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5 thoughts on the midseason finale of 'The Walking Dead': It's Carl's show

So at the end of Sunday’s midseason finale of “The Walking Dead,” there are lots of things we still don’t know, but there is one very big thing that we do.

It comes with a spoiler alert, but if you’ve been around the water cooler where the people still following the zombie series congregate, then you already know: Carl — sweet-tempered, one-eyed, Billy Jack-looking, teenage-angsty son of Rick — has been bit.

Not by love (although, yeah, kind of, with Enid). Not by bad luck (although, again you could make a case). But by good old-fashioned, formerly human, currently zombie teeth, which left such a perfect mark in his right flank that you could probably use it to identify the perpetrator.

He showed his scar in a dramatic final scene of Sunday’s taut, dramatic, 90-minute episode that launches the AMC show pretty compellingly toward February, when the second half of the season will begin. Carl was a baller throughout the episode, and we likely have not seen the last of him, but more on that later.

In this “Walking Dead” chapter, the tides turned, again, this time in favor of Negan’s troops, who are back on the offensive against Rick and the forces of — if not “good,” exactly, then “a little bit better.”

Somehow Negan’s people made it out of the trap laid for them at their Sanctuary headquarters, a zombie siege orchestrated in Episode 1 that had them holed up, rationing food and on each other’s last nerve. Their exact mechanism of escape is one of the things we do not know, although there were hints.

We also don’t know what’s going to happen to Ezekiel, who seemed to return to leadership, sacrificing himself so his people could fight back against the Saviors attempt to retake the Kingdom.

We do know that Maggie looks like a genius. She said she was keeping the Savior prisoners alive not for Jesus’s reason, mercy and reconciliation, but because they might be needed as hostages should the Saviors regain the upper hand. Well, lo and behold ...

We could go on like this, but first let’s strap on the halter of organization. Here are five thoughts on “The Walking Dead,” Season 8, Episode 8, the midseason finale and the One in Which Dwight Came Out of the Betrayal Closet:

1. It looks like the Alexandria-Scavengers partnership is, once again, over. This time, it wasn’t the Scavengers betrayal that ended it, but the scenario at the Sanctuary being different from the one Rick had promised. Guns started firing, Rick went one way, the Scavengers went the other, and the action of the episode was on.

From there Jerry and Carol pulled up, somehow able to not get their tires shot out while they picked up Rick. “They got out,” Rick said, meaning the Saviors. “They’re gonna hit back.”

The immediate suspect in the Saviors’ escape was Daryl, who went against Rick’s plan to wait and come at the Saviors en masse, later, when they were weaker. Rick even fought Daryl over this a couple of episodes back, the two sweaty allies going at it over whose plan would be put into play.

And while Rick was busy surrendering himself to the Scavengers for dubious reasons, Daryl, man of action, decided he had won the fight. He crashed a truck into the side of the building, letting the walkers in but, somehow, the Saviors out.

This was about the 900th time this series has made it clear that the zombies aren’t all that menacing, even in big numbers. It also reminded us that, although Rick takes a lot of grief for mediocre scheming, Daryl’s plans aren’t all that great either. It was him, remember, whose inability to shut up got Glenn killed at the beginning of last season.

But we still don’t know-know that Daryl inadvertently set the Saviors free, although people keep talking about the possibility throughout the episode. The closest we come to an answer is No. 2 Savior Simon crediting the savant Eugene with having a good plan as the loud music in the background, he says, is his people leading the zombie herd away. What we don’t know is how they got from holed up on the second floor to playing Pied Piper.

2. Wartime Maggie might be the best Maggie yet. She and her Hilltop compadres are driving toward the Sanctuary to take part in the planned glorious surrender, ha, ha, ha.

A tree across the road lets them know things ain’t right. And suddenly they’ve got Simon — and guns, but Simon is worse — in their faces. They’re directed to go back to Hilltop and start growing, because its crops are the “breadbasket” of the local post-apocalypic economy.

Maggie has more on her mind than watering the sorghum, though. She immediately takes out one of the prisoners.

“Cupcake wants to put on a show, let her put on a show,” Tough Guy says. Cupcake’s show has a very short run: She puts a bullet into the guy and leaves a message for the other Saviors that they’ve got 32 more of their people as prisoners. (Side note: Society has broken down, but Sharpies still work.)

“We have to be ready for Hilltop to make the last stand,” she says. It’s kind of stirring.

