In my preview of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, I suggested that this somewhat sub-par season could be redeemed with a strong enough finish. And that, dear reader, is what director Greg Nicotero and the cast gave us tonight. A strong, albeit at times silly, finish. I will be getting into some pretty meaty spoilers ahead, so don’t scroll down if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

[Spoiler Warning: The following article is a review and synopsis of this week’s episode, and as such will discuss plot points of The Walking Dead S07E16, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” – read further at your own risk.]

Karma is a bitch. Remember how last week I was suggesting that Rick and the gang were in for some karmic restitution after stealing all those guns from the ladies of Oceanside? Well, we got exactly that when those guns were turned on the Alexandrians, and it may even have been one of them that was used to shoot Rick in the side. But before we get into that, let’s do a recap of the episode.

We open on a tight close-up of Sasha somewhere dark, sweat on her face, earbuds in her ears. The sound of a big diesel engine is muffled in the background, but that is overwhelmed by the song she’s listening to: “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway. Here it is if you’d like to play it while reading the review:

These scenes are interspersed throughout the episode: we begin in the tight shot on her face, then she whispers something, and we cut to flashbacks. Her face is pallid, she’s sweating, and she seems to be slipping in and out of consciousness. It’s pretty apparent right from the beginning what’s going on – she’s taken Eugene’s poison, and she’s in the process of dying. The flashbacks, then, serve to act as the proverbial “life flashing before her eyes,” and the focus of those flashbacks – her last private moments with Abraham and Maggie – link to two of her most important memories, and act as reminders as to what and for whom she is sacrificing herself. Damn, but it would have been great to see her bite Negan’s face off.

The Maggie flashback is touching. It’s the two of them sitting on a log, the sun setting in front of them. Sasha, always wanting to do do do, is a bit antsy, and asks at one point, “Why are we here?” Maggie replies, “For this.” Now, on the surface, what she’s talking about is the sunset they’re sitting there watching, but nothing’s ever really that simple. At its core, the “Why are we here” question is existential, one every human asks at some point or another. And Maggie’s answer is, yes, partly about the beauty of the sunset, but more importantly, it’s about the two of them being there, together. Why are they there? Because they’re family. This really hits home as we become aware that Sasha has made her ultimate sacrifice to try to kill Negan, to save her friends, friends that are really family now. And at the very end of the episode, when we hear Maggie talking to Rick (more on that below), she reiterates this same theme of friends-as-family.

The Abraham flashback is a series of shots of the two of them, the last time she was alone with him before he met Lucille. For each scene, she whispers a phrase (“Hey darling, wake up,” “It felt real” and more) that are the words from this conversation. Abraham comes and wakes her, telling her that he’s going with Rick and some others to take Maggie to Hilltop for medical help. She’s worried about him – she had a dream where he drowned, and she couldn’t save him. He smiles and says, “I hate the beach. End of the day in a wet-suit, it’s like you’re sandblasting your nutsack every single step to the car.” Even in flashbacks, Abraham is good for the memorable turns of phrase. She does her best to talk him out of going to Hilltop, pointing out that they’re needed in Alexandria. And of course, we know that her premonition was pretty spot on, as it’s later the same day that Abraham was killed by Negan. His last words to Sasha, after explaining why he wants to help, are that “Maggie’s carrying the future.” This is all the reason he needs to want to help her.

The rest of the episode is split into two parallel stories, both of which come together around the middle of the second act, and split apart again in the denouement.

One half is Negan’s preparations at the Sanctuary. He brings Sasha breakfast in her cell, and rouses her with the episode’s title line: “This is the first day of the rest of your life.” Inside is a pancake with a smiley face made out of blueberries – no one ever said that Negan doesn’t have a sense of humor. She asks him, “What do you need from me?” He explains to her that she’s going to be a big part of his getting things “back on track” with Rick and the Alexandrians. He figures that Rick won’t want her dead, so he intends to trade her life for the lives of three other Alexandrians, who Rick will have to choose. Sasha is adamant that no one has to die, but Negan won’t bite. She does, however, manage to negotiate him down to a single death.

