It’s hard to talk about “The Walking Dead” without talking about death. It built its reputation as a show where anyone could be killed off, and indeed, it turned over roughly a third of its cast every season in its early years. (Lest you forget them, the series finale gives its final moments over to a montage of those we’ve lost over the years.)
It’s been a long time since death truly drove the story forward. With multiple spinoffs on the horizon, the show struggled throughout its final season to retain the suspense of the series’ salad days, when seemingly anyone could die at any time. If Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are all slated to star in new series, any time their lives are purportedly in danger, the dramatic tension of whether or not they’ll make it out alive has been cut off at the knees.
But even with the three most visible characters in the series off the table, a cast of literal dozens made it through the final two seasons relatively unscathed. The show remained as violent as ever, but devoid of the actual sacrifice and pathos that violence would naturally stir up. Throughout “The Walking Dead” final season, new characters were introduced and developed just enough to serve as sacrificial lambs with a frequency that recalled old jokes about red-shirted ensigns on ‘Star Trek,’ but the series gave its audience no time to contemplate the mortality of these characters. They died in service of furthering the plot, nothing more.
It was inevitable that the series finale would require one final, epic battle against the titular zombie hordes. “The Walking Dead” was always at its best when it leaned into its comic-book roots, after all, and to its credit, the episode delivers plenty of vivid, comics-worthy action, including several huge explosions and enough shots of tearing flesh and spurting blood to temporarily make vegetarians of us all.
For all of the destruction, though, there was very little actual consequence. Rather than providing anything resembling true devastation, the finale gave us exactly one major character death. What’s more, they provided it via the tried-and-true “Walking Dead” trope of a character seemingly escaping peril — only to dramatically lift their shirt to show the audience a stray zombie bite, then malinger for another half hour. While it’s natural to want to give Rosita (Christian Serratos) a final sendoff worthy of her long tenure on the series, she frankly deserved a more spectacular exit. Her final moments were bittersweet, but not nearly as much of a gut punch as they would have been had she died in the heat of battle like the badass she was for much of the series.
It’s true, of course, that the plot was not driven by deaths alone, and to its credit, the finale did slightly more justice to the surviving main cast. Several individual character moments, in fact, dug deep into the show’s lore and rhymed beautifully with scenes from earlier seasons. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) began his run on the series as a cowardly priest who’d shut his congregants out of his church at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse; when he risks his life to open gates and offer sanctuary to Commonwealth residents fleeing the hordes, it’s a perfect full-circle moment. Similarly, Negan has evolved from the series’ most bloodthirsty villain to a man who is finally able to offer true remorse for his actions, and Maggie’s heartfelt response to his apology felt true to both characters’ journeys. It’s almost enough to believe that they’d be willing to embark on further adventures together. (And, of course, they’re slated to next year.)
The denouement is followed by a 10-minute coda that fast-forwards a year and recalls the epilogue to the 1998 Kevin Costner vehicle “The Postman,” of all things, in which the community’s new leader dedicates a memorial to the fallen and ushers in a new era of peace. (This can’t be unintentional–one character is even shown delivering mail.) Eugene (Josh McDermitt) has started a family; Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Mercer (Michael James Shaw) and Carol (Melissa McBride) have embraced leadership roles; Daryl roams the frontier in search of adventure. If it’s not the most original place to leave the story, it’s at least a happy one, and a deserved one.
But we’re not done yet. A second coda then attempts to give the fans what they truly wanted – the return of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). Unfortunately, what should be a moment of pure excitement is undercut by the fact that it is almost entirely unrelated to the events of the previous hour.
There is a clumsy attempt to tie them back to their children and community via a monologue that plays over the aforementioned final montage. But most of Rick and Michonne’s return is given over to what can only be described as a trailer for their own upcoming spinoff, as Rick surrenders on a beach to an unseen entity and Michonne saddles up a horse in pursuit. It’s hard to gauge exactly how much of an appetite remains for answering the questions this raises, but leaving things here only serves to remind us that while “The Walking Dead” itself may be over, the franchise lives on. Whether it thrives or merely shambles along as a shell of its former self remains to be seen.