This article contains spoilers for Season 9, Episode 5 of The Walking Dead.
Rick Grimes is gone and it looks like The Walking Dead might be better for it.
Despite advertising to the world that Sunday’s episode “What Comes After” was going to be lead actor Andrew Lincoln’s last hurrah, The Walking Dead managed to produce one of the best episodes in the series’ eight-year history that was both heartfelt and refreshingly surprising.
At the end of Episode 4 of Season 9, Rick rode off on his own to draw away a horde of zombies, until to be reared off his horse and find himself impaled on a piece rebar, jutting up out of his abdomen. “What Comes After” picked up right after with an emotionally charged, suspenseful scene of Rick digging deep and freeing himself just in time to get away.
Rick’s hurt. It’s bad. He’s slipping in an out of consciousness with a shambling mass of undead nipping at his heels. Rick is on a death march.
What follows is a Rick-centric episode, taking us into his fever dreams where the show revives meta versions of past characters like Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Hershel (Scott Wilson) in a sort of homage to the show, which comes off as a touching reprieve to Rick’s seemingly inevitable demise.
There was definitely a rose-tinted glasses vibe going on. Although I knew while watching this episode that the last eight years of The Walking Dead were consistently oscillating between boring and predictable, “What Comes After” effectively tugged at those nostalgic strings between some stellar moments of acting from Lincoln.
Meanwhile, back at the Sanctuary, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) was storming in with wrath in her veins and a weapon in her hand to kill Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who murdered her husband Glenn (Steven Yeun).
The scene stands out as one of the best to ever grace The Walking Dead, where an emaciated Negan pleads for Maggie to end his suffering and his life so he can finally die, be at peace, and be with his wife Lucille.
“Please kill me, please kill me,” he pleads, “I should be dead, I have to be dead.”
It’s gripping, and it catches Maggie off guard, who decides it’s a worse punishment to let the man who murdered Glen and others to live with his guilt.
Back to Rick, who keeps passing out. He’s losing blood. We see some iconic scenes like Hershel’s farm, the “Don’t Open Dead Inside” doors from the hospital, Atlanta.
Rick is stumbling forward, bleeding, walking like a zombie as the horde continues to follow him. He’s on the edge of death and he tries to lure the slow-moving group of people eaters over a bridge that’s just begging to collapse.
There are close calls, some fake outs, and Rick’s last move is to shoot some bundles of dynamite, blowing up the bridge and zombies and saving the day for everyone else, sacrificing himself.
It’s heartbreaking, until moments later when Anne (Pollyanna McIntosh) with a walkie talkie sees him washed up on the side of the river that the bridge ran over. And then one of the biggest twists to ever hit the show occurs: the helicopter we first learned about a year ago appears on the horizon, and Rick is ferried away through the skies to some unknown location.
Maybe it’s a stable settlement, maybe there are some parts of the world that aren’t in such dire straits as the southeastern U.S. It’s intensely intriguing. The possibilities of what this means are just swirling.
And then, boom, time jump, where we see a roughly 10-year-old Judith saving a group of 20-somethings from zombies with her dad’s old gun.
There hasn’t been an episode ending this enticing in a very long time.
Andrew Lincoln’s last episode was shockingly outstanding. And while he was one of the best actors on the show with some truly compelling performances throughout the years, the show needed to move on. The Walking Dead has been stuck in a sort of complacent loop of the same old stuff.
The show was exciting at the beginning, it felt fresh and fun, but as the years wore on, it just felt like the same old things were happening to the same old characters. This shake up is exactly what the show needed to inject a little excitement into it.
For the first time in years, I’m excited to watch the next episode of The Walking Dead.
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