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‘The Walking Dead’ Stumbles Into a Serious Surprise

An unexpected midseason twist finds the series at a crossroads

Spoiler alert

For roughly 87 minutes of Sunday’s 88-minute midseason finale — counting commercials, which are sometimes less skippable than the series itself — The Walking Dead was Walking Dead as usual. Characters teleported around rural Virginia like ravens flying from north of the Wall. Series regulars escaped certain death at the hands of too-talkative villains, while glorified extras whose names we never knew (RIP, Neil) were added to AMC’s alumni list. Director Michael Satrazemis’s camera lingered on leads’ faces in uncomfortably long close-ups, artsily intended to signify … something. Season 8, which was hyped as an all-out war between Negan’s Saviors and Rick’s Alexandria-Hilltop-Kingdom alliance, was about to hit the halfway point — and an 11-week hiatus — with no notable casualties except a tiger, a coherent timeline, and that Season 1 guy we all Googled to remind ourselves of where we’d seen him before.

Then came the final frames of “How It’s Gotta Be,” in which The Walking Dead divulged a genuinely shocking discovery: Carl has been cupping.

A still of Carl’s wound AMC

Sorry, this is serious. Although the series mainstay — Carl to his friends, Coral to his family — stalled Negan long enough to save the residents of Alexandria, we learned in those last, silent moments that he can’t save himself. Carl has a hickey that he secretly sustained two episodes ago, while helping a survivor named Siddiq fend off a few walkers’ unwelcome advances. In The Walking Dead’s world, this kind of hickey can kill. Rick’s son isn’t dead yet, but he is looking clammy, and — as actor Chandler Riggs confirmed in an interview posted after the episode aired — he’ll shuffle off this mortal Carl and exit the series after 100-plus episodes when The Walking Dead returns in late February.

Killing Carl is no small twist. One of the complaints frequently levied against latter-day Dead is the plot armor that protects any person of importance. If the series’ characters were more deftly drawn, we wouldn’t want them to die; if its events were more logically and painstakingly plotted, we wouldn’t be convinced that they deserve to. As it is, the combination of inconsistent, sporadically likable characters and implausibly close calls creates the sense among self-loathing hate-watchers that we’ve been robbed of blood that was rightfully ours — a hard-earned reward for suffering through seven seasons (and counting), long after learning to stop expecting something else.

Carl’s death is probably the boldest that the TV series has ever scripted, especially by the standards of its hyper-protective recent past. All has been fairly quiet on the Walking Dead death front since Glenn and Abraham bought it in the Season 7 premiere. Glenn’s murder was momentous, too — he was the first Season 1 regular who the show had dispatched since Season 3 — but in his case, the killing blow was preceded by a fan-infuriating fakeout and a months-long marketing campaign premised on the certainty that someone would die. To make matters more predictable, Glenn had been killed in the comic books long before he left the show.

With Glenn gone, Dead was down to five remaining survivors from Season 1: Rick, Carl, Daryl, Carol, and Morgan (who, unlike the others, wasn’t a weekly series staple until Season 6). In one sense, Carl was the easiest to eliminate. We may not particularly love Rick or understand why he still inspires such faith in his flock, but AMC has been preaching the gospel of Grimes for so long that it’s tough to envision The Walking Dead without him. Daryl and Carol are fan favorites, not only because they’re the most likely to be badass in any given scene but also because they’ve experienced the most growth over the course of the series. (Plus, what would Daryl’s death mean for Ride With Norman Reedus?) Morgan, who’s flip-flopped from walker-hunter to pacifist to indiscriminate killing machine, can’t die because he’s scheduled to cross over and try to save the flagging spinoff Fear the Walking Dead. Carl, meanwhile — well, he has an eyepatch, a cowboy hat, and a crush on Enid, his only age-appropriate partner, but lately he hasn’t had much to do.

