MAJOR Spoiler Warning for Season 9, Episode 4 of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed. Minor spoilers from “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be discussed.

“Long as you’re still breathing, it’s not nothing.”

This is it. The penultimate episode of Rick Grimes has arrived. The story that began with a sheriff waking up from a coma in a hospital is about to end…but the show must go on. This chapter serves to provide emotional closure and sets up what will surely be the most emotional hour of “The Walking Dead” to date.

What will life in Alexandria be like after the departure of Rick? The opening scene to this episode might just be a tease to that as Michonne takes the reigns as juggles multiple different responsibilities. Paralleling the start of Rick’s day that was shown in “Warning Signs,” Michonne goes about her daily activities, such as feeding Judith breakfast, looking at construction plans, managing conflict between Alexandrians, tending to sick residents, studying history and politics books, and so much more. As her work during the day is shown, there is some truly remarkable and uplifting rhythmic musical score that plays. Intermixed in the daily life scenes, are snippets of Michonne going out at night to kill walkers. She has go outside and do this to remind herself that the world outside of the walls is not as peaceful as inside. Many characters have worried that living at Alexandria would make them weak, but this is another case of a character going out and keeping themselves in fight mode. While out fighting walkers at night, Michonne finds a walker hanging from a tree; while it’s not clear if this man died via suicide or execution, this seems to be a deeply unsettling reference to the lynchings of black people that took place throughout American history. Michonne is attacked by a walker, and uses a baseball bat she finds to kill it; this serves as a chilling bit of parallelism between her and Negan that this episode explores. There is something so unsettling about Michonne holding a bloodied bat, especially considering she was one of the eleven characters in Negan’s lineup.

Michonne is holding things down at Alexandria as the conflict over the bridge balloons. While spending time with Judith, two major issues are brought to Michonne’s attention by a new character named Nora (Tamara Austin), who appears to be fulfilling parts of Olivia’s comic arc in the absence of the television counterpart. Nora tells Michonne that many of Alexandria’s crops are being lost to crows, similarly to what is happening at the Sanctuary. There’s also the issue of Negan beginning what seems to be a hunger strike. While Negan had a brief role in “The Bridge,” he is utilized far more here. Michonne brings him a plate of food, but he still refuses to eat and states that he is happy to see her care about him. This episode has Michonne respond to Negan with perfect comebacks, including her telling him that they aren’t keeping him alive because they care about him, but rather as a representation that they are moving forward with civilization. Negan wants Michonne to stay and talk, offering to eat after they have had a human conversation. She accepts his offer and the two have a surprising heart-to-heart. Negan compares the jail cell that he is trapped in to the walls that surround Alexandria; where Negan is a literal prisoner to his cell, Michonne is a prisoner to her role as the leader, according to Negan. Michonne throws this sentiment back into his face by stating that she and the others are out building the world back, while he rots underground. It’s important to note that while Negan is still conniving and playing the game of politics, he is far more toned down than ever before. He almost seems defeated and broken by the year and a half he has spent in this hole in the ground. The bravado is pretty much absent, and he feels more like an actual human being that the over-the-top persona he used to front.

This episode does an excellent job at calling upon Michonne and Negan’s individual pasts and using them to compare the two and guide their future. Negan talks about his late wife Lucille, and tells Michonne that she died from cancer after the apocalypse; this is the first time he has talked about his wife since he opened up to Father Gabriel when they were trapped together in “The Big Scary U.” Negan tells Michonne that he wishes he and Lucille could have had a child together like Carl; this seems to strike a cord with Michonne as she tells Negan that she thinks about him every day. Michonne sees Carl everywhere, in everything that they are building; she even sees him in the cell, noting that he is basically responsible for Rick sparing Negan’s life rather than killing him. A sore subject is brought up by Negan in the form of Michonne’s deceased son Andre, who is mentioned for the first time since Season 4. Negan points out that if Lucille and Andre were still alive, he and Michonne would be weak; this is a harsh take and it really seems to hit Michonne hard…because perhaps there is some truth to it. This sends Michonne storming out of the cell, but she returns later and explains the very clear differences between her and Negan; she takes no joy in doing the difficult things it takes to survive in this world, but he does and he also pits people together. “I do get strength from the dead, but I live for the living,” Michonne retorts as she states that her sons may be gone, but that she is building a better world for her daughter. Negan has a favor to ask of Michonne: he wants to see his beloved bat Lucille. There’s one small issue with this request in that Lucille was never retrieved and is likely still under the tree where Negan dropped her during the Season 8 Finale. Negan has transferred his full range of emotions toward his wife and has personified the baseball bat, which causes him to have a full breakdown and slam his head into the wall when Michonne denies his request. Will Negan get out and find his way back to Lucille? Imagine the just how epic that scene will be if it ever happens.

