The Ultimate Walking Dead Season 8 Midseason Recap
Let's talk about the first half of the season.
By Chris Morse
As The Walking Dead heads into its winter midseason break, this affords us some time to take a look at this season's first 8 episodes. There's been some buzz about ratings being down, but make no mistake, this show still brings in a colossal amount of viewers that would make any network happy. Although viewer fatigue surely plays a part in this slight decline, after so many years on the air, the show has been at its best when it brings its main characters together, which it failed to do very well last year, aside from the key premieres and finales. It took some time, but in season 8 the presence of Negan and the Saviors has finally accomplished that much.
The first episode drops us right in the middle of what we soon see is an organized plot to take down Negan. The viewer has to play catch up and piece together a few different time jumps, most notably a few scenes from the future showing a slightly-more-grey Rick with a cane. Unless there are a few more deviations coming, as the TV adaption usually does, readers of the comic book have a decent idea of when this takes place and what has happened. The rest of us, however, have to put those clues in the back of our minds as we're pulled back into the present to watch the attack on the Saviors unfold. There are a number of locations in play here as the forces of Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom each have a part to play in this battle.
We are left with things looking somewhat good for Rick and the gang, as the plot to surround the Sanctuary with walkers is largely successful and the group moves on to the next phases of their plan. There's a few loose ends, as Father Gabriel's almost-annoying kindness gets him left behind and trapped in a trailer with none other than Negan himself. There's a couple of cliffhangers spread around that the showrunners use to put characters on ice for a few episodes as they take us to different locations in this all-out war. Elsewhere, King Ezekiel, Carol, and their merry band of soldiers start off with plenty of success as we head into episode 2, chock full of shoot-outs at a warehouse where every Savior or Alexandria/Hilltop/Kingdom (AHK, as dubbed by Eugene later on in the season) fighter has the approximate accuracy of a stormtrooper.
There's one notable fatality, as a bullet somehow finds Aaron's partner Eric, giving us a little drama to cap off this otherwise uneventful shoot-out. As this is going on, Rick and Daryl are infiltrating their own building to track down some of the Saviors' heavy weapons, leaving Rick in a tricky spot as he runs into none other than season 1's Morales, from way back in Atlanta, who is now among the Savior's ranks. This cliffhanger ends rather abruptly in the next episode as Daryl, embracing the brutality of war, begins to adopt his new shoot-first and have-mercy-later approach, interrupting their stand-off with a quick arrow to the head. It becomes clear that this angle is definitely going to reach some kind of boiling point soon enough, as Rick starts to think about what's to come once the war is finished. There will still be Saviors out there once Negan is gone and a little mercy might go a long way toward providing some stability, so you could tell Daryl's approach is going to strike some nerves in the coming episodes.
Another couple of interesting angles pop up in the third episode, where Jesus opts to take a group of Savior soldiers prisoner instead of killing them. Naturally, this provides plenty of in-fighting in the episodes to follow. Gregory also shows up again after a series of cowardly and self-serving acts, prompting the people of Hilltop to have their own disagreements on what to do with him after he tried to betray AHK. These themes carry us to the end of the episode where the Kingdom's fortunes in battle take a sharp downturn when those heavy machine guns Rick was searching for turn up and are used to take out most of their forces.
This takes us into the quarter mark of the season. With most of the Kingdom's forces wiped out, a wounded King Ezekiel is left to assess the situation and try to survive. His morale takes a beating here, as all of the fallen on the battlefield begin to turn and he begins to doubt his ability to lead his people. He narrowly makes it out of there after being captured by an especially-creepy Savior, who leads him along in hopes of gaining some favor with Negan. This creep's dreams of bringing down the king are quickly dashed by a surprise appearance from Jerry, who literally cleaves the guy in half with a mighty swing of his axe.
