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‘The Walking Dead’ Season Finale Recap: Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Heroes fall, sacrifices are made and war is declared in an action-packed, shock-filled end to one violent season of our discontent.

You gotta give Sasha credit. If you were living through your last day on Earth, wouldn’t you want to spend your waning minutes listening to a little Donny Hathaway?

Because that’s how The Walking Dead Season Seven finale begins: with the screen completely filled by the face one of the show’s best characters, overcome with emotion as she blasts one of the all-time great R&B empowerment anthems, “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” She’s heading toward a pivotal confrontation between the Saviors and her people. But right now, she’s unusually calm, reflecting on how she and Abraham (yes, our favourite prison-‘stached redhead returns for a lovely extended cameo) spend their final morning together in the quiet moments before last season’s finale. All the while, she’s preparing to spring a surprise. A big one.

This show didn’t always know what to do with Sasha – which is something the writers scrambled to remedy over the past few episodes. But before Negan puts her into a coffin to get her ready for her big moment, he thinks he has her pegged. As the bat-man delivers a smiley-face blueberry pancake to her on the morning of her dying day, he calls her “hot as hell” and “dignified as shit”; because she’s so smart and calm, she’s the ideal person to help him “solve some shit” with Rick and the others, so that his operation can get back to normal. He insists that only a few people need to die. Her counter-offer to him: “How about one?”

What Negan can’t know is that the one she has in mind is herself. In one of the simultaneously coolest and saddest acts of self-sacrifice in the history of the show, Sasha alters the terms of engagement between the Alexandrians and the Saviors by taking Eugene‘s euthanasia pill on the trip over. The bad guy had planned to keep her in a box, to test whether Rick was willing to make a deal to get her back. But when he opens the coffin, a zombified version of our heroine roars out, creating enough of a distraction to allow the good guys to fire off a hail of bullets.

Does it make sense that Sasha had to ride in a coffin? Honestly, no. But then a lot about tonight’s episode – titled “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” – feels haphazardly thought-through. This last chapter lands in a promising place, and is full of enough sudden reversals and thrilling battle sequences that it mostly overcomes its many, many logical lapses. Still, throughout the hour-plus, there are a lot of times where all the weeks we’ve spent watching our heroes plot and plan seem pretty much wasted, since any fleeting victory turns out to be dependent on dumb luck.

A lot of the scheming involves trusting the untrustworthy, for better and worse. As the Kingdom’s armoured army marches toward the front, they come across Morgan, whom Carol and Ezekiel all but beg to join their troops – not because he’s a ferocious warrior, but because his unhinged kill-spree could tip off the enemy and doom them all. Along those same lines, and picking up from last week’s cliffhanger, Rick has to decide whether to let Dwight join their cause as a double-agent – which he ultimately does, but with inconclusive results. The scarred henchman comes up with a plan to slow the Saviors by felling trees, which buys the Alexandrians time that they ultimately end up needing. But when the fighting starts, he doesn’t yet switch sides.

The biggest blunder Rick ends up making involves his over-reliance on Jadis and the Scavengers. We’ve been lead us to expect that the Saviors will face an ambush when they roll up. Instead, these “trash people” turn their newly acquired guns on our folks – a heart-dropping reversal that’s only allayed briefly by Sasha’s dirty trick.

The mayhem that ensues is exciting, and incredibly well-staged by director Greg Nicotero; it seems to lead to the Saviors once again gaining the upper hand. But just as Negan prepares to bludgeon Carl – well hello, here there be tiger! Specifically, Ezekiel’s jungle cat of a pet, who attacks one of the lackeys. Soon, the combined forces of the Kingdom, the Hilltop, and the AZS prove to be enough to repel the invaders … at least for now.

The biggest problem with “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” is the same thing that makes it gripping to watch: It’s so full of twists and shocks that when it ends, it’s hard to tell exactly where everything stands. Dwight begins the episode by suggesting a strategy that involves killing Negan, wiping out as many of his lieutenants as possible, and then eradicate the rest of the outposts. But after the villains retreat, Dwight and pretty much all the rest of Negan’s strongest soldiers are right there with him at their home base, preparing for war. Wait, what?

The Alexandrian/Hilltop/Kingdom alliance, meanwhile, is left tending to its wounded – including a badly beaten Michonne. If they’re wondering what to do about the surviving Scavengers, or if they’re asking themselves what would’ve happened if the calvary had arrived just a few minutes later (which could’ve easily been the case) … well, they don’t say anything about it. Instead, Maggie gives a stirring speech about how they’re good people who deserve to survive, because they’ve helped each other every step of the way. That’s something the rest of this concluding chapter reinforces, as over and over characters compare the choices they’ve made over the past few years about who to kill and why.

Even though the second half of this season has been refreshingly expedient in the way it’s moved the plot along, there was almost no chance the finale was going to end with Negan dead and the war against the Saviors resolved. Would it have been better if we’d ended with some clearer indication of what comes next, beyond “more fighting?” Probably. But there’s nothing wrong with stopping in the kind of place where The Walking Dead likes to be – with lines redrawn, and multiple reminders of why we’re rooting for one band of desperate killers over another.

Sasha’s suicide attack is one of those noble moves that’s destined to become a rallying point for the troops. And in the year to come, we’re going to need all of that kind of propaganda we can get, if we’re going to keep cheering our team on to victory. Because if nothing else, this finale makes one thing clear: Season Eight’s going to be messy as hell.

Previously: Knives Out