The Walking Dead Series-Finale Recap: Unfinished Business
Season 11 Episode 24 Editor’s Rating4 stars ****
Photo: Jace Downs/AMC
“You deserve a happy ending, too,” Judith says to her Uncle Daryl, in one of the episode’s many poignant moments. In a sense, Judith is also talking to us, the legion of Walking Dead watchers who’ve stuck with the series from the beginning, through good times (seasons one through four, early Saviors, Lizzie looking at the flowers) and bad (Glenngate, season six, late Saviors, all of Lizzie’s storyline before she looked at the flowers). If you were hoping for an apocalyptic “Red Wedding,” you were likely disappointed by only one significant character’s death — though by the time she breathed her last, you were likely all out of heartstrings to tug on. There were fireballs, flashbacks and flash-forwards, and finally, the long-awaited semi-return of Rick and Michonne. Yet for all that was packed into this super-sized series finale, perhaps the one thing missing was the most important — satisfying closure.
Unlike the previous episodes that began with Judith’s narration, this one leaps right into the action as Daryl carries her to a hospital that’s about to be overrun with zombies. (Were all of those introductory flashbacks worth giving away that she wasn’t in any real jeopardy of dying? Anyway, leaving little R.J. parentless and killing both his siblings would have been far too cruel.) As the survivors shoot and stab their way through the horde, Jules is a fast casualty, followed quickly by Luke, who gets his leg munched on and can only watch as his girlfriend disappears into a crowd of ravenous walkers. The scenes in the hospital and out on the streets succeed in creating a tension this show hasn’t had in a while — the feeling that, moments before the curtain closes for good, absolutely anyone could kick the bucket.
Or so it seems when Luke can’t survive his walker-bit amputation. He was good people, a talented troubadour and a hero in taking down the Whisperers, but man, we haven’t seen such an outpouring of grief since Ralphie went blind from soap poisoning. Also in grave danger is baby Coco, who’s in an overturned crib just barely out of reach of a few hungry zombies. It’s fitting that—with all the talk this season of the future, protecting the kids, and a mother’s burden in bringing a child into this nightmarish world — Rosita goes into mom-surging-with-adrenaline-lifts-car-off-trapped-baby mode. She obliterates the monsters aiming to snack on her child, pulls a Spider-Mom and leaps off an ambulance onto a narrow pole without harming the baby strapped to her chest, and after falling into the mosh pit below, hops to her feet and leaves a path of zombie destruction in her wake. But her heroism comes at a steep cost, as she reveals to Eugene that suffered a shoulder bite during the melee. They know that neither amputation nor anything else can save her.
The hospital crew, the baby brigade, the Mercer liberation squad — everyone eventually converges to take out Pamela, who’s holed up at the Estates with the elites, the good meds, and her last remaining loyal troopers. Before the big showdown, Mercer gives the outsiders a chance to flee back to A-town. But Zeke leads a near-unanimous vote of hell no, we won’t go in your time of need (Daryl, though, looks for a moment like he’d be happy taking newly conscious Little Ass-Kicker to safety and calling it a night).
The showdown at the Estates delivers high drama, as Pam and Mercer’s loyalists end up in a guns-drawn standoff. The tension finally breaks when Gabe steps forward to open the gates and Daryl gives Pam a lecture that’s memorable for its mic-drop kicker: “You built this place to be like the old world, that was the fucking problem … you got one enemy. And it ain’t the walking dead.” (If we were all watching this in a movie theater instead of our living rooms, the crowd would have lost its collective shit after that line.) After the citizens are safe and the gates close on the walkers, Pam sees a familiar face pressed against the steel bars — it’s dead Hornsby, with Carol’s arrow still lodged in his neck. Remember that weird moment of kink between her and Lance when he was tied up a few episodes ago? Pam gets so tantalizingly close to his face that it looks like she’s thinking about either suicide by chomp or a really gross makeout sesh. But Maggie puts a bullet intended for Pam into Hornsby instead, snapping the governor out of her death trance and effectively sentencing her to life behind bars. Fittingly for this closing chapter, the new leader nods to the old one as Maggie manifests Rick’s dream of mercy prevailing over wrath.
Recognizing that the new “variants” are too dangerous to just lead away, they cook up one last doozy of a plan to exterminate these two-legged pests. With Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” on the turntable and cranked to 11, they draw the zombies to a blast zone rigged with fuel and explosives. As the last note rings out and the tonearm swings back, it triggers a Rube Goldberg–type reaction to create a spark with jumper cables and metal. The result is a massive, walker-vaporizing explosion that obliterates the Estates above ground and below through the sewers, turning the neighborhood into a flaming crater of undeath. (Appropriately enough, the record player that sets off the blast is Pam’s. Look closely and you’ll see framed photos of lil’ Sebastian in his baseball uniform and a young Pam and her husband with their newborn in far happier times.)
With the Commoners saved and Pam jailed, it’s time for a wine-fueled feast and some serious waterworks. Maggie pays tribute to Glenn and tells Negan that while he’s finally welcome to stay, she still sees Glenn’s final moments — Lucille swinging down and he calls out to his wife — whenever she looks at Negan. (Does she see Glenn’s eyeball, too? I do.) So please forgive me, she says, if some days, I just can’t look at you. It’s a heart-wrenching moment for both of them, one that rings true. That’s an image she’ll never forget, and forgiveness is rightly far away in the future (as in season three of their spinoff).
