We were promised a shocking moment on The Walking Dead midseason finale, titled "How It's Gotta Be" — and the powers that be at AMC weren't lying.
If you speculated that someone was going to die? Well, good for you, person who has watched The Walking Dead even once. And the moment has been a long time coming: this season is adapting the comic book storyline "All Out War," but has been surprisingly free of major casualties. Yes, a CGI tiger was eaten by radioactive zombies and Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson) died via a gunshot wound from one of the villainous Saviors, but — all apologies to tigers and Eric — no major characters have gone to that great Atlanta in the sky this season.
Of course that all changed tonight. I'm going to give some spoiler space before we get into it, in case you haven't watched the episode yet. But be warned, spoilers are past this point.
Yep, The Walking Dead killed off Carl (Chandler Riggs). Grimes the Younger was left alone to defend the Alexandria Safe-Zone after the Saviors attacked all the communities in the area. While everyone else escaped, with most of the Saviors in pursuit, Carl stayed behind to distract those left with a few well placed flares... only to watch nearly every building in Alexandria get blown up.
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) had previously taunted Carl with the death of everyone in the Safe-Zone, to which Carl offered his own life instead. "Kill me," he told the leader of the Saviors. But Carl had an ulterior motive: episodes earlier he had gotten bitten by a Walker. Carl's days were numbered, and it wasn't because of a Savior, but because of his own mercy towards a man named Siddiq (Avi Nash). The episode ended with a slow zoom out on Carl, as his father and de facto mother fell to their knees in front of him.
Just a note: This wasn't Riggs' swan song — he'll return in the next episode after the break. "This is a one way ticket, but the things we see in the next episode are so important to his life, and the other characters' lives," executive producer Scott Gimple said afterwards on Talking Dead.
Carl dying was the number-one theory going into this season — or at least after the season premiere — when a murky vision of the future via Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) included Carl, but gave him a bit of a "Paul is Dead" moment by neglecting to show his face. The moment was interspersed with scenes of Red-Eye Rick, who unfortunately was not the elder Grimes mixed with a shot of espresso, but probably a father sobbing over the death of his son.
Carl has always been a danger magnet. He was shot while checking out a deer during Season 2 and again in the eye in Season 6. With Season 8 paying tribute to previous seasons of the show, it seems like third time definitely wasn't the charm.
This is a huge change from the comic books, where Carl isn't just very much alive, but also the future of the book. Show creator Robert Kirkman has always said that the book might outlive Rick, but Carl will be left standing to take the baton towards a brighter future. With that future extinguished, what happens next on TV is anyone's guess.
It also puts a huge chink in the plot armor that has surrounded many of the main characters on The Walking Dead. This is something that afflicts every show in later seasons: characters become so popular that there's no reasonable way of taking them out of the show, let alone kill them off, without significantly altering the course of the plot. Though I doubt that Carl's death (yes, this is really happening, you can keep crying if you like) will lead to a mass murder of characters like Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), it does mean that going forward there's an uneasiness about them that's settled over one of the more unpredictable shows on TV, pretty much since the Grimes Gang arrived in Alexandria Safe-Zone during Season 5.
Of course, this means big things for Rick going forward. Yes, he's formed a virtual family around him since he woke up from his coma way back in the series premiere. But Carl is the rock that has kept him going, the constant who let Rick keep fighting even when everything was lost. There's no way that Rick, who has consistently lost his s--t at every major turn, does not lose his s--t over this and start talking to Carl in a can of pudding or something.
It also puts a big question mark on where the war will go from here. With Rick unmoored and Carl out of the picture, could Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) actually — gasp — win? Probably not, but at the same time, the ending from the comic (spoiler space here), which had Rick sparing Negan's life to prove a point, might be vastly different.
... Or maybe not. At the top of the episode Carl tells Rick in a flashback that there needs to be something more than just hope and killing all the Saviors — there needs to be something after. And that's what Rick offers Negan in the books, a chance to make the world a better place, to rebuild it together. Perhaps these words from Carl will push Rick past his grief in order to create a future in his son's honor.
Whatever happens next, it'll be without Carl.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday, Feb. 25 at 9/8c on AMC.