(NEW YORK) — (SPOILERS AHEAD) The Walking Dead returned Sunday with its season eight mid-season premiere, and to say it was emotional is an understatement. In short, as fans know, it’s the one where Carl dies.
The show opens with a teary-eyed Rick reciting, “My mercy prevails over my wrath” — before we see another “Old Rick” flash-forward.
Back in the present, Michonne helps Rick dig a grave, both overcome with grief. It’s obvious whose grave they’re digging.
Then, a flashback to how Carl got his fatal bite, during the walker dust-up with that newcomer Sadiq. Carl improbably doesn’t make a sound, but his eyes tell the story: he knows he’s a goner.
We then see Carl disappear into the storm drain as he did in the season finale, and in an extended musical montage, hide his bite by patching himself up and getting into some clean clothes.
Carl then prepares handwritten notes for his dad, Enid, and his other friends, and bonds with Judith one last time, including taking selfies with a Polaroid and leaving handprints on the deck. He’s also seen preparing a cot for when his symptoms come — where Rick found him in the closing moments of the mid-season finale.
Elsewhere, also in flashback, we see Morgan in his sniper nest opposite the Sanctuary. We also see how Negan’s gang escaped their overrun complex: by laying waste to enough walkers that they make a barrier to keep the others away. Morgan scrambles from his nest, as bullets tear through it, and uses his wits and walkers to escape.
Elsewhere, Carol leads a group of the surviving Kingdommers to her cabin. She’s headed to rescue King Ezekiel.
In the sewers, Rick and Michonne have reached Carl and are assessing the wound. “How?” Rick asks. He and Michonne are beyond distraught.
“I got bit bringing someone back,” Carl says, sorrowfully. “I got bit.”
At the Kingdom, Negan’s henchman Gavin threatens King Ezekiel. “I liked you, Ezekiel!” he pleads.
Morgan stalks into the Kingdom through the darkness, where he’s startled by Carol. He tells her that Henry, the boy he trained, ran into the complex to help Carol. The pair make a plan to snatch back the King, as well as little Henry.
Meanwhile, back in the drain, Carl is getting worse. Rick and Michonne eyeball Sadiq, the guy whose rescue got Carl bit. He offers some medicine for for his fever, revealing he was a medical resident.
Rosita and Dwight plot a flight to the Hilltop, but Dwight convinces them to stay for the time being.
At Kingdom, Morgan and Carol start eliminating sentries silently. Formerly zenned-out Morgan has turned back into a killing machine, going out of his way to kill Saviors.
Gavin starts calling his buddies, but none are answering. Automatic fire rings out nearby, and he scrambles his men to hide Ezekiel inside.
Another Old Rick flash-forward now, with turncoat Eugene offering Judith an apple from their orchard. Yes, Eugene.
While Rick’s gang decides to bug out, Rick and Michonne vow to stay with Carl. Daryl vows to take care of Judith and take her to Hilltop.
Carl says goodbye to his little sister. “Sometimes kids gotta show their parents the way,” he says, before gifting her his dad’s hat. “Just having it … made me feel as strong as him…Maybe it will help you, too.” Judith cries.
“These people. You saved them all. It’s all you,” man,” Daryl says with admiration, shuttling Judith away.
Sidiq vows to honor Carl for saving his life. To prove “that it mattered” he saved him. “That it meant something.”
Back at Kingdom, they take Ezekiel back to the theater, but Gavin is wavering. “No more.” urges him.
There’s an explosion. Negan’s men fire at the source: “Give up or he’s dead.” A backdrop falls, and out come Carol and Morgan, guns blazing.
Negan’s men are cut down. Gavin is hit and drops his pistol. Ezekiel fires on a henchman, dropping him. Morgan is tackled and goes hand to hand with an injured Savior, only getting the upper hand when he reaches into his wound and literally pulls the guy’s guts out.
Gavin limps away. Morgan fires after him, then takes his staff to finish the job.
Back at the storm drain, Carl tells his “best friend” Michone to be strong, for his dad and Judith and herself.
Moments later, Rick and Michonne carry a fading Carl into an Alexandria church that had since stopped burning.
Back at the Kingdom, Morgan finds Gavin hiding. “Thanks for getting me here,” Carl says, meaning, “Thanks for making it so I could be who I wound up.”
At Kingdom, Ezekiel urges mercy for Gavin. “I have to,” Morgan says through tears. But before he moves, young Henry runs the guy through the neck from behind, stunning the others.
In the church, Carl explains that the “Old Rick” visions we’ve been seeing are actually Carl’s vision of the future at Alexandria. “Everybody living, helping everybody else live,” he says. “That’s how it could be.”
“I’m gonna make it real. Carl, I promise,” Rick tells his son. “Carl, I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you,” Rick says. “A father’s job is to protect his son!”
“Love,” Carl corrects. “It’s just to love.”
Carl unholsters his pistol. “I have to do this,” he says. “I love you,” he says to both Michonne and then his dad.
The pair sit outside the burned church when a silenced shot rings out.
As the pair dig a grave, little Judith walks up to a bearded man in an other Old Rick flash-forward.
“Morning!” she says. The man turns — to reveal a smiling …Negan! “Good morning to you, darlin!” he smiles.
We’re left with Rick, in the present, sitting with his back against a tree, bleeding from a wound in his side.
The Walking Dead returns next Sunday, March 4 at 9 p.m. Eastern time on AMC.
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