Maggie’s come-to-Negan moment is an emotional appetizer before the main course, as Rosita’s slow decline allows for plenty of teary good-byes. Maggie and Carol lead her to a bed where she cuddles with Coco and gets a prayer from Gabe. As he lifts the baby from her arms, Gabe whispers, “We’ll see you again someday.” Eugene shares her final moments, and with her last breath, she says, “I’m glad it was you at the end.” Eugene and Rosita’s bond was a curious but enduring one, so deep that the adoptive father of her child generously stepped aside to give this odd couple their last good-bye.
Rosita’s death leads to a sort of triple ending reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Jumping ahead one year, there’s a memorial to those lost in the Commonwealth massacre and new leadership, with Zeke in charge and a bespoke-suited Mercer as lieutenant governor. Eugene and Max have a baby girl named Rosie, which is rather big of Max to name their child after Eugene’s best friend/love of his life/supersoldier/supermodel/apocalypse skin-care icon. Negan — last seen by Daryl just walking away during the Commonwealth freedom feast — gives Judith her compass back with a sweet note that should have said, “Catch me in the next series, kid.” A-town and Hilltop are both thriving, so much so that Maggie tells Carol and Daryl that it’s time to FAFO and go see what’s out there (yet again, cue the spinoff promo!).
But it’s no surprise the biggest moments belong to Carol and Daryl. He sees Connie first and although he practically giggles at the sight of her 1000-watt smile, no luck for anyone hoping for these two would hook up. Instead, he shares a few quiet moments with Carol, who’s taken over Hornsby’s gig. Daryl is headed back out to the wilderness, of course, still hoping to find Rick and Michonne and perhaps some sort of peace (hence Judith’s line about deserving happiness for himself, rather than putting others first). Carol calls him her best friend and in a shocking moment of vulnerability, Daryl tells Carol, “I love you.” She returns the sentiment and for a moment, it looks like he’s about to say something else — perhaps “why don’t you come with me”? Instead, Daryl hops on his hog and speeds away. Their bond is so deep that neither wants to risk ruining it with romance.
That rather vanilla ending is followed by more of a mind-blower, as we see and hear Rick and Michonne writing notes to Judith by firelight. As they reflect on their lives up to this point, we take one last slow, groaning, guts-covered walk down memory lane as images of the departed pass by — everyone from Hershel and T-Dog to Bob and Andrea to Siddiq and Beth and Jesus and Sarge and Sasha and Shane and many more. At first, it looks like Michonne and Rick are together, until it’s clear that they’re not only apart, but on different timelines.
Let’s flash back, ourselves, to season ten, episode 13, which aired way back in March 2020, just as our own world was descending into chaos. Michonne had hallucinated on Bloodworth Island and found Rick’s boots and a cell phone marked with drawings of her and the kids on an abandoned boat, along with a ship’s log with notes about New Jersey. This explains the gear Michonne is lovingly admiring. It does not, however, explain her fabulous couture armor, or why she’s on horseback charging swords-drawn into a valley teeming with zombies. No clue what’s going on there but consider me hooked and sign me up for a Kung Fu-style series as this samurai roams the Earth.
As for Rick, we learn how his gear ended up on the boat — he tossed it there as a helicopter, which looks just like the one that carried him away from the bridge explosion, shows up. “Consignee Grimes, you’ve been located and are instructed to surrender,” says a booming voice from the chopper. “Remain in place with your hands up. C’mon, Rick. It’s like he told you. There’s no escape for the living.” Who is “he”? Who are these people? What has Rick been consigned to? Why does he break into a smile? He’s wearing a jacket with the same three-circle logo that we saw on the chopper when he was rescued and it looks like he’s been on the run for some time. The bird descends with what appears to be the Manhattan skyline in the background (which is fitting, since the upcoming Maggie/Negan series is set in New York). We finally learn the phrase that Judith referenced hearing her from her parents, as Rick and Michonne and eleven seasons’ worth of heroes each say “We’re the ones who live” as one last nostalgic montage flashes by.
The final scene of Judith speaking those same words to RJ on the wall of the Commonwealth is rather neat and tidy — they look out at a new windmill and a crop field where trooper armor is now put to better use as scarecrows. It’s a new start and the future looks brighter than ever. Not every loose end needs tying up, for sure. But to have such a bright, sunshiny ending on one side, and obvious setups for at least two new shows on the other — Michonne and Rick in one, Maggie and Negan in the other — feels a bit underwhelming. Only three people who died at the Battle of the Commonwealth were worth a brick on the memorial wall. No one seems too worried about the newly-nimble walkers, who can climb walls and open doors and smash windows with heavy objects.
Call it “deadwashing”—instead of a bold, daring finish, it’s a safe one, with a little bit of everything and the happy ending Judith wished for along with plenty of lucrative opportunities for spinoffs with the same key characters. (TWD aims to follow the MCU blueprint, but at least Marvel had the guts — pun intended — to wipe out some of its most popular heroes in Avengers: Endgame.) In trying to please everyone — or at least offend no one, like Glenn’s death did in season seven — the finale fell just short of fully satisfying. The Dead has ended, but the ones who live aren’t going away anytime soon.
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