‘The Walking Dead’ season 8, episode 9 recap: ‘Honor’

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Don’t get hung up on the bad things, like the people who are bombing your home, the bad guys who want to cut your head off, or the undead whose bite kills. Keep your mind focused on the little things, the sun on your face, simple moments with your siblings, the dream of a better world.

That’s the message of the latest episode of AMC’s AMCX, +1.01%   flagship show, “The Walking Dead,” which returned on Sunday night. “Honor,” (written by Matt Negrete and Channing Powell, directed by Greg Nicotero) wasn’t exactly the resolution to a cliffhanger – we all saw the bite mark in the last episode – but the end of a story, the final sad chapter in the life of Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs).

We’ve more or less known what was coming since episode eight, “How It’s Gotta Be.” Carl’s been bitten. He’s going to die. There is no mystery, no doubt about it. Because this episode isn’t the resolution to a cliffhanger and everybody from Carl to Rick to the last viewer knows exactly what’s coming, it deadens the drama. This episode is a death vigil.

It was at least a bit (no pun intended) satisfying to get the flashback to the attack where Carl got bitten, and finally do see how it went down. It is of course one of the ironclad guarantees of this universe that every good deed will be punished. Carl performed his good deed in saving Siddiq (Avi Nash), in showing his humanity and extending solace to a stranger. The only irony is that Siddiq turns out to be deserving of the largesse, rather than the direct cause of Carl’s death.

This leads to an extended montage, scored to the Bright Eyes song “At the Bottom of Everything,” of Carl living out and plotting out his last days on Earth. He sets up Siddiq in the sewer drain, until Rick can get back and decide his fate. He spends time with Judith, taking Polaroids, and making handprints on the porch. He writes his farewell letters to all the people he loves. He lets the sun’s warmth wash over his face.

That typifies the problem with this episode. Sadly, we’ve been through this routine before. The show tends to give “major” deaths this treatment of an extended coda, like for Tyreese, Andrea, Sasha, Dale, Bob, and Beth. The problem isn’t so much that Carl is dead – the land of the walking dead is a rough one – nor that they dedicated so much time to his fate; after all, he is a central character, and one of the few left from the original quarry survivors.

It was that the emotional toll was levied in the first few minutes. There was nothing more powerful in this episode than the images of Carl playing with Judith. In particular, the scene where they made the blue handprints. It was beautiful and innocent and loving, and so sad, and it packed a wallop. Nothing in the rest of the episode could match it.

Andrew Lincoln brings his usual power to his scenes, as Rick Grimes tries to comprehend the incomprehensible. “It just happened,” Carl tells him, world-weary and stoic. “I got bit.” They’re all hiding in the sewer while the Saviors bomb Alexandria, like Londoners in the Tube during the Blitz. They will eventually make their way to Hilltop, but the sound of their home being bombed is nerve-rattling.

There was too speechifying in that sewer, and the whole episode, though. Everybody got one. Rick. Michonne. Carl. Carol. Ezekiel. Even Siddiq. But none of those speeches were nearly as moving as that brief scene on the porch, the look of unfiltered joy in Judith face as she looked at her brother. “I know it can be better,” Carl tells Michonne (Danai Gurira), trying to sound a hopeful note about this world even as the fever burns him out.

Gene Page/AMC

Carl (Chandler Riggs) takes a selfie with his sister, Judith.

He’s right, because we saw it in the opening scenes which showed that better world, even if it wasn’t going to last and if Carl knew it wasn’t going to last. That is the entire crux of this show. Sure, the zombies are scary and the action’s great – Morgan ripping that dude’s guts out with his bare hands is epic. But this is really a show about people looking for something better in a horrible world. That’s why those opening scenes were so powerful and stronger than all the speeches that followed.

Elsewhere, the Saviors have finally solved their zombie problem, and escape from the virtual prison the Sanctuary had become. Over at the Kingdom, Carol (Melissa McBride) goes back for Ezekiel (Khary Payton) before Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) can get him back to Negan, who will obviously use the King’s head as an object lesson for the rebels. Carol and Morgan (Lennie James) lay waste to all the Saviors occupying the Kingdom, save for Gavin – which we appreciate.

“You try and you try, and you try,” Gavin says to Ezekiel, in what is actually the best speech of the night, “and you hope and you hope and you hope, just wanting things to finally just settle, achieve some goddamn hard-fought equilibrium. But no. It always comes down to this. It always has to get dark, and ugly, and inhuman.” Maybe it’s the way Smith brings out Gavin’s reluctant pragmatism, but there’s something about him we like. We could actually see, if things had gone differently, him with the Alexandrians.

If only Henry hadn’t put a stick through his neck. All will be resolved, Gavin. All will be resolved.

We also finally get resolution to the odd visions that we had first briefly seen in the season premiere. All this time, we assumed it was a vision Rick was having of a more-perfect world. But no, now we find out it was actually Carl’s vision, and it really is idealized. Everyone is happy, Alexandria is thriving. Jerry is there. Eugene is there. Even Negan – Negan! – is there.

Is that a world that can ever be?

At the very least, it will be interesting to see if Carl’s death leads to the return of one of our favorite Ricks – Vengeful Rick – or if Carl’s impassioned pleas for peace draw out Rick’s better angels. We’re betting on, well, hoping on, Vengeful Rick. That’s a guy who can scare even Negan.