(Spoilers ahead for the season 8 mid-season premiere of “The Walking Dead”)
Well, it happened. We knew when Carl revealed his bite last year that he was a goner, and the cast and crew haven’t even tried to pretend otherwise. And in the mid-season premiere, Carl really did bite the dust in one of the show’s biggest departures from the comics on which it’s based.
It wasn’t a particularly good episode, honestly — at least not the parts with Carl, which were more emotional porn and not all that dramatically effective. I’d hoped that Carl (Chandler Riggs) would try to go out in a blaze of glory, since he knew his death was imminent anyway. One of the best moments on “The Walking Dead” ever was in the season 7 finale when Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) killed herself to turn the tide of the war with the Saviors — I figured Carl would try some similar gambit, since they’re still embroiled in that war and it’s not quite going as well as they’d hoped.
But no, he didn’t really do anything. This whole episode Carl just kinda hung out waiting to die while everybody told him how great he was until Rick (Andrew Lincoln) handed him a pistol and he shot himself. It was not what I would call a super engaging collection of scenes. Sure, other stuff happened too, but the majority of the episode really was spent watching Carl dying on a cot — they basically had his funeral while he was lying there, with everyone paying tribute to his face — and it’s understandably going to be the main topic of conversation until the show moves ahead from all this next week.
Premiere episodes are usually pretty eventful, whereas this felt more like a change-of-pace episode that comes in the middle of a run of episodes. So in that way, it was just strange in general. But, also, there’s not a ton of dramatic heft in watching people tearfully discuss how they’re going to honor Carl’s memory while Carl is sitting right there.
While Carl’s death was kind of a dud in terms of narrative momentum, all that stuff did serve a very important thematic purpose — as a pretty clear statement of intent for what kind of place Alexandria is going to be from here on out.
The first half of Season 8 has been preoccupied with a big philosophical debate about how the Alexandrians, Kingdommers and Hilltoppers should deal with the Saviors, and how that approach would dictate what kind of society they would build. On one side you have the hardliners like Maggie and Daryl and Morgan, and on the other side you had the folks who wanted to simply bring the conflict to a close so that everybody could live together in peace.
Rick was ostensibly a representative of the latter philosophy, given the statements he made to open the season, when they went on the offensive. Only one person had to die, he said, and that person was Negan. But he’s waffled from that occasionally, as he’d been spending a lot of time listening to Daryl talk about how hyped he was to murder every Savior.
Carl, meanwhile, unknowingly set the example for those who hoped to eventually live alongside the Saviors. And all the eulogizing Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Siddiq (Avi Nash) and everyone else were doing in this episode demonstrated a pretty significant shift for Alexandria: They’re going to honor Carl by doing whatever they have to to win the war against the Saviors… without becoming the Saviors themselves.
Carl’s death is forcing them to crystallize their idea of the world they want to make. In one of the more poignant moments, we see that the visions of the future we thought came from Rick all year actually were the world Carl wanted to usher in. He told Rick and Michonne what he wanted to happen, and now it’s up to them to bring it into existence.
So in that vein, this episode feels like an extremely important moment for these characters moving forward. It feels like “The Walking Dead” is positioning Carl’s death as being the thing that hardens their resolve to handle the rest of this war the right way, in order to bring about an as-close-to-utopian future as is possible in this world. Carl is, in death, lighting the way forward. It’s important that it wasn’t just Rick and Michonne hanging out with Carl this week — Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Tara (Alanna Masterson) and Rosita (Christian Serratos), who have been taking an extreme hardline stance all season, also got to witness a part of the emotional display, and they looked more than a little bit shaken and reflective about the whole thing.
So while this episode doesn’t really work as a self-contained chapter in this story, it manages to be possibly the most thematically significant episode in the entire series, and Carl’s death the most significant of its many main-character deaths. But that’s only if this goes the way it looks like it will. If Rick and Michonne live up to Carl’s last plea, that they stay civilized and work not just to defeat the Saviors, but also toward a world worth living in afterward. If they can “make it real” like Rick promised.
If they can do that, then Carl’s death will have more meaning than any that happened before on “The Walking Dead.”