death he’s seen (and caused), and the deaths that might be yet to come. That field of corpses, I assume, represented everyone who’d died already (Shane was clearly visible) and those who might yet (so was Jesus). As a visual metaphor, it was obvious but striking.

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The script nicely punctuated these revelatory dream sequences with Rick’s repeated awakenings to find that he was in continued peril from the Walker herd he was trying to lead to the bridge. That meant a nice sense of pacing between the ep’s introspective moments and the action.

It also neatly concluded the whole bridge subplot that’s been playing out since the season opener. Mind you, heroic sacrifice aside, it didn’t seem to be much of a victory that Rick ended up destroying the very thing he’d put so much emphasis on rebuilding. There again, perhaps his repeated mantra of needing to find his family represented a realisation that he’d been looking for solutions in the wrong places.

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With all that going on, there wasn’t much room for anything else in the ep; but it did at least take the time to give us a resolution to the vexed question of Maggie’s revenge on Negan. There seems to be some doubt as to whether Lauren Cohan will return after the mid-season break, so it was important to get this plotline tied up.

It was interesting to note that the doorstep argument between Maggie and Michonne was a virtual replay of so many of those early season arguments between Rick and Shane. Just as then, both had a point, and it’s clearly a theme the show will always return to. But it was also interesting to note that this time, the argument was being played out between two women. What with Michonne clearly being groomed to replace Rick as the lead character, and now Judith being put in the narrative place of Carl from the comics, it shows a shift for the show to a much greater prominence for its female characters. As they’ve always been so strong, that’s a great move.

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And the portrayal of the broken, weeping Negan was an interesting one. That’s not how he develops in the comics, where he mellows (a bit) and becomes a sort of ally but is basically the same arrogant bastard he always was. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was excellent as he tried to bate Maggie into killing him, then collapsed into sobs at the realisation she wouldn’t do it.

It was a dramatically satisfying resolution without the need for actually killing anyone, which is a refreshing change in this show. As Maggie said, Negan’s already worse than dead; if she wants to hurt him, the best thing she can do is leave him alive. There again, it is always possible that he faked the whole thing to achieve precisely that result…

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So it felt like all the ongoing plotlines were being neatly tied up, earlier than I’d expected – except for one. What would happen with Jadis and her mysterious helicopter, which nobody else seems to remember? I’ve been bitching for a while about how this plot almost seemed to be happening in another show, so disconnected was it from the rest of the action.

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This time, it finally did connect to another plot, and I rather wish it hadn’t. So Rick survived the explosion, and has been whisked off to who knows where, never to return to the show? OK, I know that from his friends’ perspective he’s dead anyway, but it really felt like it undermined his sacrifice and the drama of his death to have him spirited away to pastures new. This whole plot has been a dead end, and I’d rather have not had it all and had Rick’s death be a final one.

But that’s not how it goes in the world of successful TV shows, and I gather the plan, suggested by Andrew Lincoln himself, is that Rick will return in a couple of original AMC movies set in the show’s universe. These will presumably show us where he’s got to, and what happens when he gets there. I’m guessing too, since Lincoln has ruled out a full time return to the show, that they’ll end up with Rick’s actual death. All well and good, but I still wish we could have had that here.

At least it had a nice feel of circularity to it, Rick bandaged up and intubated just as he was in the very first ep. Just to close all that self-reference, the song playing as the helicopter flew off into the distance was the very same one that closed the very first episode – ‘Space Junk’ by Wang Chung.

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Gore of the week

Another not very gory episode; most of the blood visible was that dripping from Rick’s distressingly large puncture wound, and I had to question the credibility of him getting as far as he did without dying from blood loss.

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Plenty of Walker deaths, but mostly shown at a distance and with some visual style by reliable director Greg Nicotero. I particularly liked the mindless herd continuing to plough through the flames of the burning bridge and plunge into the fast-flowing river.

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This was always going to be a difficult ep, and one that had an impossible task to live up to for satisfying the fans. Largely I think it succeeded in giving its leading man an appropriate send off, and celebrating its own history without wallowing too much in self-indulgence. I just wish it hadn’t undercut its own drama so much by that final revelation that Rick hadn’t died after all, even if I understand the commercial reasons for the decision.

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So what next? Still three more eps to go until the mid-season finale, but another great big time jump. According to showrunner Angela Kang, six years have passed by the time of that last scene, as a gun-toting Judith pulls on the iconic sheriff hat Rick gave to Carl all those years ago. Some enticing flashes forward reveal that we’ve got another well-remembered comic plotline on the way, presumably with Michonne and Judith now taking the places of Rick and Carl. It could be a very different show – but will it be? Let’s find out.

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