Warning! This review contains major spoilers for The Walking Dead season 11, episode 23.
"For the longest time, we were just fighting to survive," recalls Judith Grimes as dramatic strings play over flashbacks to some of the show's most violent moments. The gang pick out their signature weapons, ready for the war ahead. It's an opening that teases an action-packed thrill ride – and The Walking Dead's penultimate episode delivers on the promise.
Naturally, then, 'Family' is brimming with ambitious set pieces and offers up some emotional shockers. With several of our heroes having reunited (and taken back Alexandria), the latest installment – written by Magali Lozano, Erik Mountain and Kevin Deiboldt, and directed by Sharat Raju – sees them return to the Commonwealth. Their mission? Find Rosita's daughter Coco and the other missing kids, before killing the community's corrupt governor Pamela Milton.
In the run-up to the siege, Negan approaches Maggie and voices his doubts over whether the group will have the guts to pull off that last part. "Together, you and I, we get this done. We don't need the others," he insists. Maggie snips: "We are not a 'we'." While their interactions still feel forced, Negan's scenes with Ezekiel continue to make us question why the writers didn't bring them together sooner. Later in the episode, one standout moment sees Ezekiel question why Negan went to sacrifice himself back at Outpost 22.
"I wanted to leave a better story about me than the one you've been telling," he says. "That when it mattered, I did something right. And it wasn't to prove anything, it wasn't to get anything in return. Hell, it wasn't even to save my own ass, it was to save all of you. You all are better than me, and if you think I don't know that, then you haven't been paying attention."
For the first time in a long time, Negan's character beats feel genuine and earned, and it's a testament to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Khary Payton's work as his scene partner, in recent weeks. The moving exchange will likely prove important going forward, too, as, unbeknownst to Negan, Maggie was listening. They may not be a 'we' now, but with a spin-off series centering them on the horizon, that relationship is destined to develop and this confession will surely be the catalyst.
In recent seasons, The Walking Dead has tried to make itself more cinematic – and a big part of that has been its use of slow motion, which garners mixed results depending on its context. Here, Bear McCreary and Sam Ewing's booming score attempts to underline certain line readings – like Mercer's "Yeah!" when asked by Princess whether he's ready to take down Pamela over walkie talkie, or Negan's “What the fuck?” when he spots a sentient walker climbing over a barricade. Every instance is jarring and oddly funny; a frustrating low point in an otherwise serious, effective chapter.
Fortunately, the rest of 'Family' makes up for it. Elsewhere, Aaron, Jerry and the like are still caught up in the horde after their journey to Oceanside was derailed. Like previous episodes, their storyline provides the juiciest zombie bits; cracking aerial shots highlighting the threat of the swarm and expertly obscuring how many decomposing extras were digitally added in. Despite having to navigate Covid protocols in its bigger sequences, the episode never loses sight of the fact that we care about the characters first and foremost. Masquerading as walkers, Whisperer-style, the survivors manage to shuffle to an abandoned RV – but Luke, Jules, and Elijah get swept away by the rotters. In her attempt to pull Elijah back, Lydia gets bitten, which leads to a grisly, makeshift amputation.
Ross Marquand, Cooper Andrews, and, especially, Cassady McClincy – all of whom rarely get the screen time they deserve – are brilliant here; their characters' desperation spilling out of the screen. "You are so loved, Lydia," a teary-eyed Aaron (Marquand) whimpers as he reminds her that he lost a limb and "made it" before, while Jerry fetches a sword. It's bleak, but an important reminder of the dangers of the new world and how much these people mean to one another. After lopping off Lydia's forearm, Jerry orders a weakened Lydia to stay put and rest while he goes out to look for the others on his own. "See you on the other side," he states, which sounds super ominous given that there's only one episode of the series left. Will Jerry live past the finale?
His fate isn't the only one hanging in the balance at the end of 'Family', either. Not long after Daryl, Maggie, and the rest sneak back into the Commonwealth's Union Station, they're ambushed by Pamela and several of her soldiers. Locked in, the gang have no choice but to engage in a well-staged shoot-out, and when Pamela pulls out a gun and aims at Maggie, Judith jumps in and takes the bullet. It's a gobsmack moment, as we've not seen any harm come to a youngster on the show for a long time – and Judith has always represented such optimism and innocence. To lose her now would be devastating, and at first, we think she's gone, as the camera lingers purposefully on Daryl trying to shake Judith awake. After what seems like forever, Judith regains consciousness and the group retreat, determined to get the little'un to the hospital. But their run through the city is interrupted by the army of walkers Pamela has directed to the Commonwealth to distract from the rebellion.
The credits hit just as the conflict really erupts; Daryl scooting through the walkers with Judith in his arms. Bleary-eyed, she looks up at him and mumbles "Daddy?". McCreary and Ewing's overly sentimental backing track swells a bit too much again, but it's still affecting. That is, until you start wondering whether the confused kid was actually referring to Daryl as her father or if she might have spotted her real pops somewhere in the chaos…
Now, only one episode of The Walking Dead remains, 'Rest in Peace', following 175 and 12 years worth of storytelling before it. Hopefully there are some surprises ahead – possibly even a Rick Grimes appearance? – but given the way 'Family' ends, we have some clue as to what will go down. With Pamela having ordered her military to divert the herd to the lower class quarters, hoping to save herself and the rest of the Commonwealth's elite, there is stuff still to resolve there. I wager, though, given the "smart" zombies’ invasion, that the dead will prove to be the major threat in the closer. We've seen plenty of memorable villains come and go across The Walking Dead's run but the titular infected creatures are the reason we're in this "mess" in the first place, so it feels fitting. Let's just hope most, if not all, of our heroes avoid becoming one in the final 90 minutes.
Make sure you never miss an episode with our The Walking Dead season 11 release schedule, and check out our how to watch The Walking Dead guide if you're wanting to watch/rewatch the main series and its spin-offs.