‘The Walking Dead’ Abandons Hope But Keeps Its Honor in Midseason Return

People who eat people are the hungriest people in the world. But ex-people are rank amateurs when it comes to feeding terror in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The still-living residents of the zombie apocalypse have to fight for every morsel left behind and rarely stop to consider whether they bit off more than they can chew. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) believes he can satisfy the survivors with civilized coexistence, and rose up in rebellion against the magnetic reigning monarch Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his Saviors. The midseason finale, “How It’s Gotta Be,” ended on a game-changing cliffhanger, as young Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) delivered his people into relative safety, and some bad news. “I just got bit,” Carl tells his father simply, with just the hint of an apologetic smile.

“The Walking Dead” season 8, episode 9 picks up the loose threads and moves quickly through its 86 minutes. Greg Nicotero directed “Honor” intimately. Even the battle scenes take a pensive tone as the focus is on two main fighters. Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol (Melissa McBride) really are the dynamic duo. There is nothing they can’t do, given a stick and a gun, or a couple twigs and a hard rock. They are masters of stealth and surprise, whether in hand-to-hand combat or as sharpshooting snipers. Now that Morgan got a taste for killing, he is a gut-grabbing enthusiast, and Carol was always capable of taking out a regiment in time to take a freshly baked cake out of a makeshift oven.

The two-team special force won’t leave a soldier behind. Ezekiel (Khary Payton), who was captured after leading his ragtag team of innocent survivors in a series of battles against insurmountable odds, confides to his captors he made a choice he can live with. During his time interacting with Negan’s crew, he got it. He understood the shitty options of the new world order, and created a mythical kingdom in his head that everyone could fit into comfortably. He didn’t have big ideas, only a large, wild cat. He was just an actor out on loan borrowing against an uncertain future.

“The Walking Dead” sometimes uses death as a crutch, propping up filler episodes with the lives and limbs of its featured players in lieu of forward motion. “Honor” brings the arc to a point of no return.  The episode is emotional. It is a purposeful tearjerker with Carl as doomed youth. Riggs does some of his best work in his swan song. The young actor, who started playing the role at the age of 10, is probably off to college armed with the moral education he got from the show. Many of the tight, pained, close-ups of the father would fit cleanly into Biblical epics, but it is the son who learns the hard lesson that every good deed gets punished. He gave his life helping a stranger, Siddiq (Avi Nash), honor the dead before joining the fold.

That act of kindness came back to bite him on the ass, a death sentence on a zombie show. Carl is young, healthy and has a strong immune system, having covered himself in innards to walk among the dead, so the disease spreads slowly. We have time to watch the progress and are given the leisure of some diagnostic speculation. What would happen if Carl bit someone while in the process of zombification? Is the pathogen already contagious? Everyone living in the world of “The Walking Dead” is a walking infection, waiting for death to trigger the rebirth. Carl, of course, wouldn’t do this, but this reviewer was a little worried when he was saying goodbye to his little sister, he might give her a little love bite.

The episode is a milestone for the series. Carl dies. And dies and dies. He writes goodbye notes to each individual resident living in Alexandria with post scripts for their neighbors in The Kingdom and on The Hilltop. He plants a tree, plays with his little sister Judith, even snags a last snack from his bucket list. And then he dies some more. He dies a little in the sewers underneath the town, and finally dies a final death off camera in one of the houses left standing after the wreckage wrought by Negan. Carl killed his mother after she turned zombie, but spares his best friend Michonne (Danai Gurira), and her boyfriend his father, the burden of that memory. He shoots himself in the head. He even uses a silencer. Carl is a very considerate kid.

Carl is the moral center of “The Walking Dead.” Everything Rick Grimes did in the series was to pass the sheriff’s hat on to the next generation. With Carl goes hope. “It always has to get dark, ugly and inhuman,” Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) of the Saviors concludes eloquently. Every time things get almost peaceful, all-out war is just an insult away. Who else but Carl could imagine his little sister running happily through gardens bringing Eugene’s apples to the rakish Negan? Rick certainly can’t. Carl’s ideology was forged when his father chose to stopped fighting, but the tagalong kid from the generation that follows him is all-too-eager to plunge a stick through the throat of a hostage who might have been spared. “Honor” flashes back to the flash-forward from the season premiere when all fighting stops. The future fantasia is only a fantasy.

The Walking Dead” season 8 returned with episode 9 on Feb. 25 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.