‘The Walking Dead’ Season 8 Ends an Era With a Note of Hope and Threats From Within

“Wrath” ends more than “The Walking Dead” season 8. It closes a chapter that is larger than the Saviors. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is rebuilding the world the way he thinks it should be. He took righteous rage to the wrong place, again, and is ready to reclaim what’s left. Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) casts a lingering shadow over the second half of the season, and not only because it took Rick longer to read his letter than it did for his son to die. The kid’s last wish was for some kind of peace.

Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been a consistently magnetic character, even if his tenure coincided with a decline in fan enthusiasm. He’s got presence. His loopy grin puts a honey glaze over the worst punishments. Sure he was a despot who never choked up on his wood, but he had a vision of a unified world calling his name. He is always upfront, especially when he’s being underhanded. Rick is a deceitful and dirty fighter, capable of firing from a white flag. He is the kind of enemy who can slit someone’s throat in the middle of shaking on an armistice accord.

“We are worse than we were,” says Morgan (Lennie James), who is stuck in his own guilty fantasia. His quandary is real, especially in the middle of a battle in the middle of a world where the dead don’t stay that way. You can’t leave your enemies alive and unconscious because they’ll wake up and shoot you, you can’t leave them dead because they’ll get up and eat you. He wants to move forward, but even if he trades in community living for the isolated life of Oscar the Grouch in a trash heap, all he has to look forward to is more fear of the walking dead.

Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is probably the best community leader a post-zombie apocalypse world could have. Smiling in the face of death under a pretentious accent he learned in his second year of acting class, he is never inauthentic. As the battle plans, counter-attacks and false flags are being planted everywhere, he and the newly converted Savior prisoners are the real everymen in the epic battle.

After seasons of self-preserving chicken-shit inactivity, Eugene is finally ready to roll. But he’s ready to roll over his old friends. You might not know it from the way he fractures grammar, but he is actually the catalyst for the turnaround. His deft understanding of the combined coagulative and annoyance factors of regurgitated macaroni and cheese with sardines and garlic end the conflict with inverted propulsion. Still, we’re happy to see him get one last punch to the face. The wet and wild women of Oceanside join with a fiery last-minute entrance and the final conflict ends almost as soon as it begins. It’s a little too quick for Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who ends the battle in an emotionally wrenching moment of pain. Maggie has the potential to transform into a vengeful tyrant, and Daryl and Jesus have already turned enough cheeks on account of Rick.

The Saviors might have a point about Rick. Negan, and they are all Negan, demonized the leader of the Alexandria Safe-Zone, a post he inherited after the death of its former, idealistic leader Deanna Monroe. Rick is truly leaving a path of destruction in his wake. He neutered an alpha male wolf, outmaneuvered the Governor of Woodbury, found a cure for Dawn of Grady Memorial Hospital, and took a bite out of the cannibals of Terminus. Even the Walkers moan about with admiration. And why, out of all the posts, outposts, compounds and composts, has not one group thought to call the reanimated dead what they are by definition? All the citizens who survived the virus saw old movies but call their walking dead neighbors biters, creepers, lurkers and geeks, even lame-branes, which sounds like it came out of a Three Stooges short. But no one thinks to call them zombies. It’s not like they’d have to pay the late George Romero. “Night of the Living Dead” wasn’t the first zombie film.

The lack of obvious frames of reference is part of the social breakdown that Rick has been fighting to restore. He won’t unite the new world order around semantics when there’s work to be done. Michonne (Danai Gurira) is now the moral center of the new world. Rick is going to turn Negan into a walking example of what the future avoided, but his girlfriend with the samurai sword has been a consistent message delivery system. Mercy prevails over wrath, and old wounds are left to heal or be banished to life on the road. If Negan doesn’t get the message, and he won’t as the comic series foretells, she will read the riot act to him personally. She did it before, and she did it to Rick.

Greg Nicotero directed “The Walking Dead” season 8 finale, “Wrath,” with equal amounts suspense and syrup, slipping bittersweet reminiscences into the battle scenes, and conspiratorial intrigue into the happy ending.

The Walking Deadseason 8 finale aired Sunday, April 15 on AMC.