The Walking Dead Final Season Review: Far From a Dead End

"The end of each story is very important. How do you want yours to end?" asks the last episodes of The Walking Dead, AMC's flagship zombie drama that is coming to an end after 11 seasons, 12 years, and 177 episodes. Billed by the cabler as an "epic eight-part conclusion" to television's highest-rated series in cable history, returning October 2nd on AMC and AMC+, the end begins at the beginning. The first two of a final eight episodes released to critics open with Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) narrating a nostalgic vignette of flashes from Walking Dead years and seasons gone by, starting with the 2010 pilot, "Days Gone Bye."

The Walking Dead's final season Part 3 premiere opens on the iconic image of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) waking up post-apocalypse, shambling past the blood-smeared walls of a dark and deserted hospital corridor. The groans and growls of the undead come from behind a chained cafeteria door spray-painted with an ominous warning: "DON'T OPEN. DEAD INSIDE."

"I heard a lot of stories about when the world fell," narrates Fleming's 11-year-old Judith over flashback footage from the first 12 years of the walker apocalypse. "The people who die, and the people who go, aren't lost forever," she says in another vignette over clips of the dead and the living no longer on the show: Rick. Michonne. Carl. Hershel. Glenn.

Framed as a story told by Judith —  a homage to the final issue of creator Robert Kirkman's comic book — these short montages of snippets from the first ten seasons will be most appreciated by fans who have taken this journey with these characters since 2010. But The Walking Dead is not living in the past. The mini-reels revisiting the show's storied history also serve the present: as the survivors fight for a future for themselves and their children, the outcome will decide what legacy they leave behind.

Based on the first two episodes made available for review, titled "Lockdown" and "A New Deal," there's not quite the feeling of finality or that "the end" is looming just yet. But these two episodes are off to a solid start: to say how would be giving away spoilers, but both episodes finish setting up The Walking Dead's endgame that will conclude with the series finale on November 20th. That "it's ending" feeling should sink in over the remaining six episodes, as "A New Deal" (premiering October 9th on AMC) delivers a shocker even comic book readers won't see coming — a surprise sure to twist the season in a new and unexpected direction. 

Under showrunner and series veteran Angela Kang, AMC's adaptation of Kirkman's Image comic has expanded and fleshed out the conflict around the Commonwealth, the seemingly idyllic Ohio community where the survivors hope to settle and restart civilization. Encountering groups and communities isn't new ground for The Walking Dead, but the show is in new territory — literally — with an epic scope and scale as it does something it's never done before: take place in a post-apocalyptic society of some 50,000 survivors, where walkers are the only reminder it's not the "old world."

Part genre horror, part political thriller, The Walking Dead has found new life as the mantra of "fight the dead, fear the living" sees our heroes clash with the "New World Order" of the Commonwealth.

Essentially a two-parter, "Lockdown" picks up where April's "Acts of God" midseason finale left off: with Hilltop, Oceanside, and Alexandria under enemy occupation, seized as militarized outposts of the Commonwealth. Hunted by two-faced Deputy Governor Lance Hornsby's (Josh Hamilton) army of armored soldiers, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Maggie's (Lauren Cohan) group enacts a plan to extract their people from the Commonwealth before Hornsby can execute his revenge. 

Inside the Commonwealth's walls, an anti-Milton movement protests for justice after Connie's (Lauren Ridloff) article exposed the corruption of Governor Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) and her son, Sebastian (Teo Rapp-Olsson). As Carol (Melissa McBride) and Jerry (Cooper Andrews) protect the children targeted by Hornsby's spies, General Mercer (Michael James Shaw) and trooper Rosita (Christian Serratos) are dispatched to clear a massive walker swarm that forces the Commonwealth into lockdown — jeopardizing the exit plan.

The first two episodes back have more of what fans love: more uncensored F-bombs, more zombie gore, more name-drops of fan-favorites, and more mixing of characters. The action-packed premiere is all gas, no brakes, splitting off Daryl and Maggie while pairing off Carol and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) on a mission inside the Commonwealth, all while Hornsby orders them shot on sight: "This ends here."

While "Lockdown" is no "No Way Out" — the epic, explosive midseason premiere that launched the second half of Season 6 with all of Alexandria fending off an invading walker horde — the Greg Nicotero-directed episode is intense and compelling, a thrill ride from start to finish. 

Mostly setup for what happens next as Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and whistleblower Max (Margot Bingham) make moves to undermine the Milton regime, "A New Deal" pumps the brakes a bit — until its final minutes. Like many episodes under Kang's tenure as showrunner, "Deal" ends with a jaw-dropper cliffhanger that propels us into the game-changing next episode

Kang and executive producer Scott M. Gimple, also chief creative officer of AMC's TWD Universe, have promised that these final eight episodes are about "completing" The Walking Dead story, not "setting up spinoffs." 

Three sequel shows are set to premiere in 2023: one reuniting Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira); a solo series focused on Daryl overseas in France; and TWD: Dead City, sending Maggie and Negan traveling together into post-apocalyptic New York. It's questionable that this third and final part of Season 11 would (re)introduce regional variant walkers so close to the finish line, but there's a lot of life left in these closing chapters.

The end of each story is very important. Based on the first two of the last eight episodes, The Walking Dead's end just might be a new beginning. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Walking Dead: The Last Episodes begin Sunday, October 2nd at 9pm ET/8c on AMC and AMC+.