Abandoned Metro line, nightfall: Maggie Rhee is leading a small group of Alexandrians (and recently arrived Meridians) through the path of an old public transit route. Suddenly, the group comes upon a vast pile of bodies, each wrapped up individually in plastic. Rather than risk them rising up to threaten anyone, she gives a simple order: “Take each one out—we’re not stopping.” Out come the knives, plunging into brains, as the men and women slowly make their way along the path. Here is The Walking Dead in its purest form: Hard-bitten survivors, stabbing walkers, all so they can do nothing but keep moving. Like a shark, if they stop, it seems clear they’ll die.
It’s strange to think that, almost 11 years ago, a six-episode limited series based on a zombie comic book debuted on AMC, and almost instantly became one of the biggest things on television. Here we are, after ten seasons’ worth of follow-up, and ultimately, the show is doing the same thing it always has: Follow beaten-down humans as they delicately thread their way through hordes of the undead, trying to survive long enough to find a measure of stability and safety. There was a time when AMC execs, and a surprisingly large percentage of people involved with making the series, thought it could feasibly go on indefinitely. In some ways, we should be thanking the enormous number of viewers who tuned out over the last couple of seasons; were it not for them, we would likely be reading stories in the trades about the show’s renewal through season 14. Instead, after a decade of death and dramatics, we’re at the beginning of the end.
Having a timetable for an endgame is one of the more beneficial creative gifts a serialized hourlong drama like The Walking Dead can receive. (Just ask season three of Lost.) Sure, the series could’ve arguably kept plugging away, season after season, with new variations on the same old threats and different iterations of the same soapy interpersonal drama that has come to define the show, but then it would’ve truly turned into the soap-opera-with-zombies its detractors already claim it’s become. (That point isn’t without merit.) But the best stories tend to have a beginning, middle, and end, and starting to tee up a final approach—even one somewhat neutered by the knowledge that The Adventures Of Carol And Daryl will continue, rendering them indestructible for now—reintroduces the concept of stakes to this world, at least beyond “what characters will eat it this season?” Now, there’s a ticking clock on everything.
The opening sequence of “Acheron: Part 1" was reminiscent of a similar recent season premiere: season nine’s “A New Beginning,” with its tension-filled trip to the Washington, D.C. museum for supplies. Here, it’s an army base, and the walkers all sprawled out, motionless, on the floor was a nice reminder that, after nearly 1o years, the original undead are starting to dessicate to the point where they’re running out of steam most of the time. Our heroes are busily stockpiling MREs to feed all the mouths suddenly facing a total lack of crops, and there’s some nice moments of stress, though once the walkers rise up and start attacking, the tension actually drains a bit; all our protagonists are such ass-kickers now, there’s simply not enough of a sense of danger established, even with the large numbers of undead in the hangar.
Once everyone’s back at the burnt-out husk of Alexandria, though, the stakes for the episode come into play. The group needs food, badly, so a bunch of them, led by Maggie, set off to her old home of Meridian, in hopes of taking out the military-type dudes, nicknamed “Reapers,” who overran it and killed most of her people. (You may remember that we met one of these guys in the first season 10 “bonus episode” from earlier this year.) That’s already not much of a plan, but very quickly things get even more fly-by-night: A thunderstorm forces them into the D.C. Metro underground, where groaning pipes and a water line on the walls make it quite clear a flood could come at any time. And yet, when Negan voices these beyond-obvious concerns, everyone—even normally rational Daryl—decides to side with Maggie’s “damn the torpedoes” attitude and plunge ahead, blithely uncaring of the risk.
Look, I get it, the show wants to highlight the antagonism between Maggie and Negan, but it probably could’ve done so in a way that made everyone else seem less stupid. Honestly, when the hitherto unknown Gage and Roy ran away with the group’s supplies and rations, it felt like they were the only ones making the smart call, even though the show wanted to paint it as an act of cowardice. But at least when the meat of the scene—the entire reason we got this whole elaborate setup—came around, it felt worth it: Negan called out Maggie’s bloodlust for what it was. “I’ll tell you why I’m here. She brought me here to die.” He says it aloud, and no one can deny it, not even Maggie, despite her claim that the remaining part of her old self is kind enough to not murder him where he’s standing. Sure, he had to go and ruin it by dumbly citing Glenn (earning him an instant punch in the face from Daryl), but it’s nice that the series is making a strong case for both sides, here, rather than just glibly siding with Maggie as blindly as the rest of the group.
The other major story in this premiere was the Commonwealth. Eugene, Yumiko, Ezekiel, and Princess are all still held captive by this mysterious new group, and being subjected to lengthy interrogations meant to suss out whether they can, in the words of the auditors, “pass to the next level,” or be “sent back for reprocessing.” Eugene keeps urging patience, making the reasonable case that extreme caution is warranted for any group of people, but after we see another guy being carried out screaming for said “reprocessing,” even the guy who’s been holding out hope to see his radio paramour, Stephanie, admits it’s time to cut and run. So the four of them bail, only to pass by a “Wall of the Lost” on their way out, where Yumiko discovers a photograph of her sister, and a note saying her sibling is looking for her. That’s enough to pull her up short, which presumably means all four of them are heading right back into their cells to await the next move from the Commonwealth.
There are a lot of small gaps in logic and practicality that beggar belief, if you think about them too hard. (Princess and company simply walk out of the Commonwealth’s makeshift prison once they learn about two guards periodically leaving their posts to have sex? Sure.) And the way this episode simply winds up characters and sets them off on ill-considered missions isn’t exactly the most thoughtful treatment of these characters we’ve gotten to know so well. But it’s fleet, and efficient, and it creates some meaningful stakes right out of the gate, all of which help to make this a fun and reasonably compelling installment of the show. Yes, it has a ways to go before all of this feels weighty in a way that doesn’t come across like a tired rehash of seasons we’ve seen before. But the knowledge that this is the last hurrah helps sell some of the weaker material. If this is the beginning of the end, then The Walking Dead has bought some time and goodwill to develop these final narratives; we’ll see if that goodwill pays off.
- It’s been far too long since we’ve gotten to see Carol just mowing down walkers with an automatic weapon, no?
- Welcome to Duncan (Marcus Lewis) and Agatha (Laurie Fortier), the two newly arrived members of Maggie’s old crew who are given names and get to talk.
- I get Maggie’s people giving Negan the cold shoulder (“That him?” one coldly gestures towards Negan when they first arrive at Alexandria), but the way Daryl and Gabriel go along with shitting on the former Savior leader feels like a step backward.
- For a guy who just had a massive coughing fit in front of them, Ezekiel seems awfully confident that the Commonwealth auditors aren’t going to put two and two together and realize that he’s dying.
- Princess’ near-photographic recall again makes for some entertaining exchanges.
- On a similar note, Yumiko saying, “Who remembers their zip code?”, followed by Eugene rattling off his entire history of zip codes, was a nice, if goofy, comic bit.
- The idea that Maggie’s last home, Meridian, was always just a day or so’s travel out from Alexandria has real “last season of Game Of Thrones, nowhere’s more than a day’s ride apart from anywhere else” vibes.
- Welcome, everyone, to the final season of recaps for The Walking Dead! If you’re like me, and started watching this show way back in 2010, you presumably have a similar sense of nearing the end of a long journey. And even if you started watching last year, thanks for joining us! I look forward to hearing your theories and discussing this series’ final episodes with all of you.