This article includes spoilers for the series finale of “The Walking Dead.”
“The Walking Dead” has been ending for a very long time.
When it debuted on AMC in the fall of 2010, “The Walking Dead” was something of an aberration in the prestige TV landscape — a gory, effects-heavy horror-drama for adults that combined graphic, grand guignol violence with the strong moral center of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” It soon emerged as an unlikely hit: At the height of its popularity, around 2013-16, it became one of the most-watched cable TV series in history, with roughly 21 million people tuning in to the Season 7 premiere to find out who was killed by the new villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) after the previous season’s much-discussed (and wildly controversial) cliffhanger finale.
Since we learned the answer to that question — it was a double whammy, with both Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) taking a baseball bat to the head — the show’s prominence has steadily declined. Ratings have plummeted, hovering these days between one and two million viewers per episode, while central cast members have either fled to the spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” or been written out entirely.
They include Andrew Lincoln, who starred as the series lead, Rick Grimes, before leaving midway through Season 9. Of the original group of survivors, only the fan-favorites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) remain, flanked by a handful of multiseason stalwarts like Negan, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt).
The 11th and final season of the postapocalyptic zombie drama has been broken up into three batches of eight hourlong episodes, the first chunk of which premiered way back in August 2021. In that span of time, our remaining heroes have abandoned Alexandria, their home for the previous six seasons; been reluctantly inducted into the Commonwealth, a huge, prosperous community run by an ostensibly benevolent governor, Pamela Milton (Laila Robins); battled and defeated the nefarious foes the Reapers, led by the mustachioed tyrant Pope (Ritchie Coster); and skirmished elaborately with Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton), the Commonwealth’s manipulative deputy governor, who caused all kinds of trouble before finally being killed off a few weeks ago.
It was a lot of ground to cover in one season. Much of it is based on material outlined in the Walking Dead comic books by Robert Kirkman — in particular the arrival of our core protagonists to the Commonwealth, which is where the comics ended in 2019, and the ensuing struggle for power between the Commonwealth’s corrupt leaders and our (mostly) noble heroes. But the series has diverged from the source material often enough over the years, cavalierly killing off foundational comic-book characters or following new threads of its own invention. Plenty of questions remained about how the show would end.
The penultimate episode, last week, left us with a vintage “Walking Dead” cliffhanger: The plucky Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) is shot during a tense standoff between the core group and the Commonwealth’s now fully villainous powers that be, and while attempting to save her before she bleeds out, Daryl, Carol and the others are surrounded on all sides by flesh-eating walkers. The finale picks up where we left off, with a mad scramble to escape the walker horde and save Judith’s life.
Whether you want to relive the magic one last time or just close the book on a show you stopped watching years ago, we have you covered. Here are five takeaways from the long-awaited end of “The Walking Dead.”
A close call
The previous episode’s cliffhanger ended up being short-lived. As Daryl hauls the ailing Judith into an abandoned Commonwealth hospital and out of harm’s way, he is knocked unconscious by a city trooper, leaving Judith to fend off an encroaching walker and make sure they’re out of harm’s way. Carol and the others soon join them inside, but while Judith’s condition has begun to stabilize — thanks to a generous (and very convenient) blood transfusion from Daryl, whose blood type, he reveals, “goes with anybody” — Luke (Dan Fogler) and his girlfriend, Jules (Alex Sgambati), are not so lucky, succumbing to their zombie wounds.
Across town, Rosita (Christian Serratos), Eugene and Father Gabriel arrive at the local day-care center, which, in one of the show’s darker turns, has been almost completely overrun by walkers — Rosita’s infant daughter, Coco, turns up as the lone survivor. Baby in tow, the three reconvene with Daryl, Carol and the others, now also joined by Maggie, Negan, Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Lydia (Cassady McClincy). They’ve even managed to rescue Mercer (Michael James Shaw) from the Commonwealth prison.
The reunited crew commandeers an army truck and drives to the nearby safe house they’ve apparently had at the ready, where the surgeon Tomi (Ian Anthony Dale) is on hand to bring Judith back to full health.
Cult of personality
Everyone’s back together. Judith is out of danger. Next on the agenda? Taking care of the governor-turned-despot Pamela, who has gathered the Commonwealth’s wealthiest and retreated to the city’s gated inner sanctum, leaving the proletariat to fend for themselves against the ravenous swarm of walkers. Mercer doesn’t like it and tells the group that he intends to save the people and take her down — on his own, if necessary. But this isn’t a group to take evil dictatorships lightly. They all agree to depose Pamela and liberate the Commonwealth once and for all.
Thus a showdown. As the city’s under-classes beg to be admitted into the protected community, the walker horde bears down on them and, with only moments to spare, our heroes surround Pamela and her troops and demand the gate be opened. Father Gabriel makes to open the gate, under threat of being gunned down — leaving the ordinarily taciturn Daryl to step up with a title drop for the ages.