After reuniting with Carol, the three make their escape to head back to Kingdom. The fight against all the walkers gets pretty dire as Ezekiel grapples with his identity. He's just some guy, not your majesty, and he's at rock bottom ready to sacrifice himself right then and there. Shiva comes to the rescue and that is sadly the end of our favorite tiger. After losing his infamous companion, the dejected and broken king arrives back at home and can't even muster the strength to speak to his people. This was one of the more interesting points of conflict to come out of this half of the season. Even though King Ezekiel admitted, on a few occasions, that he's just winging it and the hope he gives his people is more than enough justification to play king, this is the first time he is truly feeling like a fraud. After losing many of his fighters, and his beloved tiger, he's at his lowest and chooses to go into isolation instead of picking himself back up.
Episode 5 finally brings us inside the Sanctuary, where the situation has not improved in the slightest. The lieutenants have to assume Negan is dead as they try to come up with a plan to restore order and somehow survive this. It starts us off with a flashback to reveal a few missing pieces of the story, such as the Gregory's meeting with the Saviors' top brass, leading up to Rick's arrival at the sanctuary that sets the battle in motion. The episode brings us back to Negan and Gabriel in the trailer, who eventually agree to work together to get out of a very bad situation. This scene actually provides some solid character work as our favorite preacher continuously presses Negan to confess his wrongdoings and he gives in just enough to reveal some backstory about losing his first wife -- his real wife from before the outbreak.
The wearing zombie guts to blend in and escape tactic also makes its comeback in this episode, with the two using that tried-and-true method to escape the trailer. In the meantime, the situation between the people of the Sanctuary and its lieutenants starts to get extremely tense until Negan shows back up and successfully gets everybody on the same page once again. Now that he's back in the fold, he tasks Eugene with finding the Saviors a way out of this mess and departs for a well-needed shower. During this process, Eugene is able to put two-and-two together to realize that Dwight is the inside man who's been helping AHK in this war against the Saviors. We know he always looks out for himself at this point, as demonstrated by his willful cooperation with Negan, so there's some genuine fear this knowledge might come to jeopardize the coalition's efforts to win this war.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned point of tension between Rick and Daryl finally comes to fruition. They literally come to blows over the idea of using explosives, recently acquired from some now-departed Saviors in a truck, in the battles to come. Rick believes there's a better way and Daryl continues to embrace the approach of doing whatever it takes to finish this war, regardless of casualties. Their skirmish naturally winds down when the truck containing all of these potential weapons explodes after Rick tosses the away the dynamite, basically giving them nothing left to fight over. There's still some tension here as Daryl refuses to ride with Rick, so they go their separate ways and depart from the area. Interestingly enough, Rick spots a helicopter flying overhead which raises more than a few questions at this stage of the outbreak.
Episode 6 brings us up to a few days later for the various colonies to regroup and come up with the next steps in their plan to take Negan out of the equation. Rick shows up on his own to meet with the garbage people Scavengers in a questionable bid to ask for their help yet again after their last betrayal. This time, his approach differs in that their answer hinges on a threat to wipe them out if they refuse to agree. They say no and lock him in a shipping container for the next episode or two, effectively putting our fearless leader on the back-burner while the rest of the group figures out how to screw things up.
Speaking of screwing things up, a few renegade citizens of Alexandria (Daryl, Tara, Rosita, and Michonne) decide they want to get into the fray and get involved in the war. Some of their motivations are a little different, such as Michonne just wanting to see the state of the Sanctuary for herself, but Daryl and Tara are hell-bent on trying to end the war themselves. The viewer at this point is probably wondering what kind of mess this will create, as it usually does, but nonetheless they set out on their own to give it their best effort. This episode also features a little more drama with the prisoners taken to the Hilltop colony as Maggie decides to build a makeshift prison to lock up the captured Saviors, and Gregory to boot. Otherwise, King Ezekiel is still grappling with his self-doubt and continues to isolate himself despite Carol's outreach.
One angle not mentioned here yet is Carl's run-in with a character named Siddiq. In an earlier episode, he comes across this loner who seems friendly but gets chased off by warning shots from Rick. Carl later returns to give this person some food as sort of a peace offering and returned to find him again in episode 6. Taking on more of a leadership role, he has clearly begun to think about taking chances on people and asks the famous 3 recruitment questions that we've seen in the past. Satisfied with Siddiq's answers, Carl offers him a spot in Alexandria and sets off to lead him back to the colony. One must wonder at this point if this is going to backfire sometime soon, but this situation and the viewer's questioning of that trust adds another interesting element to the season, alongside that very important question of "what's next?" once the battles are over and whether or not the group at war should show mercy now to create stability later.
