Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the series finale of "The Walking Dead."
"TWD" ended on a satisfying, safe finale with stand-out scenes from Maggie/Negan and Carol/Daryl.
It doesn't feel like a true conclusion since Rick and Michonne are still lost in the world.
Despite pandemic constraints, a limited budget, and a changed ending, "The Walking Dead" did the impossible. After meandering at times in its final 24-episode run, AMC's long-running apocalyptic drama stuck the landing with a satisfying, if safe, finale.
"Rest in Peace," written by Corey Reed and Jim Barnes and directed by executive producer Greg Nicotero, delivered just about everything longtime fans wanted to see: Plenty of time with the large ensemble cast working together as a unit instead of spread out, a few truly nail-biting moments for our heroes, at least three moving scenes, a perfect Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) moment in which they exchanged beautiful "I love yous," and the return of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), even if it may not have been in the way fans really wanted to see them (or the way the showrunner originally planned to utilize them).
Even scorned fans who may have dropped off years ago had a reason to tune into the "TWD" finale for a must-see moment. Six years later, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) finally apologized to Maggie (Lauren Cohan) for brutally killing her husband (and fan-favorite) Glenn on the 2016 season seven premiere, a moment which drove many viewers away from the series and hung over the show until its very end. Most impressive, it wasn't something to merely bait viewers to tune into the finale. It was an incredibly heartbreaking and emotionally complex scene exploring whether or not you can forgive someone for something monstrous.
I screened the "TWD" finale a few days ahead of its premiere in preparation for interviews with the showrunner and finale director. I wanted proper time to reflect on the final episode since this show has been a large part of my life — and fans' lives — for more than a decade.
"Rest in Peace" was far from a perfect finale. The show had time and budget constraints given that it had to pivot from a previously planned season 11 to deliver an extra-long 24-episode final season. The majority of the finale worked even if the series itself didn't arrive at a complete conclusion.
That's likely good enough for AMC since the network wants fans to continue watching its trio of "TWD" universe spin-off shows.
The finale had strong stand-out performances and smart conclusions to individual arcs
In addition to Maggie and Negan's long overdue scene, stand-out performances from Christian Serratos, Josh McDermitt, Melissa McBride, Norman Reedus, and Seth Gilliam carried the finale across the finish line.
One emotionally fraught moment occurs when Eugene (McDermitt) asks his best friend, Rosita (Serratos), if she is excited to be outside in the summer with her daughter, Coco. Upon first watch, the line may seem odd, but Eugene's trying to find an unobtrusive way to ask if Rosita was bitten while trying to save her daughter. In one of the series' most heartbreaking moments, Rosita reveals she has an inoperable bite. She asks Eugene to keep it quiet so as not to ruin the mood until everyone needs to know she's dying.
The scene plays even more emotionally when you know Serratos volunteered for her character to be killed off in the finale.
It's equally tough not to get misty-eyed near the end of the episode when Carol (McBride) and Daryl (Reedus) finally express their love for each other. Up until this point, the two have never outwardly admitted their feelings despite being fan-favorite besties for years throughout the series.
I also appreciate that in its final episode, "TWD" — a show that has broken barriers with more interracial couples than most TV series and one of the largest diverse casts — normalized platonic relationships between members of the opposite sex.
To have Carol and Daryl exchange an "I love you" without any romantic gesture was a satisfying and refreshing reveal. The show easily could've jumped the shark and allowed Carol and Daryl to kiss after 11 seasons, rocking the fandom, but instead, "TWD" made it clear emotional bonds with other human beings don't need to be physical in order to be rewarding.
Additionally, Father Gabriel (Gilliam) received one of the most fulfilling finale moments, bringing his character full circle. After locking his congregation out of his church at the start of the apocalypse, in the finale, he refuses to let history play out again at the Commonwealth. He puts his life on the line to save others from being torn apart by the dead. I genuinely feared Gabriel was going to die in one of the episode's many tense moments.
Nearly giving Governor Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) Carol's comic-book death was also an inspired moment I never thought we'd see play out on screen. In the comics, a depressed Carol walks straight into a walker, offering them her neck. On the show, after losing everything, Pamela sees that her former right-hand man, Lance (Josh Hamilton), has turned into a walker. She considers ending her life by allowing Lance to bite her. Zombie Lance is killed before Pamela has the opportunity.
There weren't many stakes, but if you wanted more deaths, you were missing the show's point
Rosita was one of three big deaths in the finale. While her death was shocking, the deaths of Luke (Dan Fogler) and his girlfriend, Jules (Alex Sgambati), two minor characters who were missing all season, were underwhelming and predictable. It didn't help that AMC accidentally revealed Luke's death in a teaser image for the finale about a week early.
You could argue that "TWD" became allergic to killing off big characters after Glenn and you wouldn't be wrong.
However, for those upset more characters weren't killed off, you were probably missing the series' point. As showrunner Angela Kang told me, many people survive the comic, which is really about how you create something sustainable for the next generation. A "carnage version" of the finale wouldn't have been true to the overall story.
Though we've had many protagonists in the series, Rick's daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming) has always served as a beacon of hope for the survivors to create a better world. By the show's end, they've found some version of that.
