The midseason finale is as long and tedious as so much of season 8, but a game-changing cliffhanger is a terrifying reminder that no one is ever safe.
WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 8 midseason finale
It's no secret that The Walking Dead season 8 hasn't been the series' best, not even close. And though there was a promising start, what with Rick's renewed purpose and the forming of a coalition, these first eight episodes of the season still come across as mostly filler with the occasional big development sprinkled along the way. In the end, that's precisely how this midseason finale plays out - almost ninety minutes of characters making decisions that serve no purpose other than padding out the runtime, ending on a shocking cliffhanger that's clearly meant to renew interest in a series many viewers have given up on.
Picking up with events just as Rick and The Scavengers discover that The Sanctuary is now walker-free, 'How It's Gotta Be' dispatches with that alliance in a comically fast fashion. This is unlikely to be the last we ever see of these garbage people, but for now, it's hilarious to think Rick spent an entire episode in his underwear trying to win them over, only for Jadis' crew to split at the first sign of danger. Luckily for Rick, Carol and Jerry happened to be driving to The Sanctuary just then (why, who knows?) and they give him a ride. They'll later switch from one car to three for no other reason than someone has to get captured (sorry, Jerry) and because conserving gas clearly no longer matters.
Speaking of using up all the fuel, it's revealed that Aaron and Enid are on their way to Oceanside in the hope they can convince them to join their little army. It's yet another dumb and poorly thought out plan that ends terribly when Enid accidentally kills Natania, their leader and Cyndie's grandmother, effectively ruining any chance at securing their help. Meanwhile, Eugene continues to grapple with his growing conscience, and after dosing one of the guards with laxatives, urges Gabriel to use this opportunity to escape with Dr. Carson. It's nice to see that Eugene hasn't entirely given up on saving lives and doing the right thing, but it would have been a lot better if the episode could have explained exactly how Eugene helped clear The Sanctuary of all those walkers. It is implied that he began manufacturing bullets and we hear music being played to lure the herd away, but other than saying "It was Eugene," no solid explanation is ever given - and that's frustrating.
'How It's Gotta Be' finds The Saviors back on the offensive, effectively undoing everything Rick had hoped his plan would achieve. Each community is punished: The Hilltop is to keep farming like the bread-basket they are; The Kingdom is to become The Saviors' new home; and Alexandria is bombed all to hell. However, each community still manages to revolt against The Saviors in some way. Maggie, for instance, doesn't do a thing to stop Simon's group from taking all their weapons but after he kills Neil (who? exactly), she kills one of their Savior prisoners in retaliation. This latest confrontation is clearly the last straw for Maggie, and she's now determined for the Hilltop to be where they make their last stand, leaving a message with the dead Savior for Negan to "stand down." Although it seems she's given up on being merciful, Maggie is really just becoming a hardened, wartime leader, making the tough calls that need to be made in order to keep her people safe.
Ezekiel is in a similar situation, having been brought out of his sad funk when Gavin's posse arrives. He ignites a huge explosion (there again is that total disregard for conserving fuel) and gives his people a chance to escape while he locks himself in with The Saviors. He's left in a precarious situation, but his selfless act cements his position as their king. Too bad he may not survive long enough to see it do any good. (Unless Morgan comes to his rescue, he was shown lurking around outside those locked gates.)
In Alexandria, they've been without any real leadership since Rick first left on his fool's errand, leaving those who remain to spend their days making their own foolish decisions. The biggest of these was Daryl and Tara's plan to attack The Sanctuary and end The Saviors for good. That obviously didn't pan out, but surprisingly, it doesn't appear to have really done any harm except perhaps speed up how quickly The Saviors retaliated. (Again, without the details of what Eugene did we can't be sure.) Once The Saviors do arrive, though, it's Carl who steps up and takes charge, staring down Negan in what is easily the best scene of the whole finale. Negan has always had a strange fascination with the young teen and Carl exploits that in order to buy enough time for people to escape. Their whole exchange features some great lines, giving Carl a chance show off what a capable leader and clever liar he's become, offering up his own life as punishment and fooling Negan into thinking they were sharing "a moment."
This episode gave so much attention to Carl that along with his take charge attitude, it should have been really obvious the kid's number was up. But Carl didn't die in the midseason finale nor did he endure any life-threatening injuries. Instead, Carl began this episode as a dead man walking, revealing that during an earlier episode he had suffered a walker bite on the side of his torso. Knowing death isn't far off is what emboldens his actions, leading to what is Chandler Riggs' strongest episodes in years and building towards an emotional exit for a character who's been around since the very beginning. Carl's impending death won't be the shocker that Glenn's was, but that doesn't lessen its impact.
We won't know just how badly Rick will take the death of his son until the midseason premiere (or longer if they really draw out Carl's illness), but it's unlikely to be something he'll handle well. Then again, the way in which this death will occur is different than if Negan or another Savior had just killed Carl, or even caused his bite - this was all Carl's choice, as his wanting to help another is what led to him being bitten. We can think Carl stupid or foolhardy for getting himself in this situation, but it was also kind and hopeful and very much his own decision, and that's worth respecting. That won't make his death less sad or lighten his father and mother's grief (because this is sure to break Michonne, too), but instead of instilling more fear his death can be an inspiring one, encouraging them in their war with a 'do it for Carl' mentality.
Carl's forthcoming death is a game-changer for the series, reinforcing the idea that absolutely no one is safe by killing a character deemed untouchable. However, though this development gives The Walking Dead a little more oomph as its heads into hiatus, it can't fully revive what has been a most tedious string of episodes. When the series returns next year, there needs to be a tighter control on pacing, a more refined focus on the story arcs that really matter, and for the love of everything, no more of those overly artsy extreme close-ups played out in a slow montage.
The Walking Dead season 8 returns Sunday, February 25th at 9pm/10c on AMC.