“We’ve got one enemy,” he declares, urging both sides to come together and unite against the walkers. “We ain’t the walking dead.”
It’s a rousing enough speech to persuade Pamela’s last remaining allies to abandon her and join the cause for good. She is summarily placed under arrest (for “high crimes against the people of the Commonwealth”), the gates are opened, and the zombies are held at bay. Judith even has some words of encouragement for Pamela, hoping to inspire a change of heart. “It’s never too late,” she urges.
Like Negan before her, Pamela is overthrown and jailed, left to ponder her crimes. The walker horde is disposed of using a bunch of oil drums, a turntable and an old Living Colour LP rigged to set off a huge explosion, which winds up obliterating the gated community and the mansion where Pamela lived — a nifty trick that doubles as a symbolic gesture. Carol, taking over as governor, plans to dismantle the caste system that made the Commonwealth so unjust. Why not start by blowing up the rich part of town?
In the aftermath, the people of the Commonwealth come together to eat and drink to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac. In what amounts to an extended wistful denouement, various characters engage in long heart-to-hearts. Negan offers Maggie a long overdue apology for his murder of Glenn, which she doesn’t accept, exactly, but nonetheless appreciates. (“I don’t want to hate you anymore,” she tells him. Expect the healing to continue in the coming Maggie-Negan spinoff, “Dead City,” due next year.) Negan even gets a slight, respectful nod from Daryl, which is perhaps the biggest sign so far that people are finally ready to accept his redemption.
One year later
Fade out and flash forward: It’s been one year since Pamela was ousted, and we get a cursory look at what the people of the Commonwealth have been up to in the interim.
Connie (Lauren Ridloff) is still working as a reporter “keeping the administration honest” and is happier than ever. Judith receives a letter and farewell package from none other than Negan, wishing her well as he prepares to decamp for his new series. The town as a whole appears to be thriving, no longer under urgent threat of siege or walker invasion. It’s about as close as the show has ever gotten to demonstrating a capacity for optimism. A happy ending? In the context of “The Walking Dead,” it’s ecstatic.
But there is one man who isn’t content to enjoy peace and quiet. Daryl Dixon, ever the nomad, is preparing to leave the Commonwealth behind and head out on the open road on his motorbike to find … well, it’s hard to say. But according to reports, it could take him as far as France in yet another “Walking Dead” spinoff.
The need to keep Daryl’s story in motion as everything else wraps up tidily creates a somewhat disjointed effect, but at least we get a great final scene between Daryl and Carol, who have been inseparable since they bonded in the show’s second season. “It’s not like we’re never going to see each other again,” he assures her before he leaves, possibly teasing a future onscreen reunion. More moving is her tearful rejoinder.
“I’m allowed to be sad,” she says, fighting tears. “You’re my best friend.”
Of course, one of the biggest differences between “The Walking Dead” and its source material is that the story’s original hero, Rick Grimes, exited the show four years ago, whereas he remained the main character of the comic book throughout its run. The comic ends with Rick’s death — he is murdered in cold blood by Pamela’s twerpy, sociopathic son, a crime that precipitates widespread social change and upheaval across the Commonwealth community. Since that couldn’t be the ending, one of the biggest unknowns going into this finale was what would transpire instead.
As it turns out, the show ends with Rick’s (and Lincoln’s) return. The final moments of “The Walking Dead” show us Rick wandering a corpse-strewn beach, penning a letter to his family and stuffing it into a bottle.
A Lincoln-led mini-series about Rick’s continuing adventures is in the works, and here we get a few tantalizing glimpses of what it might be like: Rick is on his own and on the run, and after hurling his message in a bottle into the sea, he is tracked down by some men in a helicopter who warn him by megaphone that he has no choice but to surrender. It is clear from the interaction that they have been through this before. It is also clear that Rick hasn’t given up hope of one day reuniting with his family, even after at least seven years since leaving the main story (in the story’s timeline).
Rick’s brief appearance has the wistful tone of reminiscence. His beach wanderings are intercut with a montage of departed cast members from seasons past, and we get a bit of voice-over narration from Lincoln that evokes an earlier conversation between Rick and his longtime partner Michonne (Danai Gurira). “I think about the dead all the time,” Rick says, as faces of who didn’t make it, beloved characters (Chandler Riggs’s Carl, Jon Bernthal’s Shane) as well as some forgettable ones (Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dale, Lawrence Gilliard Jr.’s Bob), cross the screen. Naturally, he concludes with a line that has become something of a mantra for the series: “We’re the ones who live.”
It’s a fitting line to end on, capturing the dogged resilience of the human spirit that has arguably been the show’s overarching theme.