“What Comes After” didn’t just provide one of the better episodes in the show’s history, but a touching, fitting, and intriguing send-off for Andrew Lincoln.
This recap of The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 5, “What Comes After”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
I, like a lot of people, have been watching The Walking Dead since the beginning. In the years since I’ve fallen in and out of love with the show, written extensively about its shortcomings, and more than once asserted that it should be taken around the back of AMC’s barn and given both barrels like Old Yeller. I’m rarely wrong, but when I am, I’m more than happy to admit it. So, here it goes: I was wrong about The Walking Dead. Thus far this ninth season has been a stellar return-to-form, and the latest episode, “What Comes After”, didn’t just provide a resonant and hopeful send-off for Andrew Lincoln, but was actually one of the better hours the show has produced. Like, ever.
I don’t know how exactly we got here, but I’m glad we arrived just in time. Lincoln’s inevitable departure always seemed like it would be a death knell for AMC’s flagship show; throughout its most abominable periods, he was the only reliable constant. Now, though, things are different. The show has improved on every level, from the basic direction of scenes and actors to the quality of the writing. Weirdly, this seems like the best time to introduce a post-apocalypse that doesn’t include Rick Grimes – and with “What Comes After” revealing the show will continue from a last-minute several-year time-skip, we find ourselves in an unusual position. The Walking Dead, for the first time in years, is legitimately can’t-miss television.
And they didn’t even kill him off! On some level, it might feel like AMC – and particularly Scott Gimple, who’s in charge of the broader franchise – refusing to let go, but with plans for Rick’s story to continue in other related projects, perhaps not. By having Rick depart with Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) to the mysterious letter-oriented community she has been gabbing with on the radio, the door is left open for his return further down the line. But the commitment to his absence is obvious. The episode ends with his daughter, Judith, several years older, his revolver at her waist, a sword down her back, and a cowboy hat on her head. His legacy lives on without him.
But more importantly, “What Comes After” honoured that legacy. The Walking Dead has always been Rick’s show, after all, and while it took nine years to create a world beyond him and only five episodes to convince us that it might be able to survive without him, he was still an intrinsic part of the show’s successes and one of painfully few antidotes to its failures. All of that was acknowledged in his final hour, with various dream sequences populated by iconic characters from the show’s past and present. (And Sasha, for some reason.) The scene with Shane was fantastic; the one with Herschel was genuinely touching. And the imagined rescue of Rick by his long-time friends and allies might not have been real, but it felt like the perfect embodiment of all the things the show is capable of at its best.
The tragedy, of course, was that in reality Rick’s friends weren’t able to rescue him. After having led two combined herds of walkers on a merry chase all the way back to the under-construction bridge that has caused so many problems thus far this season, Rick realised that the only way he could prevent the masses from descending on Hilltop was to collapse it. These kinds of poetic self-sacrifices aren’t exactly new in television or anywhere else, but it was the small details that made this one so effective. Oddly, it wasn’t Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) desperate sprint to help that summoned the emotion, but Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) tearful acceptance of Rick’s plan. The camera smartly alternated between close-ups of Rick’s face and Daryl’s; the knowing nods, the steely focus, the dewy-eyed farewell. Rick managed to shoot some dynamite and blow the bridge to pieces, and as flaming walkers cascaded into the water, his friends mourned him. He was gone.
Obviously he wasn’t gone – not really, anyway. He was washed up downstream and bundled by Jadis and her new compatriots into the back of a helicopter; whisked off to another community and presumably one or several new creative projects. But to his friends, he went out in a literal blaze of glory. He sacrificed himself to save the community he had sacrificed everything to build. Fitting, really.
But what was truly smart about “What Comes After” is that it still found time to incorporate Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) attempted assassination of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), which precipitated this whole mess in the first place. She got to look her husband’s killer in the eyes and see him broken. I suppose she finally realised why Rick kept him alive all along; because captivity was worse than death. In a way she was able to make her peace with that decision, and not have to reduce herself to killing in cold blood to find some redemption for Glenn. It was by no means the focal point of the episode and little time was spared for it, but it wasn’t overlooked, and it mattered. That’s good storytelling.
And what a privilege it is to find good storytelling in or indeed anywhere near The Walking Dead. Yet here we are. Even the moments of contrivance and convenience to be found in “What Comes After” at least gave the impression of plot threads interweaving rather new ones being pulled completely out of nowhere. Yes, it was a fine stroke of luck that Rick washed up right next to Jadis, just as the helicopter was arriving. But at least we knew the helicopter was coming. At least we have a better sense of what is meant by the A’s and the B’s, and at least we have a scenario wherein Rick can continue to live and be included in adjacent projects without having to rob the remaining characters of his perceived death. It was a finely-constructed hour of television that left The Walking Dead in a new and exciting place, all while earning its emotional payoffs and staying true to the plots and subplots established by this new season. Life – and television – remains full of surprises.