Later, on the road to Alexandria, the Saviors are held up by roadblocks and felled trees (these are Dwight’s doing – more on this below). Negan’s got most of his chief lieutenants with him – in addition to Dwight, Simon’s along for the ride, and so is Roy (the guy that creeped on Enid recently). He’s also got three big trucks full of heavily armed Saviors. Eugene approaches Negan, and asks in typically Eugene-like fashion, “I was wondering if you would give me the opportunity to attempt to slow their jets and cool their roll.” Negan just smiles – Jeffrey Dean Morgan has that aspect of Negan’s character down pat.

We jump back a bit to Sasha and Eugene walking the halls at the Sanctuary, getting ready for the drive to Alexandria. He asks her if she chose to take the pill he gave her (not in so many words – even someone as socially inept as Eugene knows not to let any Saviors know what he’s done), and he tells her he’s relieved when she tells him she didn’t. He continues – she’s made the right choice to work with Negan blah blah blah, and then he says, “If people die today, it’s because of the choices they make.” “Yeah,” she replies, “it is.” It was at this point in the episode that I was certain she had chosen to die. Eugene also gives her an early generation iPod so she’ll have some tunes inside the coffin Negan plans to put her inside (hey, he’s nothing if not dramatic). This is why she’s listening to Donny Hathaway in the close-up scenes.

This was confirmed for me when we see her in the yard. Negan is talking with her, and telling her it’s a long ride, that she could ride up front until they get close, but no, she wants to ride in the coffin. She tells him she’ll be fine, that all she needs is the music on Eugene’s iPod, and a bottle of water. Guess what the water’s for? It’s a sign of Eugene’s obliviousness that he doesn’t connect the conversation he’s just had with her about the poison, and her request for a bottle of water. We cut back to the interior close-up on Sasha’s face. She’s got a tear going down her face. She pulls out the small baggie, and looks at the pill. She takes it and drinks – she’s committed.

The other storyline is all about preparations among Negan’s enemies. We get a scene with Maggie, Enid, and Jesus discussing what Hilltop needs to do – especially now that Gregory has disappeared. She decides to take some armed Hilltoppers and head to Alexandria to help. She leaves baby Judith (or should I say toddler Judith?) behind, presumably with a minder, for safety.

From the Kingdom, Ezekiel and co. are surprised to find a line of shopping carts blocking their path. Carol says, “Guns up” – I love the fact that she’s just so back into kickass mode now that the gauntlet has been tossed – and one of the Kingdomers says, “But he’s dead,” referring of course to Richard, who set up the cart blockade the last time. Morgan steps out from behind a tree. “It was me,” he says. He’s wearing Benjamin’s armor, and he’s waiting to ambush passing Saviors. Ezekiel asks him, “Do you seek to extinguish everything of who you were?” Morgan replies, “I don’t seek it, but…I’m stuck.” Ezekiel calls him on his BS (which is awesome, because Ezekiel’s whole shtick is a wonderful form of perpetual BS), and asks him to join his regiment. Morgan hesitates, but relents. On they go to Alexandria.

Back in town, we begin where we left off, with Rick holding his gun on Dwight. Tara’s simply not interested in Dwight’s help. She practically spits at him as she says, “That woman that you killed? She had a name! Denise – she was a doctor, she helped people.” He looks at her, glances at Daryl, and says, “I wasn’t aiming for her.” Daryl explodes, pressing Dwight up against the back wall and holding his knife within an inch of Dwight’s left eye. Dwight doesn’t flinch or plead. Instead, he tells Daryl that he can go ahead, but that he wants Negan dead as much as they do. He reminds Daryl of how he ran before, and he says that he wasn’t doing it for Negan – he was doing if for someone else. Now that she’s left, he has nothing holding him to Negan at all. The whole time he’s talking, Tara’s in the background goading Daryl on, “Do it. Do it!” But Daryl believes Dwight is sincere, and lets him go.

Dwight lays out a plan to Rick. He tells him that Negan is coming the next day, likely with three trucks filled with armed Saviors. He says he can slow them down (this would be the downed trees we see Negan’s men dealing with in the parallel storyline), and that a successful ambush at the gate which takes out Negan and his men would mean they could then use the trucks, drive back to the Sanctuary with their own fighters, and take out the rest of the Saviors back there. After, go from outpost to outpost and bimbam, no more Saviors. As Dwight heads off back to meet up with Negan, Daryl tells Rick that he hopes Dwight isn’t lying, but that no matter what, he’s going to kill him when all is done. “If he’s lying,” Rick says, “this is already over.”

