SPOILERS, SPOILERS and did I mention, SPOILERS
The central symbol of Sunday night’s “Walking Dead” season finale was the noose.
We see two literal nooses as the show unfolds. One holds a now-zombified gent trapped in a power line tower. Possibly a suicide, maybe a murder, the reanimated corpse is put of its misery by Morgan (Lennie James). The other is looped around the neck of the final survivor of an outpost overrun by this season’s villains, The Saviors. We see him tortured earlier in the episode – told he’s going to be made an example of for the benefit of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his weary Alexandrians – before being tossed over a bridge.
But there’s a metaphorical noose too, one that tightens around the Alexandrians as they desperately attempt to get the pregnant Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to an OB-GYN in Hilltop, a nearby outpost. Each route they traverse to reach the Hilltop terminates in a Savior-headed roadblock. And each roadblock grows in sophistication and size, even as the time they spend traveling shrinks. First a handful of Saviors, then a dozen-and-a-half, then 30 or more – to say nothing of the chain of walkers the Saviors tied up in one area as a trap, or the giant tree-trunk barricade they built in another locale.
Eventually, the oft-cowardly Eugene (Josh McDermitt) suggests a plan: He will take the RV that the crew has brought for this mission and lead the Saviors on a goose chase as the rest of his friends travel by foot, through the woods, to Hilltop. Eugene is given a fond, teary farewell, the sort of sendoff a semi-major character gets right before he sacrifices himself. We are conditioned to believe that he will give himself up for the good of the group, trade his life for that of Maggie and Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) unborn baby.
And it’s here that the noose snaps tight – around Rick and around the viewers.
Because there is no escaping, not for anyone, not in this world of walking corpses. When Rick and the Alexandrians hear the whistling we’ve come to associate with the Saviors, it feels like a punch to the gut. It’s not fair! They were supposed to get away. That’s not how the show is supposed to go.
But “The Walking Dead” is nothing if not cruel, to characters and audiences alike. Those who expressed surprise – or, sillier still, outrage – at the show’s refusal to spare our favorites and its refusal to reveal who was taken out by Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) baseball bat haven’t been paying attention.
This is the show for our #EatArbys age.
Allow me to explain the reference: One of the best feeds on Twitter is the “Nihilist Arby’s” account, an amusing glimpse into an abyss filled with curly fries and roast beef sandwiches. “That awkward moment when you realize we’re all just a bunch of short fingered vulgarians, irrationally greasy, full of arbys, waiting to die,” reads one representative tweet. The hashtag #EatArbys has become something of a byword for existential despair, a joking realization that “life is meaningless and nothing matters, lol.”
And that is the driving ethos of “The Walking Dead.” There is no cure coming. There is no end to the herds of roamers and biters and walkers and lurkers. There are no good guys and bad guys, just surviving guys.
It’s why Morgan spends the entire season arguing for nonviolence before shooting a villain torturing Carol (Melissa McBride) in the finale: Survival trumps morality every time. Indeed, the whole second half of the season – which began with Rick and his friends slaughtering a sleeping band of Saviors and ended with those same friends lined up in front of the Saviors, waiting for one of them to be murdered as an example to the rest – has been an extended lesson in the meaningless distinction between good and bad in their fallen world.
Was Rick wrong to pre-emptively massacre the Saviors? Probably not: They were going to come after Alexandria sooner or later anyway. The noose Negan slips around the Alexandrians’ necks is only partially in retaliation for Rick’s preemptory raid on the Savior’s compound. They’re bad dudes, living by one golden rule: “Give us all your stuff.”
The simple fact of the matter is that Rick and his friends are faced with no good options, ever. They will never run out of enemies to kill, be they human or zombie. Fight or die: Those are the only options.
And what’s to be done after you’ve spilt the blood of your enemies? Maybe chow down on some curly fries. Because, hey: Nothing matters and life is meaningless, lol.