Major spoiler warning for those who have yet to view The Walking Dead’s “What Comes After.”
For almost as long as we’ve known about Season 9 containing Andrew Lincoln’s final performance as The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes, we’ve known that Rick’s goodbye would feature cameos from various former stars. Audiences got to witness those awesome returns and more in “What Comes After.” (The “more” includes Negan’s disturbing references to Glenn’s murder.) Let’s break down each of those welcomed appearances and how they played into the shocking episode.
The episode kicked off with some wildly interesting callbacks to The Walking Dead‘s pilot. It started in the hospital, where a wound-afflicted Rick stood over his coma-stricken self before waking up in a panic to see the walker herds surrounding him. After painfully removing himself from his rebar impaling, Rick took a consciousness-lite horse ride and found temporary shelter in a rundown shack. It’s here where Jon Bernthal’s Shane came into the hallucinatory picture for Rick’s amusing and tension-warped first conversation with his subconscious,
Set inside a cop car, the conversation addressed Rick’s lingering issues with Shane and quickly got interesting once it was asserted that the wounded Rick was actually trying to get back to save Shane’s family. You know, what with Judith’s true biological origins and all. (Here, The Walking Dead used a great line that Jon Bernthal used to give about being glad Judith didn’t have his nose and ears.) Rick then gave a sincere apology about killing Shane, even though Shane’s jealousy brought upon his own downfall.
Jon Bernthal then went into Frank Castle mode to bring Shane’s more monstrous side out. But rather than being argumentative, Shane gave Rick the survival speech needed to wake Rick back up from his fever dream, in order to make it back to Michonne and the rest. The meaningful chat capped off with Shane transforming into a walker for an enjoyably freaky jump scare, so I applaud that being his final moment.
While riding away from his quickly doomed haven, with a massive herd of walkers rasping behind him, Rick drifted off into a dream where he reconnected with Scott Wilson’s Hershel Greene, whose death-by-decapitation in Season 4 was one of the most shocking lead character exits. While Shane represented the anger and angst that propped up Rick’s more virtuous characteristics, Hershel provided a much more calming and subdued voice. Less guilt naturally makes for less harrowing imaginary conversations.
Looking out a most wondrous splendor from within the Greene family’s barn, Hershel accepts Rick’s apologetic confessions about Beth and Glenn’s deaths, and for no longer seeing eye to eye with Maggie. Not that Hershel was around to witness any of those things in person. But there was still good wisdom to be found in Hershel telling Rick not to worry about Maggie, who is strong enough to look after both baby Hershel and herself.
Hershel’s return for Rick’s final episode is especially heartbreaking, with actor Scott Wilson having passed away relatively soon after he filmed the episode’s scene. Wilson and Andrew Lincoln had great chemistry on and off the show, further making their final scene together one of The Walking Dead‘s more memorable moments.
Even though The Walking Dead didn’t technically put Rick through all five stages of the grief scale, Rick seemed to approach a moment of acceptance whenever Sonequa Martin-Green’s Sasha Williams arrived. It was a pretty surreal moment for the series as a whole, with Rick temporarily standing alone in an ocean of corpses, with many representing dead loved ones, such as the oft-mentioned Carl. (Not that his face was shown, meaning Chandler Riggs wasn’t involved.)
It felt oddly fitting for Sasha to come back in this setting, too, since the final time Rick saw her, she had already crossed to the other side. She offered some peaceful words that didn’t directly offer Rick an escape from his fate, but they did allow him to come to terms with whatever had to happen next.
Little things do end, but it’s never the end of everything, because we don’t die. It’s not about you or me or any one of us. It’s about all of us. And I don’t think it just evens out. I think it always crosses over toward the good, toward the brave, toward love.
Some of those words were echoed back to Rick by Michonne during his final hallucination, in which the protagonists showed up and took out the walker mob. Once Rick’s focus was set on keeping the others safe from the zombies by taking out the bridge, a calmness seemed to settle in, allowing him to successfully use his trusty revolver one last time.
Of course, Rick actually survived beyond the end of the episode, possibly setting up an eventual guest spot down the line. Knowing that, these cameos do lose a bit of their emotional strength, but they’re still perfectly fitting ways to honor Andrew Lincoln’s work on The Walking Dead across nine seasons.
With next week’s episode the first to take place in a post-Rick Grimes world, The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC at 9:00 p.m. ET. What did you guys think about how the three former stars returned? Let us know, and keep an eye on our fall TV premiere schedule to see all the other new and returning shows debuting soon.