This episode isn’t perfect. The inclusion of the Jadis/Anne subplot with Gabriel feels somewhat random and detached as the story ramps up to Rick’s final episode. That being said, if the helicopter does factor into Rick’s exit, these scenes will be far more worthwhile. Much like what she did to Negan in “Still Gotta Mean Something,” Jadis straps Father Gabriel to a gurney and prepares to feed him to a walker that she has weaponized. Gabriel tearfully expresses the fact that he knows that she is better than this and that Anne is still in her; she states that he opened his heart and let people in, but that she isn’t capable of doing the same. He turns to acceptance in that he is willing to die here. He speaks to Jadis in a way that makes it feel as though they have been together for years; weird flex, but okay. He also speaks to God and seems content in the fact that he might be about to meet him. Jadis ultimately can’t go through with killing Gabriel, but decides to knock him unconscious, and leave him in one of the shipping containers. Gabriel wakes up and finds himself alone in the Junkyard with Jadis no where to be seen. He does find a note in his jacket pocket that reads “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. I need to go fast.” Father Gabriel falls to his knees and breaks down in tears, realizing that he may never see his one-day girlfriend again. Where exactly did Jadis go? Is the helicopter involved? The issue with this story arc is that it feels so disconnected from the rest of the episode. Having Gabriel be away from the events taking place with Rick does a disservice to his character. Hopefully, this arc ties into the rest of the narrative in some way. If Rick is taken away by the helicopter and this is build up to it, most of these criticisms can be wiped away.

A major driving force of the events of this episode revolves around Maggie. At the Hilltop, she embraces baby Hershel as the two look out at the community. There is an excellent shot of Maggie standing on the Barrington House balcony with all that she has built rising in front of her. Later, she packs her bags and prepares to head out with Dianne on horseback. Jesus finds her and tells her that another letter from Georgie has arrived, but she doesn’t read it just yet. Maggie places the Hilltop in Jesus’ care until she returns, but he knows exactly what she is doing and calls her out on it. He questions the fact that she is about to take justice into her own hands, like what she did with Gregory. Jesus explains that he believes that it wasn’t Rick’s call to spare Negan, but it was done; it’s great to hear that Jesus is able to voice his own thoughts to Maggie, and that he isn’t just her “yes-man.” Maggie ultimately rides off with Dianne to Alexandria, but Jesus sends word of this to the bridge camp as a warning to Rick. Once again, the writing here is so well done as it allows the viewer to totally see all sides of the debate. Maggie’s views are expressed in a way that makes sense for her character, and the viewer understands exactly where she is coming from; the same is true for Jesus as he has never been one to be the vigilante and break rank.

Things are going from bad to worse at the construction camp as Rick notices that the river under the bridge has risen and is flowing extremely fast. He speaks with Eugene, who doesn’t have much in the way good news and expresses his lack of hope that the project can continue at all. The only real good news that he has to report is that the two herds haven’t merged like they anticipated. Eugene is sorry that he isn’t knowledgeable enough to come up with a solution to the problem, but Rick interrupts him and instead thanks him for all that he has done. He takes this thanks one step further and conveys his appreciation for the fact that Eugene got them here to Virginia in the first place. This is likely the final conversation between Rick and Eugene, two people who have been through a lot together and have even been on opposite sides of a war. It is here that Rick actually validates all of the good that Eugene has done, and the look on Eugene’s face says it all: he truly appreciates it. There is also a conversation that takes place between Rick and Carol, who is preparing the lead the residents of the Kingdom home. She tells Rick that the Saviors need to take care of things on their own and that Alden will be overseeing things at the Sanctuary. Emotions are HEAVY here as this is also very likely the final time Rick and Carol will have a one-on-one. Rick states that he knows things will work out, because Carol has evolved into a whole new person during their time together. Even though he is devastated to see everyone, including Carol, leave the construction project behind, he understands and knows that there is no ill will with her. This episode really does a great job at wrapping up some of the important relationships in Rick’s life before he heads out on his final journey.

When word from the Hilltop about Maggie’s departure to Alexandria arrives via Jesus and Jerry, the tone drastically shifts. Rick tries to get word to Alexandria via the relay and demands that Maggie not be let into the community without an escort; Rachel is in charge of the relay…and she does not continue the message. Rick prepares the head out to Alexandria on horseback, but Daryl enthusiastically offers to take him on the motorcycle. While driving, Daryl speeds past the turn off for Alexandria and Rick notices and calls him out for this; the camera spends a moment focusing on location that contains several pieces of rebar, a chilling beat of foreshadowing for later in the episode. Daryl brings the motorcycle to a stop and a standoff emerges as Rick questions what the hell is happening. A physical altercation is prompted by Daryl when Rick tries to radio the relay, ending in the two rolling down a hill and into a massive hole in the ground.