Dropped storylines, forgotten characters, and that ridiculous black eye
We could've done without the introduction of Daryl's ex-girlfriend, Leah, and variant walkers on the final eight episodes when there was already so much to wrap up. The variants, who could open doors and climb walls, largely felt added for larger world-building purposes because they didn't have much payoff. For instance, we saw a walker pick up a knife in one episode and then nothing came of it.
Instead, more time should've been spent addressing plot holes like the Oceanside community, which largely disappeared after an excellent 11b finale cliffhanger, or referencing Virgil, the only other person who knew that Michonne went off in search of Rick.
Perhaps there were pandemic complications with scheduling, but it feels like the show awkwardly ran out of time or wasn't sure how to handle those storylines.
One of the worst things about the finale may be Daryl's silly-looking and distracting black eye which appears near the episode's start with zero explanation.
The audience infers Daryl was knocked out by a Commonwealth soldier off-screen. The first time I watched the finale, the overly large black eye was so distracting that it was almost all I could focus on during any scene with Daryl. As Kelly (Angel Theory), Connie (Lauren Ridloff), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), and Magna (Nadia Hilker) were crying their eyes out over Luke's death, I was trying to figure out the mystery of Daryl's eye.
I initially suspected this must have been some sort of cover-up for Reedus' real on-set finale concussion, but Kang and director Nicotero told me that wasn't the case. Instead, Nicotero hinted during our conversation that the black eye was Reedus' suggestion. This addition was largely unnecessary.
The series' largest mistake was its failure to connect with the larger 'TWD' universe
The series' largest misstep in its final season was never taking a moment to connect the flagship series with its other two spin-offs, "Fear the Walking Dead" and "TWD: World Beyond." I put this blame more on AMC than the "TWD" creatives for gatekeeping because I learned this was, apparently, a frustration shared by some of those close to the series as well.
It simply wasn't believable that the Commonwealth, an Ohio community of 50,000 with loud, working trains, wouldn't have been detected by the "TWD: World Beyond" antagonists the Civic Republic Military, a group of 200,000 with stations on both coasts as well as an active fleet of helicopters.
If you're going to build out a universe, you should offer a payoff for long-time viewers who are tuning into every show. As I pointed out before, there were easy ways to connect the dots between the Commonwealth and CRM or to create threads between the multiple shows. The lack of integration between series makes the spin-offs feel like a waste of time.
The Rick and Michonne scene was cool until you know what was changed to bring them back
"TWD" finale had at least three endings: the flash-forward a year in time with our current group, a cut to the Rick and Michonne scenes, and then a mini scene with their kids, Judith and R.J.
Was it great seeing Rick and Michonne back? Absolutely.
But let's not kid ourselves.
Their insertion in the finale felt like more of an ad for the Rick and Michonne series than an organic addition. Taking place during two different timelines, it's a bit of a jarring sequence, especially since it was written by "TWD" chief Scott M. Gimple. It doesn't flow naturally with the rest of the episode because it's so tonally different, but it ultimately gives fans a nostalgic moment with the show's original characters.
Kang told me she originally pitched the duo's return in a different way. Any time I consider the finale now, I wonder what the original idea was for their return.
Regardless, the Rick and Michonne coda is a win-win for AMC. Not only does the network look like it did right by the fans by bringing back two beloved characters in the finale, but it also found a way to seamlessly draw hype for its upcoming series.
Additionally, according to Variety, Lincoln only agreed to return as long as he wasn't the final shot of the series.
That makes a lot of sense. The episode's final scene with R.J. and Judith staring out into the world felt random and out of place. "TWD" would've ended stronger on Rick, but it couldn't due to a contractual obligation.
Personally, I don't think the Rick and Michonne ending or the original ending was right for the series. The Richonne ending is the better of the two. After polling fans, a majority told me the ending they would've liked to see would've been one where Rick and Michonne reunited with everyone. The Richonne spin-off would've detailed their quest home. Perhaps that was Kang's original pitch.
A mostly satisfying ending, but it doesn't feel like a real finale with three spin-offs in the works
Despite ending on a happy and hopeful note for most of our characters, "TWD" finale doesn't feel like a true conclusion since R.J. and Judith are without their parents.
At some point down the line, AMC will likely want Rick and Michonne to have that giant reunion with their children and friends. That's when "TWD" will truly end. But by then, fans may not even care.
Any qualms I have with the finale mostly lie with AMC and not the creatives who gave it their all through a strenuous 17-to-18-month shooting process for a 24-episode final season, plus six bonus season 10 episodes. (Jeffrey Dean Morgan worked with broken feet while filming.)
It's a bittersweet goodbye for Kang and the writers. Kang came on as showrunner at a point when she was given every opportunity to fail. First Lincoln left in 2018. Then Gurira in 2020. Despite their absences, Kang turned a flailing series around to deliver one of the show's best seasons in years with season 10. Then the pandemic hit and the show was canceled. After delivering two strong seasons, instead of allowing Kang to continue crushing it, we're forced to say goodbye.
This wasn't the finale Kang envisioned, but it's one that satisfies the network as the "TWD" universe continues to expand.
At this point, it is what it is.
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