WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "What Comes After," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
The first moments of The Walking Dead episode “What Comes After” promise something excruciating is to follow. The camera looks on unflinchingly as Rick attempts to pull himself off of the rebar sticking through his gut. The pain on actor Andrew Lincoln’s face is more visceral than anything we’ve seen in seasons, perhaps on the entire show, and the proximity of the walker herds steadily eliminate any hope of rescue. It becomes clear to him, and us, that he’ll have to pull himself off the bar and get back to his horse if he has any hope of survival. There are moments we don’t believe he’s going to do it, despite this being the top of the episode -- and what an epic, epic letdown it would be if Rick Grimes just got swarmed in the end. The triumph that bursts through when he not only gets back on the horse, but continues do his j-o-b and lead the walker herds away, confirms that, yes, this will be excruciating, but it’ll be worth it.
To say “What Comes After” accomplishes a lot would be a severe understatement. It sends off the drama’s anchor with what could’ve become a contrived, saccharine parade of hits, but instead was a solitary last stand that brought Rick full circle from the life he made to the life he had, and then back again. Then, it totally undercuts itself to reveal that Rick has indeed survived. But the first part of the episode is such an effective swan song, the fact that Rick isn’t actually dead doesn’t make it less effective. It simply makes Rick’s survival and rescue an even happier surprise. It seemed impossible that Rick Grimes could stay alive after Lincoln’s exit – literally the only thing that could keep Rick from Michonne, Judith and the rest of his extended family would’ve been death. That The Walking Dead managed to pull off his continuing existence and a proper send-off is a tribute to showrunner Angela Kang’s abilities.
And it’s a tribute to actors Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan how much they resonate in what will go down in history as Rick Grimes’ Last Episode. While Maggie and Negan’s conversation ultimately rings a bit predictable, it’s executed perfectly. She's so single-minded in her mission to murder him that she manages to convince Michonne to hand her the keys, despite the latter's commitment to protecting the fragile civilization she and Rick have worked so hard to build. But while Maggie has been preparing for this moment for nearly two years, and even got some practice with Gregory's execution, she's still enough of a human being to have pity for the desperate, half-insane creature she discovers in the cell. It's not enough pity to warrant her forgiveness, but it is enough to receive her mercy and subsequently grant her some peace, however vexed.
It's not a terrifically surprising scene, but Maggie needed to confront Negan, and Negan needed to admit his remorse, specifically to her. The characters find widely varying catharsis while sharing the same conversation in the same small cell, and not only does this make for a beautiful resolution for Cohan, it finally gives Negan a much-needed dose of dimension. There’s always been far more lurking beneath Negan’s glad-handing psycho exterior, and we’ve been long overdue to see some of that.
Smartly, the rest of the episode spends most of its time with Rick and makes good on its promise to bring back an early Walking Dead vibe. Rick spends a good amount of time wandering around Harrison Memorial during his hallucinations, and of course, there are the promised appearances by Jon Bernthal, Sonequa Martin-Green and the late Scott Wilson. Rick’s hallucinations see him stumble through the hospital, his search for his “family” punctuated by three conversations that guide him to whatever comes next, conscious or no. If “What Comes After” were going to fall down, it would be during any one of these potentially indulgent reunions.
It’s surprisingly effective, even nine years later, to see Rick and Shane back in their squad car eating french fries as though nothing has happened. But everything has happened, and Rick and Shane actually have a conversation that honors that (mostly due to Shane developing some serious self-awareness in the afterlife). Shane is correct in pointing out that they’re both right back where it all started, and it’s not simply because they're sitting in their old cruiser, the site of the shooting that changed the course of both their lives. Shane and Rick represent two fundamental and opposing philosophies whose conflict has governed the direction of the entire series. Shane will protect himself at any cost, and Rick won’t. Most of the discord faced by Rick’s group is from those who treat the apocalypse opportunistically, whereas they operate from a less selfish motivation.
Basking in Herschel’s wisdom one last time and seeing Sasha put Rick’s life into perspective are compelling points in what feels like a deconstructed Dante’s Inferno, especially given Wilson’s recent passing. But Shane and Rick’s conversation is almost surreal in its ability to occupy two points in the series at the same time. Watching Bernthal and Lincoln, it feels like two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a minute. The shorthand that exists between Daryl and Rick exists even more between Rick and Shane in moments, and that’s a credit to how rooted in this show’s DNA their initial conflict was, as well as the talent of both of those actors.
The only weak spots in this episode occur in the moments of consciousness Rick suffers through between hallucinations. Juxtaposing the spiritual perspective with the pain he’s in when he wakes up provides necessary contrast and tension. But – as with a lot of other great moments on The Walking Dead – it gets really difficult to watch over and over and eventually it starts to feel like Rick’s trying to make his way through the hardest level of a terrible video game. Those moments are few, though, and eventually lead into some of the more compelling footage of the episode.
After Rick finally loses his horse, he manages to stay just ahead of the herd on foot, straggling along to the bridge he hopes they’ll break. He’s wheezing, and his wound causes him to stagger, making it difficult to distinguish him from the walkers at times. The Walking Dead famously does not refer to the zombies spawned by the apocalypse, but to the humans left behind who'll eventually meet the same fate, in one way or another. Rick finally becomes the thing he’s been running from and beating back since day one, and in doing so finds some peace knowing he's given every last bit of himself to creating a sustainable world. At least that’s what it looks like when he fires his last perfect shot and blows up the bridge he told everyone would hold. The moment feels cathartic, and after watching Rick claw his way toward this goal for the better part of an hour, it serves as a triumphant final middle finger to a world that kept trying to snuff him out on its terms rather than on his.
Honestly, it was such a good send-off, the fact that he’s alive is icing on the cake. But considering Lincoln has still left the show with no plans to return, the more relevant topper is the time jump that brings us Judith Motherfuckin’ Grimes. The last moments of the episode introduce us to a new (to show watchers) group of survivors led by a woman named Magna. But everyone stops caring about Magna when her sharp-shooting savior turns out to be an under-10 with Carl Grimes’ hat. The time-jump reveal might seem like gilding the lily, but it's so abrupt and dramatic it balances out the indulgent emotion of everything that came before.
Rick may be gone, but everything has moved on aggressively in his absence, just as Sasha promised it would. “What Comes After,” with its double-take of a twist and then a triple-take of a time jump, manages to simultaneously end one chapter of The Walking Dead and crack a new one wide open.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Lennie James, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.