From another perspective, Carl is the costliest loss that the cast could have suffered. Unlike Glenn, Carl is still kicking in the comics, which remain more than 50 issues ahead of the TV series. Exing out Carl will force the showrunners to rework every forthcoming comic book arc he’s a part of, not to mention Rick’s responses to future scenarios in which he won’t have Carl’s company. (Traditionally, Rick hasn’t handled death well.) Carl embodies the future Rick is fighting for. Without him, the series will run the risk of backsliding into the nihilistic terrain it occupied early in Season 7. And although The Walking Dead’s stewards delight in its glass-totally-empty worldview, bleaker is not necessarily better.

But credit to Dead where it’s due: Showrunner Scott Gimple got us on Sunday, killing a long-tenured good guy when we’d abandoned all hope of seeing such a thing. The nonsensical sequence of events that unfolded earlier in the episode acted as camouflage for Carl’s surprise revelation, seeming to preclude the possibility of the show ending with something smart or surprising. The black-clad Scavengers whom Rick spent much of the previous two episodes tediously trying to recruit — not for the first time — fled at the first sound of gunfire. Rick, Carol, and Jerry, traveling together, are sideswiped by a Savior vehicle; somehow, the next time we see them, Jerry is being held at gunpoint in the Saviors’ custody, Rick has returned to Alexandria, and Carol is hanging out at the Hilltop. Huh.

Negan’s militia has made a remarkable recovery, rebounding with apparently perfect elasticity from the siege of the Sanctuary that seemed set to destroy it two episodes ago. When a small Savior patrol intercepts a convoy heading out of the Hilltop, the Hilltop fighters give over their guns and acquiesce instantly — and the Saviors, who punish them for their previous resistance by shooting the aforementioned Neil instead of someone responsible for the uprising, let them leave unescorted. And when Negan ambushes Rick, knocking him down with multiple blows from his bat, he bloviates about the torture to come with such single-minded, Bond villain–esque relish that Rick, of course, recovers and runs away.

Even after making allowances for the fog of war, this season’s inexplicably seesawing battles and disorienting leaps in location, interspersed with Eugene’s increasingly unintelligible dialogue, have made the conflict hard to track. Just as the many bewildering battles make the occasional competent set piece pop by comparison, the pattern of Rick’s nearest and dearest surviving every encounter unscathed prevented us from seeing Carl’s predicament. Even as the midseason finale foreshadowed Carl’s demise — flashing back to a heartfelt chat about the future with his father and showing him leaving a letter for Rick, offering to sacrifice himself to the Saviors and, in an even more obvious “Live-4-Ever” moment, coming across Enid’s handwritten advice to “Just Survive Somehow” — viewers like me discounted the idea that the series could still scramble the deck.

This was an opportune time for Dead to do something unexpected. Last week, the series’ ratings sank to their lowest level since Season 2, continuing a multiyear trend.

Chart of ‘Walking Dead’ ratings showing a decline after Seasons 4 and 5

There’s nothing Gimple can do to bring back the highs of Season 4 and 5; even the big buildup to Glenn’s death yielded only a one-episode ratings spike, after which horrified fans abandoned Dead in droves. But the death of Carl could arrest the recent decline and, like a honking horn near a crowd of walkers, even attract some former fans who’ve wandered away from the herd. To a certain extent, the show is up to its old tricks, trying to buy our attention with the prospect of guaranteed death, but Carl’s end is unlikely to be as grisly and gratuitous as the ultraviolent bat-bashing last season. In the best case, it could lead the show in a more fruitful direction.

When The Walking Dead returns, it will find itself at a crossroads, which is better than the ouroboros-shaped path it’s been stuck on for some time. Carl’s death (and Riggs’s incipient indie-film career) could send the series into another spiral of Rick looking nauseated, characters questioning why they bother to put one foot in front of the other, and fans tuning out in favor of more rewarding watches. But his sacrifice might also set the series on a happier path, uncoupling it from the comics and imparting the lesson that dying in service of others is better than slaughtering everyone and living on alone. The Walking Dead thrives when the odd ray of light shines through the clouds, and Rick still has something to live for: There is another Grimes, and, at their current rates of growth, Judith will be having kids of her own by the time Maggie’s pregnancy starts to show.

On Sunday, The Walking Dead demonstrated that it can still surprise us, if only because it’s conditioned us to set our sights so low. Maybe this wasn’t the last welcome development up Season 8’s sleeve.