Earlier in the season, the show included a gauzy flash-forward sequence that depicted a bearded Rick and pointed toward a more harmonious future — one in which Negan, jarringly, still had a place. After all that transpired, and Negan’s defiant words in the penultimate episode, it was hard to envision how that could be anything but fantasy.
Related: ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ gets major makeover with Morgan’s arrival
Viewers now know that scenario is a possibility, although the finale shrewdly planted the seeds for future discord (this is a drama, after all), emanating from those who had been Rick’s closing allies. Letting Negan live caused Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to break down — craving vengeance for her husband — and her decision to plot against Rick was joined by, among others, Daryl (Norman Reedus), potentially placing the show’s most significant players in conflict.
Whether that prospect is enough to jump-start interest in the series remains to be seen. Viewing of “The Walking Dead” has already fallen off pretty dramatically, a byproduct of age, the overall gravity of a saturated TV marketplace and yes, missteps that the program has made along the way.
“We are worse than we were,” Morgan (Lennie James) told Rick near the finale’s outset, a reference to their lost humanity, but also a fair description of where the show stands — commercially as well as creatively — compared to its dizzying apex.
Despite the departure of Morgan to join “Fear the Walking Dead,” the show must do relatively little reloading, a challenge it has regularly faced (and one of the things that has kept the narrative fresh), sometimes with uneven results.
Obviously, “The Walking Dead” is too much of a cash cow for AMC to part with the show blithely, but at this point, it wouldn’t be crazy to start contemplating an end game, one that would allow viewers to follow Rick’s story, at least, toward some sort of natural conclusion.
In his dying appeal to his dad, Carl asked Rick to do some soul-searching, and find his way back to a more hopeful place. Rick took the advice to heart, in a finale that exhibited flashes of the show’s underlying strengths. But nothing on TV lives forever, and for the character, as well as the series, that plea might have come a bit too late.