3. It was mixed results for the Saviors of mixed loyalties. Eugene, ex “traveling companion” to Rick and crew, did help spring his new pals from their predicament. But even in his once again safe bed, he can’t sleep.

So in a moment of, perhaps, bargaining with a God he says he doesn’t believe in, or with his own conscience, he wakes up in the middle of the night. He grabs a shot of the red wine he’s been taking to help him sleep (Communion wine?) and goes to the infirmary where Father Gabriel, prisoner from Rick’s side, is recuperating.

He’s dosed the north gate guard with laxatives, he says, and there is a clang. “Oops,” he says, “I seem to have dropped the keys to a vehicle located right outside the aforementioned gate.”

But while Eugene is attempting to have it both ways, Dwight finally lets his traitor flag fly. He sets up a highly penetrable roadblock, insisting to his Savior comrade it’ll be fine. When it isn’t and they chase after the escaped vehicles, he leads his group right into an obvious trap.

Then, while the firefight rages, Dwight starts mowing down those on his own side. “I can’t go back,” he says afterward to Daryl, Rosita and company. “I can still help you. … I want you to win. I want Negan to die.”

So at episode’s end, he is among those hiding out in the sewer, resting up to begin striking back and witnessing the poignant wound reveal by Carl.

4. Carl tested our patience at times, but he’s going out on fire. You had a bad feeling for the lad early on, because Rick flashed back to a philosophical conversation he had with his son in which the younger of the Grimes men insisted there needs to be a larger purpose, “all of us working together for something more than just killing other people.”

That, in a nutshell, is exactly what’s been vexing about the show in recent years: Too much fighting with other people, not enough something more.

But Carl’s incisiveness as a TV critic was also a potential marker, of sorts. Couple his sudden bout of introspection with the show’s promotional hype insisting that a moment at episode’s end would be one that “everyone will be talking about,” and it was time to worry about the Beaver.

He took time to leave a letter for his dad because few TV shows in history are more into written communication. (Ezekiel was stirred back into action by a letter, Maggie left the note for the Saviors, etc.)

But after we were all done freezing the frame (again) to see what Carl had written, he took command in Alexandria, laying out an escape plan for Michonne and the others to execute, and it proved a superb one. “This is my show,” he said. (At a minimum, it was his episode.)

He bought time as Negan stood at the gates, ready to implement, as the latter fellow put it, “scorched earth.” Carl even maybe snuck into Negan’s own conscience a bit, asking him, “Is this who you wanted to be?”

Credit the show, too, for underplaying the final scene, when everybody has gathered in the sewer, and Carl peels back the bandage to reveal the bite he surely received in helping rescue Siddiq from his life alone in the forest.

Rick — to get there, he had to have an ultimately indecisive knock-down-drag-out with Negan in which each man used the latter’s weaponized baseball bat Lucille on the other — didn’t wail. He didn’t hug. He just silently took in the fact that he would be giving up his only son to the unforgiving world they inhabit.

And while the kid will likely have more to contribute before the bite turns him into one of them, it now seems certain that he is going to pass away without ever getting a decent eyepatch.

5. So where do things stand, going into the season’s concluding run of episodes? The Saviors have rallied, but the resistance looks alive and well. In Alexandria, in the Kingdom, and on the Hilltop, nobody just re-surrendered to the Negan-ites.

Aaron and Enid have got themselves captured by the Oceanside women, which might have gone a lot better if A) earlier, Rick hadn’t taken most of the Oceansiders’ guns and B) this week, Enid hadn’t gunned down their matriarch. Meanwhile, the other society we know about, the Scavengers, is apparently back on their own team again after Rick led them into gunfire, but you never know with those artsy types.

And Scott Gimple, one of the showrunners, was on Sunday’s “Talking Dead,” and he promised that we have not seen the last of Carl Grimes.

“The bite is going to play out as we’ve seen bites play out,” Gimple said, but “it’s very important to Carl’s story and the entire story what happens in the next episode. ... Carl right now is alive, and he has some business to attend to.”

On the one hand that could be read as a savvy teaser from a TV pro who wants people to keep watching. On the other, he didn’t seem exactly comfortable saying as much as he said, and it sounds like a very good reason to tune back in.

Couple that with the brief clip shown at episode’s end, which seems to promise guerrilla war will be next on the agenda, and things are looking promising for the 2018 portion of this season. See you in February.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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