Later, we see the motor-home driving into Alexandria, followed by several people on bicycles and three garbage trucks full of even more – the Scavengers have arrived. Jadis talks briefly with Rick and Michonne, and gives Rick an appraising once-over. “Yours?” she asks Michonne. She tells Jadis that she and Rick are in a relationship. Jadis looks back at Rick. “I lay with him after. You care?” Michonne bites her tongue, and says, “We should get back to work.”

As part of the preparations, the group has moved a cube van just outside the gates. In the back, Rosita, Daryl, and Aaron busily wrap stacks of dynamite sticks, attached to a radio detonator. Inside the walls, Michonne and one of the Scavengers go to a tall building near the far side away from the gates, and from there set up a sniper post. As she moves to another balcony, the Scavenger looks at Michonne and says, “We win.” Michonne agrees.

Back at the wall, everyone’s in place. Rick looks down at Rosita, who is now holding the radio transmitter linked to the bomb she just built. In the background, we hear the sounds of approaching vehicles. “Get into position – I’ll signal you,” he says. Much to everyone’s surprise, the voice they hear is not Negan’s – it’s Eugene. He’s on the back of a flatbed, explaining to Rick and the Alexandrians that they need to surrender. Rick just looks shocked – what the heck is Eugene thinking? He looks down at Rosita – she looks hesitant, as the bomb will surely take out Eugene if it’s detonated now. Rick asks, “Where’s Negan?” and Eugene replies, “I’m Negan.” Rick hesitates, then gives the signal to Rosita – Eugene is lost to them, apparently. Everyone inside the wall hunkers down, and Rosita presses the button…but nothing happens.

Suddenly, the Scavengers turn their guns on Rick and the Alexandrians. Up on the balcony, Michonne sees what’s happening through her scope, and when she turns she sees the Scavenger that came with her has her gun trained at her head. “We win,” she says. This came as a pretty big surprise to me, I have to admit. I’ve enjoyed the weirdness that is Jadis’s group, and I was very disappointed to see them turn on Rick like this. But at the same time, it’s fitting that this happens, considering what Rick and co. did to the Oceansiders last week. In fact, Negan’s new ultimatum is basically an exact mirror image of what Rick did to the women when he took their guns.

Negan comes out of his truck, and takes over from Eugene. He tells Rick that the jig’s up, that he knew all along what was going on, and that things are going to change now. Rick has two choices: give up all their guns, and pick someone to die; or they all get killed, and Negan gets the guns in any case. If I recall correctly, Rick’s ultimatum to the Oceansiders was, join us and bring your guns, or we’ll take your guns anyway. Other than threatening to kill them, it’s the same basic act.

He tells Rick that he’s going to trade him Sasha’s life for one of Rick’s choosing. But as he goes to open the now upright coffin, we get the final Sasha close-up, and realize exactly what she’s done. He opens the coffin, and zombie-Sasha comes leaping out, rushing into Negan and knocking him from the flatbed to the ground. In the confusion, we get something we haven’t seen for a while: kickass Carl. He quickly turns, and takes out three Scavengers bang bang bang. Rosita in turn takes out her guard, and suddenly gunfire is going off everywhere. Michonne, too, tries to take out her guard, but they end up in a real doozy of a hand-to-hand fight, Michonne clearly taking the worst of the beating.

Outside the gate, Roy (again, the melon creep), pulls Sasha off of Negan, only to have her fall on top of him, where she proceeds to eat his right eyeball right out of the socket. The Saviors go for cover, and the gunfight goes on for a couple of minutes. Inside, Rosita gets winged, and Tara helps her move out of the line of fire. On top of the wall, Jadis continues to hold her gun on Rick. “Down” she tells him, but he refuses. She shoots him the side, and then pushes him off the platform. “I said down.”

