SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” tonight’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which as of publication hasn’t yet aired on the West Coast; as well as the Image Comics series of the same name.
The end of “The Walking Dead’s” season seven finale looks a lot like the beginning of its season seven premiere. The Saviors have the Alexandrians at their mercy, with Negan circling Rick and Carl, both of whom are on their knees. For several minutes, it appears that things are once again headed down a dark and troubled road. And that begs the question: Can Rick withstand being broken by Negan a second time?
We never get to find out. Right as Negan’s about to bring Lucille crashing down on Carl’s skull, a tiger — yes, a goddamn tiger — leaps into frame and mauls one of The Saviors. This understandably shocks Negan and the rest of his troops, distracting them enough to let the Alexandrians gain the upper hand. Once Shiva attacks, reinforcements from both The Kingdom and Hilltop Colony burst onto the scene, sending The Saviors and The Scavengers (who have double-crossed Rick and co.) fleeing back to their respective headquarters with their tails between their legs.
It’s a crowd-pleasing, cycle-breaking moment that the finale very much needed after the widely criticized cop out of last year. That’s not to harp too much on prolonging the reveal of Negan’s initial victim(s) — Lord knows we’ve already seen plenty of that. Rather, it’s a matter of “The Walking Dead” writers continuing to allow the show to have some fun. While a series about a zombie apocalypse has every right to be grim, the series also has a tiger and a bunch of people who dress up as knights. So why not use them? That final battle, initiated by a jungle cat eating a guy’s face off, is the culmination of a season that’s (for the most part) successfully acknowledged how over the top some of the show’s elements really are.
It also helps that the big blowout comes after a tragic event: the death of Sasha, who’s being offered back to the Alexandrians in a coffin in exchange for Daryl and one victim for Negan and Lucille. But even her death offers some sense of catharsis for both her and the audience. For Sasha, taking Eugene’s suicide pill allows her to spring out of the coffin as a walker and get the jump on Negan, thus assisting her friends from beyond the grave. Although her plan fails in that she doesn’t get to fatally bite her tormentor, it’s still satisfying to see The Saviors’ leader so shocked and vulnerable. There’s also the added sting of him being genuinely disappointed that she’s dead. When Negan expressed admiration for Sasha and vocalized her leadership potential, he meant it. And let’s not forget, Sasha really did want to die as long as she went down fighting. That makes her death a little easier to swallow than a character like Glenn.
From a storytelling perspective, her reanimation offers catharsis since it clarifies the episode’s framing device. Throughout the extended runtime, we see Sasha shut in a darkened, confined space, listening to soul music as her energy slips away and she remembers prominent conversations with both Abraham and Sasha. By the end, we of course know that she’s actually in a coffin and the iPod was provided to her by Eugene before she shut herself in. The device of the mysterious flash-forward doesn’t always work on “The Walking Dead,” but here, it’s a nice touch since the climax of the episode works so well.
Both Sasha and Eugene’s actions play into another running theme of “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”: Virtually ever character has a hidden agenda. In addition to Sasha’s suicide and Eugene’s quiet assistance in the act, The Saviors have secretly brought The Scavengers to their side by offering a better deal, The Kingdom is going behind The Saviors’ backs by finally helping the Alexandrians, Hilltop Colony has made a similar move unbeknownst to Gregory, and Dwight is playing both sides in an attempt to take down Negan.
As cluttered as that sounds, it all feels earned since other sections of this season have moved rather slow. It’s satisfying to see everything suddenly progress so fast. Are the characters in that different of a place than they were when the season began? Not exactly. The Saviors still have the most power and the Alexandrians still want to defeat them. But even though “The Walking Dead” could afford to move a little faster at times, it’s still one step closer to having all of the other communities unified against The Saviors. More importantly, it’s one step closer to having more fun, and embracing some of the show’s more colorful genre elements.