What follows is the best scene between Rick and Daryl in years. Daryl lambastes Rick for not allowing Maggie to just kill Negan, but Rick explains that keeping him alive is bigger than any one of them. In a low blow, Daryl tells Rick that he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Glenn, which means he never would have found Lori and Carl. Rick responds by stating that he thinks about that fact every single day. Attempting to point out a flaw in Daryl’s argument, Rick brings up the fact that he kept Dwight alive even after what happened with Denise. There is a major point of contention about what keeping Negan alive means; Rick believes that it serves as a sign that they are better than the harsh world they live in, but Daryl worries that keeping him alive keeps the Saviors hopeful that things will return to normal one day. Daryl reveals to Rick that Oceanside is responsible for the killings of the Saviors, and admits that he approves of what they did. Rick gets emotional when he tells Daryl that if Maggie kills Negan, the war and everyone who died during it, will have been for nothing; this includes Carl. Daryl questions if Rick even has any faith in his own people anymore. “I’d die for you…and I would have died for Carl,” Daryl emotionally tells Rick in quite possibly the most powerful line of dialogue all season. “You just gotta let him go…let him go,” Daryl urges Rick, signaling that what Carl wanted just may not be attainable with Negan alive. Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus are nothing short of phenomenal in this scene, and in the episode as a whole. This conversation is precisely what their relationship is built upon; they can be real with one another, more so than anyone else.

There is a showdown of sorts at the bridge camp as Carol, Jerry and others quickly load up their weapons and supplies, preparing to depart for the Kingdom. A collection of Saviors emerges from the woods, including Jed and DJ, with a gun pulled; they ambushed Alden while headed back to the Sanctuary. Carol and Jed stand face-to-face with guns pulled on one another, and Jed explains that they figured out that Oceanside is responsible for their dead comrades. He calls her a weak woman, leading her to lower her gun, but the wrath of Carol comes out as she knocks him to the ground. Carol tries to stop further bloodshed, but gunshots ring out and it seems as though Oceanside and the others have just killed more Saviors. Rick and Daryl hear the commotion and fear that the noise will bring the herds; this prompts them to begin climbing out of the hole, using roots to pull themselves up. Walkers begin falling into the pit, complicating their escape further. It’s a tense showdown as nearly a dozen walkers slide down and grab for the duo. Rick ultimately makes it up to the ground, and a stunning scene of parallelism is shown. Rick reaches for Daryl’s hand, calling for his brother to grab on, which he ultimately does. This directly mirrors the scene in Season 2’s “Chupacabra” when Daryl hallucinates Merle whilst climbing up the ravine; Merle taunts Daryl and tells him that no one will ever care for him like his brother does, but all these years later, here Rick is…saving his life and proving Merle wrong. If that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, have you even been emotionally invested in these characters at all?

The final act of the episode is where shit really hits the fan. After escaping from the pit, Rick and Daryl make their way back to the motorcycle. A white horse from the bridge camp escaped in all of the chaos and made it to their location. One of the herds has also arrived, and Rick realizes that it is headed toward the bridge. It is time for Rick to be the hero. He isn’t giving up the bridge. He isn’t losing everything he fought so hard to build. Before going their separate ways, Daryl tells Rick, “be safe.” Maggie and Dianne come across the carnage of walkers that Michonne killed in the opening sequence. Rick leads the herd of walkers down a path, and right to the sight of grim foreshadowing from earlier in the episode. It is here at a crossroads that the other herd of walkers prepares to cut Rick off. The horse becomes spooked and paces around before rearing into the air and throwing Rick onto a piece of rebar that punctures his abdomen. Rick screams out in pain, but there is no one around to help him. He is alone. He slowly slips out of consciousness as the massive herds of walkers surround him. This is how Rick’s penultimate episode comes to an end. Is this how the famous Rick Grimes will die? Will he find some way to get out of this. Without any doubt, this is one of the most agonizing cliffhangers in the history of the series. This may have gone unnoticed to some viewers, but the rearing of the white horse mirrors Rick’s being thrown from his horse in the Pilot. In this case, there is no tank for him to scurry under…and Glenn won’t help him out of this situation (at least not in the literal sense).

Here we are on the precipice of Rick’s exit from “The Walking Dead.” After eight full seasons, the story of our heroic protagonist is coming to an end. This episode does an excellent job at beginning to wrap up his arc, while providing emotional conclusion to his relationships with other characters. Nothing can ever prepare us for his end, but it is still not known if he will actually die. Will that helicopter play a factor? Will Georgie? Whatever the case may be, this penultimate episode accomplished what it needed to. Rick’s conversation with Daryl is the standout scene and deserves absolute praise. The cinematography, direction by Rosemary Rodriguez, and writing of Geraldine Inoa all contribute to make this one of the strongest episodes of the season. There’s high stakes, emotion, and perfect character dynamics. What else could you ask for in an episodes of “The Walking Dead”? Special praise should also be given to the performances by Danai Gurira, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Melissa McBride, who hit all of the emotional cues and continue to show additional layers to their characters. Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus are the hearts of this episode and that’s really all that needs to be said here as their chemistry says it all. Next week is going to be rough, but the show must go on. Rick Grimes is about to take his final bow eight years after taking the stage. Nothing can ever prepare us for that.

Be sure to tune into Rick Grimes’ final episode of “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. 

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