Not in this picture: a large tiger

The battle subsides, with gunfire moving away from the gates. Rick and Carl are taken by a group of Saviors and Scavengers. Negan comes up to them, Lucille cradled lovingly in his arms. He explains to Rick that he’s going to take away something he loves – he’s going to kill Carl. And then, he’s going to take Rick’s hands. He tells Rick that he’s going to really take a good hard swing at Carl – he wants to try to kill him in a single blow because, and he really makes a point of this, “I like him.” He’s explaining to Rick that, in cases of punishment, he’s not being personal – he’ll even kill people he likes, if it means that the lesson gets learned. As he speaks, we hear a scream and see a figure fall from the balcony where Michonne was set up. Rick gets teary, and Negan relishes it. “You just lost someone important, didn’t you? Right in this moment?” Negan just loves it, but Rick isn’t cowed. “I will kill you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…You’re all already dead.” This is very much the same speech we’ve heard from Rick before. Negan stares at him for a moment, then begins to smile. He stands, takes Carl’s hat off his head, and then pulls back the bat in a mighty wind-up.

Then Shiva. Goddamned Shiva. Shiva to the rescue.

Shiva comes leaping out of nowhere, taking out the Savior standing behind Negan with a well-placed bite to his ugly mug. Ezekiel, Carol, and the other Kingdomers come storming in. The King is firing at the enemies, and he shouts, “Alexandria will not fall! Not on this day!” Rick tries to crawl over to a gun dropped by a Savior, and a Scavenger moves to stop him – but suddenly the Scavenger goes down. It’s Maggie and her gang of Hilltoppers, coming to the rescue.

Now I’m going to pause here for a second, just to say that, yes, I’m aware that the timing is ridiculously tight here, that if Ezekiel comes a second later, Carl is dead, then if Maggie comes a second later, Rick is dead, and yes, this is pretty coincidental and ridiculous. But suspension of disbelief something something. It’s stupid, it’s unrealistic, but then again, we are watching a show where the dead come back to life and try to eat other people, so, there is that.

There’re bullets flying everywhere, and tons of confusion. Negan hides behind a car, yelling, “A goddamned tiger!” He moves on to more cover, and the guy that took his place behind the car gets mauled by Shiva as well. He sees Maggie leading her group, and says, “That widow is alive – guns ablazing!” Life’s full of surprises, Negan. Like Maggie. And tigers. “Taste that, Simon? That’s the taste of shit!” Negan is full of fruitful philosophical sayings.

Jadis and one of her lieutenants hunker down, and she nods at him. He fires a flare, and several Scavengers throw smoke bombs to hide their retreat. Simon, Dwight, and Negan all get out to their truck, and they too make a run for it. As the truck drives away, being peppered with automatic fire, Negan puts his arm out the window and flips them all off.

Okay, so, yes, this was a ridiculous battle. There was absolutely nothing realistic about it, and some choices were laughable. At one point, Carol and Ezekiel are facing the camera, firing their guns. They turn in unison, kill two approaching baddies, then turn back and kill two more. The second pair is literally right on top of them, with guns that they failed to fire when Carol and Ezekiel had their backs turned. Why? It makes no sense. We see a similar scene when Rick first grabs a gun. He literally kind of sort of nods at Maggie, then turns and takes out two from a group of half a dozen enemies, then turns back to shoot somewhere else – while four heavily armed enemies are right there in front of him, mysteriously not shooting. Why? Choices!

In this battle, the director is relying on the chaos of multiple quick cuts and tight focuses to cover the fact that there is very little realistic choreography going on. This leads to a fight scene that is really very poorly put together, and is completely unrealistic. The fist fight that Michonne gets into is the best part of the battle (well, except for Shiva – how can you compete with a 500 pound tiger?), and this is clearly because, as an effects guy who works with a lot of stunt people, Nicotero (the director) knows hand-to-hand blocking very well. Battles, not so much. With the pending war between Rick and Negan, Scott M. Gimple had best get some professional soldiers on set as advisers, and pronto.

In the aftermath of the fight, Rick and Carl find Michonne, badly beaten but alive (so, it was the Scavenger that fell). We get to see her in a bed recuperating, with Rick sitting beside her. Wait a second. Didn’t Rick get shot? Didn’t he bleed, like, everywhere? Why isn’t he in a bed? Because, dear reader, Nicotero and Gimple don’t want us to see Rick as weak in this moment – his strength is important symbolically as we move forward into next season’s war.

