All Out War is coming to The Walking Dead—and frankly, after a meandering half-season of drawn-out introductions and ill-conceived revenge plots, it couldn’t come soon enough.
Rick Grimes, leader of the survivors in Alexandria, admits the inevitable in the last few moments of Sunday night’s midseason finale, “Hearts Still Beating”: that there is no future for himself or his family with the sociopathic leader of the Saviors, Negan, still in the picture.
The sadist with the megawatt smile and swaggering sense of entitlement has been helping himself to half Alexandria’s weapons and supplies in exchange for providing “protection.” The same deal goes for the handful of other communities bordering Negan’s home base: the Kingdom, where the eccentric King Ezekiel reigns (and where Carol and Morgan now spend their waking hours sulking at each other), and the Hilltop, where a pregnant Maggie is rising to the role of leadership over a cowardly incumbent named Gregory.
To beat Negan and his hundreds of well-armed soldiers, Rick will have to unite all three communities. The Walking Dead’s version of Themyscira, the weapons-stocked, women-run Oceanside community, will surely even the odds in battle as well—that is, if Tara ever says a word about it to anyone. (She might, but not before at least another half-season of reunions, separations, and existential angst over the nature of killing. This show has a pattern and likes sticking to it.)
There are hints of dissent from within Negan’s camp too, where some workers resent their overlord and his cringeworthy habit of talking aloud to his favorite phallic inanimate object. Those who’ve had their faces ironed off for kissing their ex-wives, or women like the one Michonne ambushes on the road—who conveniently shows Michonne the Saviors’ hideout before letting her go scot-free—are prime turncoat candidates.
It’s all leading up to the TV adaptation of one of the bloodiest, most famous arcs from Robert Kirkman’s comic books, All Out War, in which Rick amasses an army and lays siege against Negan’s forces. (The episode included a subtle bit of comic book foreshadowing in the setting of Rick and Michonne’s motivational chat: a prison cell in Alexandria, not unlike the one where a defeated Negan ends up in the comics.)
True to Walking Dead midseason finale form, this episode also came with a body count. Let us mourn Spencer and Olivia, two Alexandrians who died as they lived: the former as an insufferable blockhead and the latter terrorized simply for existing.
Spencer dies while executing his Nobel-winning idea for dealing with Negan. If you missed it, the plan involved ingratiating himself over a period of months or even years, gaining Negan’s trust, and then catching him off guard. This might have worked, except that it’s impossible to spend five minutes with Spencer without feeling the urge to stab him. Sure enough, the last Monroe’s bowels end up splattered all over concrete less than one beer into a game of pool. Deanna would have been so proud.
Rosita, still blinded with grief over Abraham, promptly takes up the mantle of Character With the Worst Ideas and fires Eugene’s homemade bullet straight at Negan’s smirking face. Because deus ex machina, the bullet misses and lodges itself neatly into Lucille’s barbed wire-wrapped surface instead. This sets off a rage-fueled chain reaction that ends with Olivia (guardian of the armory, subject of Negan’s fat jokes and sexual harassment) shot in the head, and Eugene hauled off to the Factory.
To be fair to Rosita, dim-witted plans and sprawling disorganization have been recurring themes this season. Half of Alexandria’s main players are scattered across four different communities, and secret revenge plots have been piling up faster than a zombie body count. Carl’s delusion of martyrdom involved riding to the Factory in the back of a truck, popping out guns blazing, and…that’s it. Shockingly, Negan survived. He survived Spencer’s plan and Rosita’s too.
Michonne, meanwhile, has her own ideas—now shared by Rick. Over at Hilltop, Sasha’s been cooking up a strategy as well. There’s a man at the Kingdom starting his own anti-Negan insurrection and trying to recruit Morgan and Carol. (Good luck to him with that; Morgan still flinches at the thought of murder and Carol’s busy living her best life as a hermit.) That’s at least five too many cooks in this revenge-plot-fueled kitchen. Forget his hundreds of followers—Negan is winning because Rick’s splintered group can’t get their shit together.
A lot of this season so far has been spent cycling between communities and dwelling on low-stakes zombie encounters, like Aaron’s struggle in the water or Tara’s encounter on the bridge. Between that and relishing in the horrors of life under Negan’s rule, the show has allowed time for only broad-strokes characterization when it comes to anyone but Negan.
That’s a shame with such colorful and unconventional figures as Ezekiel and Jesus around. Potentially complicated interpersonal dynamics, like that between Sasha and Rosita, were also squandered. (The knowing nod they exchanged in this episode would have been so much more powerful if either woman had been allowed to have a full conversation with the other at any point this season. What do two grieving women who loved the same man at different points say to each other after they watch him die? Give me drama, Walking Dead!)
One bright spot of this half-season has been the show’s treatment of Maggie. We’ve watched her grieve for dead loved ones now more times than I can count, but becoming a widow hasn’t paralyzed her—it’s invigorated her, giving her a new sense of resolve and responsibility. Armed with her wits and her dead husband’s baseball cap (a truly moving visual touch), she’s now poised to become leader of the Hilltop, just as she did in the comics.
If only Sasha, who also lost a loved one in that gruesome season opener, were afforded the same growth. (Her arc instead has revolved around keeping Maggie safe.) Carol and Morgan’s motives are still borderline nonsensical, while Tara was rushed forward with a new potential love interest before she’d even learned of her girlfriend Denise’s death.
All this to say that The Walking Dead is about more than just Negan, or any other one character. It’s difficult to get excited about new characters—like that mysterious, shadowy figure on Team Rick’s tail—when the show forgets that, which is often.
Until its February return, though, sharpen your axes and practice your aim. There’s all-out war ahead.