Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.
After being bitten while out fighting zombies with Saddiq, The Walking Dead’s extended episode, “Honor,” shows us how Carl spends his last day: imparting his own wisdom and compassion on the hard-hearted Rick. He implores Rick to return to his former self, back when Rick was more willing to place diplomacy above violence and see beyond simple tribalism to creating a more beneficial future for all. It’s a painfully emotional episode where Rick’s agony is layered by Michonne’s, who feels as if she’s losing a surrogate son and best friend, layered by the audience’s own misery as we figure out how to say goodbye to a young character gone too soon, too swiftly—especially considering Carl is alive in the comics. With “Honor” beginning with Michonne and Rick having to dig a grave, none of this feels remotely easy or natural, and I found myself crying intermittently throughout.
The episode also included the return of the hazy future visions and Old Man Rick—except the visions came with a twist. This time the vision begins as Carl narrates over it, describing the kind of future Carl imagines for Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom, long after he has passed.
This opens up several possibilities for these visions. The most obvious one implies this isn’t the future at all, but a hope for the future existing entirely in Carl’s mind. In this vision, we don’t see Carl at all, but track a visibly older Judith as she travels through the town.
This doesn’t exactly jive with the vision we saw in episode one of the season, though: in that sequence, Carl is shown to be very much alive. This leads to another possibility. Maybe the Carl Rick sees in the earlier vision is actually a ghost. In the show, Rick suffers delusions in the wake of Lori’s death—a death “Honor” is keen to bring up again. Back in season three, Rick hallucinated speaking to Lori in the prison on a dead phone line, but by the end of the season, Rick recovered.
In the comics Lori’s death haunts Rick for much longer, and he carries the same phone with him until the Negan storyline. The comics and the show tend to trade off on details; some characters die sooner, others later, and characters get altered. It’s possible Rick’s briefer mourning period for Lori in the show will be substituted for a much longer grieving period for Carl, manifesting in Rick imagining Carl is still present when he’s not, even years later.
If you want to go into the deep end and really wallow in the darkest timeline, there are even theories comparing the gauzy, atmospheric cinematography in these sequences to the same style we see in season seven, when Rick dreams of having dinner with Glenn and Abraham, long after they’ve both been beaten to death. This theory supposes this repeated vision may be telling us Judith and even Michonne, are not long for this world.
This episode’s dream sequence ends with a new, disturbing inclusion: the last person older Judith greets, smiling and gardening among the Alexandrians, is none other than a plaid-wearing Negan himself. While the entire episode centers around Carl telling Rick he can’t just kill every single Savior if he wants there to be anything left for after, it feels like a huge disconnect to have the leader who orchestrated the deaths of Rick’s friends just casually wandering about. Is this a dream or a nightmare? Isn’t it too unrealistic to rehabilitate Negan to this degree?
This, again, is a departure from the source material. It’s Rick who tells Carl Negan has to live, not the other way around, in the comics. In issue 126 of the comic, Rick says to Carl and Andrea:
“That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do. That’s..it’s who we were. We’ve all killed to survive...we’ve hurt so many who wanted to do us harm. That’s how we made it—how we got here. But now that we’re here we have a chance to change that.”
Rick subdues Negan. First, he levels with Negan about how you can actually cooperate with, rather than subjugate, people, and second, he slashes his throat—before telling Negan he’s “going to rot in jail until you die an old man.” Rick believes showing Negan how much they thrive without him is a suitable punishment; unsurprisingly, folks in the community disagree, but nevertheless it’s true that during peacetime, Negan is confined to a cage. Negan later gets out and seems to finally come to terms with his own sins in issue 174, but between all those issues he never reaches the sort of acceptance that would allow him to happily roam among Rick’s people, as the dream sequence shows us.
It’s hard to say at this point what these visions mean. With Carl’s death marking the biggest departure from the comics to date, we’re at the point in the show where the two properties could seriously diverge. And with Maggie’s Lauren Cohan leaving the show after this season as well, it feels like The Walking Dead is at a tipping point. In the comics there’s a time skip to help better set up Carl in a leadership role; with him gone, will a time skip even happen? With the loss of two key characters, where do we go from here?
Tell us your theories in the comments below!