At the Sanctuary, we get one more scene with Negan. He’s about to go address his soldiers, and he turns back to Eugene. How, he wonders aloud as he waves Lucille about menacingly, did Sasha die? Eugene keeps his face neutral, and suggests that she must have suffocated inside the coffin. “Maybe,” Negan says. Eugene’s on notice. Negan steps out onto a loading dock, and faces his men – dozens of them, all armed. “So,” he says, “we are going to war.”

Back in Alexandria, we get a closing montage of people cleaning up, tending to the wounded, and a touching moment where Maggie and Jesus find zombie Sasha still wandering around outside the gates (because, you know, she wouldn’t be attracted to all that noise of gunfire inside the walls…). Jesus holds her down, as Maggie reluctantly performs the deed. Daryl, closing the gate in the evening, finds a carved wooden soldier – the same one that Dwight was working on the first time they met last season. On its back, two words: DIDN’T KNOW. A brief mea culpa from Dwight, it would seem.

As we watch this montage, we hear Maggie talking to Rick in voice-over:

Rick asks, “Do you think Sasha did that herself?” Maggie replies, “I don’t know how, but I know she did.” R – “She gave us a chance. You did. You made the right decision to come.” M – “The decision was made a long time ago. Before any of us knew each other. When we were all strangers that would have just passed each other on the street before the world ended. Now we mean everything to each other. You were in trouble. You were trapped. Glenn didn’t know you, but he helped you. He put himself in danger for you. And that started it all. From Atlanta, to my daddy’s farm, to the prison, to here. To this moment now. Not as strangers. As family. Because Glenn chose to be there for you, that day, a long time ago, that was the decision that changed everything. It started with both of you, you just grew. All of us. To sacrifice for each other, to suffer and stand, to grieve, to give, to love, to live, to fight for each other. Glenn made the decision, Rick. I was just following his lead.”

Very sweet and touching way to end the episode. Bring on the war, I say!

Okay, so I’ve already spelled out what I didn’t like about the battle sequence. Very unrealistic, and a chronic case of bad guys not being able to shoot straight while our protagonists hit everything moving (and no friendly fire, I should note!). The fact that Rick seems to be miraculously healed of his gunshot wound is a bit hokey as well. But, in fact, I actually enjoyed the episode.

The battle wasn’t well-choreographed, but it was still exciting. Watching Shiva in action was particularly satisfying, and it was good to see the currently-most-hated character (Carl) actually do something positive. Despite his melodramatic ways, I also enjoyed watching King Ezekiel wade into the fray, and seeing his knights firing from horseback was a pretty cool image. Negan’s blase flipping of the bird as he drove away in defeat was ballsy, unrealistic (sensing a pattern here?), and yet sets the tone for exactly how Negan views Rick’s rebellion.

I think that my overall positive impression of tonight’s episode boils down to this: it was great to finally see some action again, and it was great to see people finally stand up, in an open way, to Negan. I think that the Negan bits have worn a bit thin this season, and waiting for things to come to a head has been, at times, laborious. And on top of that, the betrayal of Jadis and her Scavengers was a nice twist I did not even remotely suspect was coming. She sure as hell isn’t getting her cat back now!

So, where will Season 8 take us? It’s pretty clear that the war has started. It’ll be based on the All Out War sequence from the comics, which is a name I’ve been itching to bring up for some time, but was always hesitant to do (spoilers and all). If you can’t wait until October to see what happens, may I recommend going out and buying the comics? The All Out War issues appear in the recently released Compendium 3, which contains issues 97-144. It’s well worth the price of admission.

One last note: at the end of the episode, there was a tribute to recently passed comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson. Wrightson was the co-creator of Swamp Thing as well as co-creator of Destiny, a character Neil Gaiman used in his Sandman comics. Greg Nicotero, walker-wrangler and tonight’s director, had worked many times with Wrightson over the years, and he wanted to honor him in some small way. Good on ya, Greg.

Steve’s Rating: 8.5 Stars (8.5 / 10)
While not even in the top ten episodes of TWD, this is still the best episode of this season. Silly directorial and writing choices during the gunfight sequences expose a deficit the showrunners will need to improve going into a season that will be largely focused on war.

Episode: 716
Airdate: April 2, 2017
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Scott M. Gimple, Angela Kang, Matthew Negrete (written by); Frank Darabont (creator); Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard (series of graphic novels)