The drama is really starting to unfold in episode 7, which thrusts us both inside and outside the Sanctuary for the bulk of our time watching. Outside, the Alexandria renegades arrive and finalize their plan to drive a garbage truck into the side of the building to let the walkers in. Michonne and Rosita both bow out of this effort, but Morgan is among the snipers keeping watch and ensures Daryl they'll have cover fire to execute their plan. Inside the sanctuary, everything is now centering around Eugene. We've got the traitor situation unfolding with Dwight since Eugene caught on that he's been helping the AHK forces, while at the same time Negan is telling him what he wants to hear to stay on board with the cause. Father Gabriel is also not doing so well after developing an illness from his earlier zombie-guts escape, but he at least musters up the strength to give Eugene some very wise counsel that sadly falls on deaf ears throughout the episode, but at this point we aren't sure if he's going to make it either.
Eugene continues to have some conflict with Dwight, who tells him to do nothing to stop the plan in motion if he wants to end up on the winning side. All of Negan's pandering, however, has given Eugene a bit of confidence to continue to help the Saviors try to draw the walkers away from the building. It's clear that he's having trouble sleeping at night at this point, despite being an admitted self-serving coward and rationalizing that he's doing the right thing so long as his mission is saving his own skin. Eugene comes up with an idea to save the Sanctuary but is confronted by Dwight, who stops short of pulling the trigger on him but not without disrupting his rescue effort. At the same time, Daryl kicks off his own plan and sends the garbage truck barrelling into the side of building to let the walker herd inside.
This creates a chaotic situation within the Sanctuary as the Savior soldiers are forced to use their bullets to defeat the zombies and defend their home, lest they all die there. Eugene, enraged at the earlier interference, meets with Negan with the intent of revealing Dwight's treachery, but chooses not to do so once the others arrive. They at least come to another arrangement about making more bullets to replace what they have to use to defend their people, but we can tell Eugene is grappling with his self-serving mentality and what Father Gabriel told him. Will he do the right thing? It's hard to say at this point, honestly. The way he's been cooperating with the Saviors truly fits his character of adapting to do whatever it takes to look out for himself, but somebody is bound to get through to him at some point during this war, we hope.
The end of the episode brings us back to Rick, who is awkwardly photographed in his underwear at the junkyard and brought out to fight another armored zombie, which is supposed to be a Scavenger death sentence of sorts. Naturally, the Alexandria leader overcomes the challenge and turns the tables on on Jadis to get her people to stand down. This is where he finally gets her to agree to his join-us-or-be-wiped-out deal. A little bit of time passes as Rick and his new allies (for now?) arrive at the Sanctuary only to discover the carnage left behind from Daryl's plan. All of the zombies that were outside are now out of sight. It remains to be seen if the Saviors have successfully held off the herd or if things are still in disarray inside. This leads us right into the midseason finale.
We cap off the first half of season 8 with a longer, 90-minute episode and pick up right where we left off. RIck's conclusion that their enemies have escaped is quickly validated by gunfire from the Sanctuary. Fortunately, Carol shows up so they can make a quick exit to thrust us right into what else in store, which turns out to be quite a lot with most of it being not particularly good. Aside from the somewhat out-of-place Oceanside detour for Aaron and Enid, we mostly find our action split up between the each of the AHK targets as the Saviors are quickly striking back in full power.
The main target is Alexandria, where Carl decides to man up and wear the leadership hat. Negan himself shows up there with a promise to bring "scorched earth" as retaliation for Rick bringing this war against him. At the same time, the Kingdom gets quickly occupied by more of his forces just as the Hilltop group heads right into another Savior trap. It's safe to admit that everything is screwed up, everywhere, at this point. Back at Alexandria, Carl hatches up a plan to evacuate while stalling Negan long enough for most of their people to make a run for it. Our villain is taken by surprise by Carl's willingness to die for peace, to save lives, and to end this attack before it happens. This buys just enough time for the bulk of Alexandria citizens to escape out back, partially thanks to Dwight's intentionally-shoddy effort at covering that exit.
