Talking about “The Walking Dead” is difficult without talking about death. It built its reputation as a show that anyone would kill for, and in fact, in its early years, it consumed a third of the show’s cast each season. (Don’t forget them, the series finale offers a montage of the final moments we’ve missed over the years.)
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It’s been a long time since death really brought the story forward. With several spinoffs on the horizon, the show struggled throughout the final season to maintain the suspense of the ‘Salad Days’ series, when it seemed anyone could die at any time. With Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) all slated to star in the new series, whenever their lives are thought to be in danger, the incredible tension of not being able to do so is cut at the knees alive.
But while three of the series’ most visible characters are off the table, dozens of cast members have been relatively unscathed in the final two seasons. The show continues to be as violent as ever, but free of the sacrifices and streets that violence naturally evokes. Throughout the final season of “The Walking Dead,” new characters were introduced and developed to serve as sacrificial lambs, often red-shirting old jokes about “Star Trek” symbols, but the series never gave its audience time to reflect. The mortality of these characters. They died in the service of extending the plot, nothing more.
The series finale inevitably featured one final epic battle with the titular zombie hordes. “The Walking Dead” has always been good at delving into its comic book roots, of course, and to its credit, the show offers plenty of vivid, comic-worthy action, including several giant explosions and flesh-tearing shots. And bleeding blood to make us all vegetarians for the time being.
But for all the damage, the consequences are minimal. Instead of offering anything resembling real destruction, the ending actually gave us the death of a major character. What’s more, they deliver it through the tried and true “The Walking Dead.” A character who seems to be escaping danger – only to dramatically lift their shirt to show the audience a botched zombie bite, and then spoil it for another half hour. While it’s only natural for Rosita (Kristian Serratos) to want a final exit for her longest run on the series, she deserves a more dramatic exit. Her final moments were bittersweet, but not nearly as gut punching as they would have been had she died in the heat of battle, desolate as she had been for most of the series.
Admittedly, the plot isn’t driven solely by death, and to its credit, the finale did a little more justice to the surviving protagonists. A number of individual character moments have, in fact, delved into the show’s mythology and sung beautifully with scenes from previous seasons. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) begins his run in the series as a cowardly priest who drives the congregation out of his church at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a perfect circle moment as he risked his life to open the gates and provide sanctuary to the people of the Commonwealth. Similarly, Negan has evolved from the series’ most bloodthirsty villain to someone who can finally offer genuine remorse for his actions, and Maggie’s heartfelt response to his apology felt true to both characters’ journeys. It is enough to believe that they will be willing to embark on more adventures together. (And, of course, they’re planned for next year.)
The Denial follows a 10-minute coda that fast-forwards a year and recalls the story of the 1998 Kevin Costner vehicle “The Postman.”,“ Of all things, the new leader of the community commemorates the fallen and ushers in a new era of peace. (This can’t be accidental–one character is even seen delivering a message.) Eugene (Josh McDermitt) has started a family; Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Mercer (Michael James Shaw) and Carol (Melissa McBride) received leading roles; Daryl wanders the frontier in search of adventure. If not the most original place to leave the story, it is at least happy and appropriate.
But we’re not done yet. A second Coda tries to give the fans what they really want – the return of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). Unfortunately, what should have been a happy moment is cut short by being almost unrelated to the events of the previous hour.
There is a botched attempt to connect them to their children and community through a monologue that plays in the aforementioned final montage. But much of Rick and Michonne’s return is given away in what can only be described as a trailer for their own upcoming spinoff, with Rick surrendering to an unseen entity on the beach and Michonne on horseback in pursuit. It’s hard to gauge exactly how much appetite there is to answer the question this raises, but leaving things here serves as a reminder that while “The Walking Dead” itself may be over, the franchise lives on. Whether he grows up to be a shell of his old self or falters remains to be seen.