[No spoilers below]
It’s been quite a haul for The Walking Dead (eleven seasons, over twelve years). The series finale has seemed a long time coming, partly because of Season 11’s split into triple eight-episode segments spaced out over fifteen months, and partly because there was a two-week wait (for those who normally got to watch the episodes early on AMC+) after the penultimate installment. But on Sunday night the curtain dropped on the show at last, with episode #177, “Rest in Peace.”
The episode wraps up the central Commonwealth storyline–none to soon, in my opinion. The final season felt like it teetered on the precipice of the ridiculous with the focus on this nouveau bastion of civilization and its ice-cream-eating, zoo-animal-petting citizens. Episodes framed as noir mystery and courtroom drama suggested that the series, much like its eponymous rotters, had lingered on past its prime. Commonwealth governor Pamela Milton was the least of the Big Bads the show has featured (Alpha would have picked her teeth with this hypocritical politician), so her eventual comeuppance doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.
This climactic confrontation between Milton’s forces and the show’s protagonists takes place amidst a zombie invasion of the Commonwealth. Can’t forget about the walkers, right? This plot complication struck me as somewhat illogical (would a massive horde even exist at this stage of the post-apocalypse, and if so, wouldn’t the Commonwealth army have used its military might to decimate any threat that remotely threatened its borders?), facile in its attempt to raise stakes, and tiresome (because it feels like we’ve witnessed such scene several times before over the years). The finale also doesn’t do much with the plot point concerning the walkers’ weird evolutionary leap–their newfound ability to climb barriers and wield handheld tools.
What “Rest in Peace” does best is provide the show’s heroes one last chance to demonstrate their noble qualities. Actor defections in recent seasons have elevated minor characters into roles arguably larger than they deserved, but these figures all reach a satisfying end to their character arcs. And the resolution (at least until the “Dead City” spinoff starts) of the Maggie-Negan conflict is handled particularly well, a worthy payoff to all the screen time invested in the storyline this season (in a scene that hearkens back to Negan’s notorious first appearance on the show).
Unsurprisingly, the show’s writers do not miss the opportunity to jerk some tears here. My biggest critique of end-stage TWD is that the show deviated from the formula that made it such a riveting watch, mitigating the emotional investment in characters placed in a constant state of peril (and who could perish at any point). It’s hard to fear a grim fate for characters (Daryl, Maggie, Negan) already slated to appear in spinoff series. And those cast members still eligible for elimination also appeared to have grown bite- and bulletproof during Season 11. Heading into the finale, I couldn’t recall the last time a significant character was killed off, but “Rest in Peace” does justify its title with a moving sendoff for one of its most beloved heroes. The episode also does a fine job just before closing of invoking the memory of all those protagonists who died during the show’s long run.
The Walking Dead perhaps staggered to the finish line in its final season, but created an overall body of work that was undeniably groundbreaking, and which will rise to the forefront of any future consideration of 21st Century television history.