At the Kingdom, most of the people left there are gathered up and told how things will work from now on. They're also looking for Ezekiel and making increasing threats to the group while they try to find him. Fortunately, they don't have to wait too long as he shows up with some explosions that serve as a distraction to get his people evacuated to safety. All in all, he's left in the Saviors' custody as some other members of the Kingdom await outside, planning their next move. The show pretty much sticks a fork in what's going on there until next February when season 8 continues, but there's still a bit more to wrap up here in other locations. At the Sanctuary, Eugene finally has a change of heart and offers his assistance to allow Father Gabriel to escape the facility with the doctor. They go a little heavy on implying this will help him sleep better at night, but he still has no intention of escaping with them because he still feels he belongs there as it's his best chance of survival.
The situation with Hilltop is a bit less bleak. At the roadblock, Simon gives them the good news that they've been chosen to continue producing and will escape this blowback mostly unscathed, with the exception of him making an example of a random throwaway character as punishment. Has anyone even seen that Neil guy before tonight? In any case, they are told to head back to the colony and get back to doing what they do best: farming. Maggie has other plans, however, as she returns to deliver vengeance on one of her prisoners. She shoots the unarmed captive in cold blood, citing that he tried to kill Jesus earlier in the season as her reason, and has him loaded into a box with a message for the Saviors to find. She orders her people to begin fortifying the Hilltop because it's clear that's where they will be making their last stand.
Throughout all of this action, Alexandria is under a full-scale attack as Negan orders his men to torch every house there, with the exception of Rick's, where he will be waiting to kill the leader of this rebellion. Carl is a bit hobbled from a fall and a few explosions around town, but is mostly avoiding the invaders by means of smoke bombs. Outside of Alexandria, Dwight leads his own group of Saviors into an obvious trap and turns full traitor as he opens fire on some of his soldiers. He's dealt a non-fatal wound as one of them gets away, who will surely reveal his treachery to their people, so he asks to join forces with the shared desire to kill Negan. With Dwight in tow, they head back to the city to hide out in the Sewers and ride out the attack.
For the last stretch of the midseason finale, we follow Rick as he returns to see Alexandria up in flames. His first instinct is to head back home in search of Carl, Michonne, and Judith. Instead, he comes face-to-face with Negan and they come to blows. After a pretty satisfying fight, Rick is able to get away and find Michonne, who leads him to the sewers where the rest of their people are hiding out safely. There, he slowly makes his way through the tunnels to find a lot of grim faces. At the end, he spots Siddiq, who was being hid down there for some time. Before Rick could ask any questions, Carl speaks up, "I brought him here... that's how it happened." He lifts his shirt to reveal that he has been bitten. Our characters all know what this means and this half of the season wraps up on a somber note, knowing that Carl is now facing a death sentence.
Readers of the comic book should know that Carl is still alive and well there. This isn't the show's first major departure from the graphic novels, but it is as significant of a departure as what happened with Andrea or Carol, whose fates drastically differed in the TV adaption. These swaps usually come with some kind of trade-off, such as Michonne becoming Rick's lover during this time period instead of Andrea like in the comics. This gives us some ground to speculate on, at least, because Judith could end up being the one growing up and growing as a character in the coming years of the storyline, instead of Carl. Perhaps his age and the pacing of the show played a role in this change-up, giving the Judith theory some credence, but it's very possible that outside factors see Chandler Riggs moving on. Either way, this was a very surprising revelation that gives us a lot to think about over the next few months.
In conclusion, we were given a pretty strong half-season of television that gave us a lot of action and kept our main characters together, without any real filler material at all. It was a lot less frustrating to watch than the last season, where it felt like the group was foiled by Negan at every turn and forced to just deal with it. Having some wins lead up to to the midseason finale's devastating defeat at least made this feel like a war, where some battles are won and some are lost. Our groups are down for now but not necessarily out. The Walking Dead returns from hiatus in February and should give us the opportunity to see how they can bounce back from this. There's still a lot of ground to cover in the next 8 episodes.