In last week’s recap, I wrote the following: “Do you ever feel tense when watching The Walking Dead anymore? Does the TV show ever truly surprise you anymore? I’m pretty sure it’s been quite a while since TWD made me feel like a character was in real danger or did anything that made me wonder what was going to happen next.” I am pleased to report tonight’s episode surprised me, made me anxious, and left me wondering what’s coming next week.
Now, given that next week’s episode of The Walking Dead is also the series finale, you’d have every right to feel it’s much too little, and far too late. But I’m grateful the show has finally started to feel a bit like a series finale as opposed to business as usual. When “Family” begins, Alexandria has been completely liberated from the occupying Commonwealth forces after last week’s episode—which you might think could make for an interesting hour of TV, but apparently not—and all the protagonists who aren’t stuck in Alexandria (Eugene, Yumiko, Max, and Mercer) or trapped in a zombie horde (Aaron, Lydia, Jerry, Ezekiel, Lucas, and Jules) arm up, get on the train, and head to the Commonwealth to rescue their kids and take Pam out.
Before, during, and after their train ride, characters have emotionally meaningful conversations that are just restating the plot or recreating the same old character beats. Judith has a great argument for being allowed to join the assault to honor her father Rick, her mother Michonne, her brother Carl, and even her birth mother Lori, who she never got to meet, and help ensure the peaceful, better future that they envisioned (…some of the time). Later, Daryl promises to tell her “all the stories about everyone who ever loved you,” which got me pretty good. Negan confesses to Ezekiel that he’s well aware that everyone he’s riding with is a better person than he is, and if Ezekiel can’t see that, well, someone’s not been paying attention.
Perhaps the best line in “Family” comes off the train. As the Commontroopers herd the zombies toward the Commonwealth, Aaron, Jerry, and Lydia manage to sneak into an abandoned RV, but Elijah, Luke, and Jules are swept away before they can enter. Lydia tries to pull her boyfriend Elijah in, but only manages to get chomped on the wrist by a zombie. Yes, a zombie actually bit one of the protagonists! Of course, she must have her arm slashed off to avoid becoming a zombie herself—something Aaron is uniquely suited to deal with, since the same thing happened to him. But instead, Jerry does the slashing, while Aaron comforts her. Just before the blade came down, Aaron empathetically tells her, “You are so loved, Lydia.” It’s beautiful, and I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a wonderful moment nonetheless.
Inside the Commonwealth, the people are justifiably angry at Governor Pam, so she calls for a “B17”—i.e., having troops lead a giant horde of zombies to the city’s front gates so she can justify a city-wide lockdown. Unfortunately, no one’s informed her about the Variants, the smarter-than-the-average-undead who can climb walls and eat the soldiers, one of whom just happens to land on the “open gate lever” as he’s being eaten, allowing several thousand zombies direct access to the residential and commercial areas of the Commonwealth. It’s bad news for everybody but the viewers: The Variants came back! They had a meaningful impact on the storyline! They’ll probably be back next week, too! Oh, what a bounty of riches.
Princess manages to contact Mercer from the train and tells him the plan, so Mercer pulls his troops from the train station Team Alexandria will be sneaking into. Unfortunately, Pam hears of the redeployment, has Mercer arrested, and parks her armed goons inside so they can gun down the Alexandrians upon arrival. Weirdly, Pam is also there to get in on the action and starts firing an assault rifle at Maggie, only for adorable Judith to push her out of the way and get shot instead. Judith’s down! Prepare to riot!
As if the characters in the show know that the franchise will lose all of its remaining goodwill if Judith dies, the group bands together, escapes the station, and starts heading for the Commonwealth’s doctor. Even Pamela has the decency to be appalled she’s shot a child, screaming to the Alexandrians, “You did this!” to divert the blame. Pam escapes, only to be informed that giant herd of zombies is coming to town. She directs the Commontroopers to direct the zombies to the “Lower Wards,” aka the poor part of town, and protect the “Estates,” i.e., the wealthy folks’ homes. It’s the most actively and blatantly evil classism Pam has ever shown, and it clearly doesn’t sit well with the army’s new leader, Vickers.
However, Vickers at least partially does as told, and starts deploying troops to direct the zombies—and the group lands right in-between two barricades with the horde heading right for them. The Alexandrians manage to fight back enough zombies to let Daryl, carrying Judith, escape down an alley, but the episode ends with the rest of them swarmed.
I have no idea how they’re going to get out of this, and I love that. I’m sure the answer will be silly or require a little retcon, but I love feeling that these characters—especially Judith—are in actual danger, even if they probably aren’t. I love that Lydia got bit by a zombie, because it makes me feel somewhere in my dumb, TV-watching lizard brain, that other characters may also get eaten. I love that the Variant zombies turned what was a bad but contained situation into an all-out disaster, proving they’re much more dangerous than the zombies we’ve been watching for over a decade, even if they need a little luck on their side. I love not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next.
Check that—I’m appreciative of all of this. The episode wasn’t so great that I wasn’t wondering how Pam controls half of the Commonwealth army without Mercer somehow knowing anything about it, or how she has troops who are completely and uniformly fine with leading thousands of zombies to their hometown at her bidding, or why, again, she just doesn’t lie and tell people a zombie herd’s been spotted so martial law needs to be instated instead of genuinely bringing zombies to their front gate—a gate that’s far enough away from town, as we see tonight, that it’s highly unlikely any civilian would ever find out if the threat was real or not. It’s unnecessary, Pam. Do some streamlining!
Still, my only real complaint about “Family” is that this episode should have aired weeks ago, or at least an episode like it. If I hadn’t spent so, so, so long watching and recapping this show, I’d honestly be a little bummed there was only one more episode to go. But since The Walking Dead was content to spin its wheels for much of the previous six episodes, I’m content there’s only one more hour to go. I only hope it’s as good as this one.
- Oh, I was annoyed when Mercer talked about having legal grounds to remove Pamela from office. Look, guys, either the Commonwealth has a working legal system you can use to lawfully vote out the bad rich lady or you can stage an armed coup, but not both. Pick a lane.
- I found it delightfully creepy when Aaron and the others were whispering to each other in the zombie horde so as not to be detected. Whisperer tech, man—they were crazy, but they knew what they were doing.
- Speaking of, another Commonwealth Jeep bites the dust off-screen. Did the budget for this final season shrink, or…?
- Boy, sure seems like Jerry’s gonna die, right? Aaron and Lydia—even Jerry himself—made it sound like the final time they were ever going to see each other. Jerry even says, “See you on the other side.” But the reason he’s going is to help Elijah, Luke, and Jules, who are either dead, captured, or still trapped hiding in the horde, and a single person couldn’t help them in any of those three situations.
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