When it was revealed that Carl Grimes had been bitten by a walker during the mid-season finale, the backlash from fans had the show-runners falling over themselves to assure viewers that his death would be pivotal and meaningful, and – most importantly – integral to the continuing story of The Walking Dead. With the war between Rick and The Saviors having dominated the past two and a half seasons, many feared that Carl’s demise would be nothing more than fuel for his father’s revenge crusade. But after many weeks of speculation, “Honor” turned out to be something of a surprise…
To be honest, it’s been a while since the show evoked any kind of visceral reaction from me, but the opening montage of Carl accepting his fate and making the most of his final hours to the strains of “At the Bottom of Everything” by Bright Eyes had me leaking profusely from all the face holes. I can’t remember the last time The Walking Dead used a track to such devastating effect, and this was a perfect choice.
It was never going to be an easy watch, but “Honor” proved emotionally exhausting. We were spared none of the grief Carl’s death elicited from each character present to bear witness. But while the writers used every trick in the book to wring their briny reward, anything less would have seemed a disservice to a character who has been with the show since the very beginning, and grown up on it. Judith’s parting shriek in particular must have rent even the hardest heart, while Daryl’s typically understated goodbye was just as powerful in its own quiet way.
Special mention must go to Danai Gurira, who managed to show Michonne’s brokenness, love, and strength in equal measure. While Siddiq’s speech was laid on a little thick, it was probably necessary to his character’s arc for the remainder of the season (we learnt this week that he has medical training, so will be doubtless be of use to Hilltop and particularly Maggie).
But the main event was the final interaction between Carl and his father. Many have argued that Carl’s transformation into a wise, compassionate young man was all a little sudden, and merely a conceit to raise the emotional stakes of his impending death. But in retrospect, he’s been an interesting figure over the last couple of years. Having been inside the Savior’s compound, experiencing the daily life there, and forming something of a bond with Negan, Carl’s desire to build something better for the future has grown in direct correlation with Rick’s intent to kill every last one of Negan’s crew. As Rick’s grown tougher and more despondent, Carl has flourished, realising that there has to be something more after all the killing.
Carl’s insistence that Judith make her own path, heed Rick but know her own mind and show him the way if necessary, was Carl’s admission of his own failures. Recalling Lori’s last message to him, and some of the less than good deeds he’d done at the prison illustrated that this version of the boy has been a long time in the making. While the reveal that the mysterious visions of a potential future actually belonged to Carl and not Rick was a little close to the old ‘and it was all a dream’ trope, the inclusion of Negan was shocking and hopeful enough to make it work. Rick’s promise to his dying son that he would make his visions real herald a real shift in the narrative arc for the rest of the season. After seemingly endless weeks of bloodshed, Rick is duty-bound to find another way.
While Carl’s death (rightly) dominated this episode, the B-plot focused on Carol and Morgan’s raid of The Kingdom in order to rescue Ezekiel from Gavin and his Savior chums. It was fun to see this pair being ninja-like and badass for a while, but things took a dark turn as Morgan’s fragile grasp on his own sanity and self-control began to slip. While most of the surviving band of characters have done questionable things and undergone various epiphanies and changes of heart over the years, none have 360-ed as spectacularly as Morgan. Once a pacifist, Morgan spent this episode running people through the neck with a pointy stick. Even Carol, who, lest we forget, has killed kids as well as murdering and setting fire to Karen and David, looked a tad freaked out when her mate yanked a man’s guts out through an open wound.
Despite Carol and Ezekiel’s pleas for clemency, Morgan adopted the Rick mantra of ‘every last one’ and was about to kill Gavin (a one-man demonstration of the concept of the banality of evil, a guy who given a choice will do terrible things because it’s easier than resistance) when he was beaten to the post by young Henry. Carol’s history of mentoring other people’s kids hasn’t generally ended well, but it seems keeping them at arm’s length is equally disastrous! Of course, Henry wanted to avenge his brother’s death (RIP Benjamin, you lovely angel), and, in doing so, brought to mind a younger, angrier Carl. Henry represents history repeating itself, and may prove to be the kick up the ass Morgan needs to find a way back to peace.
“Honor” was a real gamble of a mid-season premiere which paid off in spades. Unbearably emotional, well-paced, and fresh-feeling, it has left a huge hole in the Grimes family, but I’m hopeful that the sacrifice will prove to be the shot in the arm The Walking Dead has needed for a while now.
Final Grade: B+
+ Outstanding performances from everyone this week, but Chandler Riggs should be very proud of that as a swan song.
+ There’s something truly horrifying and tragic about the fact that Carl was killed by a bite trying to help a stranger and not in some grandiose act of revenge or in the ongoing war. It was a really good choice.
– From a purely technical perspective, some scenes were too dark and quiet to follow the action.
– Siddiq’s cheesy ‘I will honor you’ felt a bit shoehorned in.
Extra Thoughts: What was going on with the closing scene of Rick bleeding out under the tree? It appears the show isn’t quite done messing with timelines just yet…
What did you think? Did “Honor” deliver the coup de grace Carl deserved? Sound off in the comments, or over on Twitter.