Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) full throated howl for his son, genially mocked by fans over these past eight seasons, may indeed be over. The Walking Dead midseason finale has shattered convention once again. "How It's Gotta Be" leaves our hero's beloved progeny, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), bitten by a walker. This death sentence is par for the course. The battle plan to defeat the Saviors has officially failed. Negan (Jeffery Dean Morgan) and his men have escaped the Sanctuary. They bring a torrent of fury and reprisals to the unsuspecting colonies.
"How it's Gotta Be" begins with Rick desperately trying to reach anyone on the radio. He comes under fire and is forced to take shelter. Jadis (Polyanna McIntosh) and the junkyard people flee. We then flashback to a scene with Rick and Carl walking down a road. Carl tells his father that there has to be something else. It can't be all about killing. Rick must find a peaceful way forward. In the present, an SUV with Jerry (Cooper Andrews) and Carol (Melissa McBride) rescue Rick. They drive off under a hail of gunfire.
Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Enid (Katelyn Nacon) are in a car driving. They are going to the Oceanside colony. Aaron reflects on losing Eric. He let's Enid take a turn at the wheel. She says they can't go there empty-handed. They drive towards a local distillery. In Alexandria, everyone is preparing to meet for the Savior ultimatum. Michonne (Danai Gurira) kisses Judith goodbye and catches up with Daryl (Norman Reedus). He tells her their plan worked. Carl is in his room writing a letter to his father. He comes across a note from Enid that says "just survive somehow". Outside, Tara (Alana Masterson) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) pack for the trip.
Enid drives the car, while Aaron is in a truck filled with whiskey. They approach Oceanside and bed down for the night. They are asleep in the car when a noise startles them. They go to investigate. Someone attacks Aaron, but is then immediately shot by Enid. They are surrounded by the Oceanside people. Enid has shot Natalia, their leader.
Back in Alexandria, Carl and Michonne are putting supplies in the sewer. Suddenly a megaphone chirps through the night. It's Negan; the Saviors are at the gate. They have three minutes to let them in or Alexandria will be destroyed. Cut to a scene of Jerry driving on the road. His car is smashed by another vehicle. At the Kingdom, Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is still in his theater holding Shiva's chains. He's reading a note from Jerry explaining they've left to meet Rick. He hears gunfire outside. The Saviors storm the theater. Ezekiel escapes through the back.
Jesus (Tom Payne) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are leading a convoy to the Sanctuary. They are forced to stop by trees in the road. Savior vehicles come out of nowhere to box them in. A truck pulls up in front of them. Simon (Steven Ogg) exits the back with his men. They have a bloodied Jerry at gunpoint. In Alexandria, Carl orders everyone to grab what they can and evacuate the colony. Michonne begs him to come, but he says no. He orders her to leave. It's his call.
At the Kingdom, the Saviors have rounded up all the people. They are going to be taking the Kingdom for themselves. The people will be used to rebuild the Sanctuary. They are looking for King Ezekiel. Back at the convoy, Simon's men collect Maggie's men's guns. He shoots one of her men, then gleefully approaches her window.
Carl goes to the lookout and addresses Negan. There are children inside. Negan points out there were kids inside the Sanctuary. Carl offers his life to make up for the others. Negan is impressed. As they banter, a convoy of trucks ends up breaking through the rear of Alexandria. Negan turns around to see that Carl has vanished. It was a plot to buy time. The Saviors start launching grenades and firebombs into Alexandria. Carl watches as the church burns. A car beside him explodes and he's knocked down.
At the Kingdom, the people have five minutes to hand over Ezekiel. At the trapped convoy, Simon gloats to Maggie about their plans. The Kingdom and Alexandria has been taken over. The Hilltop will be spared as the "bread basket". Maggie and her people will work for them or die. Maggie asks how they escaped the walkers. Simon responds that Eugene (Josh McDermitt) devised their exit. Maggie agrees to his terms. She only asks for the box, meant for her, that Simon brought with him. Maggie's convoy turns around and heads back to the Hilltop.
Eugene lays awake in bed. He can't sleep, even after a shot of the giggle juice. Back in Alexandria, Carl gets up to see everything burning. Outside in the woods, Tara, Daryl, Rosita, and Michonne regroup. Daryl wonders if their actions at the Sanctuary led to the Saviors escape. They have laid a trap in the road for the Saviors chasing them. On cue, Dwight (Austin Amelio) and Laura (Lindsley Register) see smoke ahead in the road. He stops, allowing for Daryl and the others to open fire. Dwight exits his car, shooting his fellow Saviors. Laura realizes he is the traitor. She shoots him in the arm and escapes.
In Alexandria, the Saviors burst through the gates. Negan wants Carl found alive. He heads to Rick's house to make spaghetti. Some Saviors spot Carl. He loses them with a smoke grenade and ducks into the sewer. Back at the Sanctuary, Eugene sneaks into Father Gabriel's (Seth Gilliam) room. He's poisoned the guard and left a key for a car. Eugene wants Dr. Karson and Gabriel to escape to the Hilltop. Gabriel begs him to come, but Eugene refuses.
Ezekiel pours gas on the Kingdom's fuel supply. He lights it on fire then runs. The Saviors go towards the massive explosion. Ezekiel then drives takes a truck right into the Saviors vehicles. He jumps out, then leads his people to the gate. Carol runs toward him at the entrance. He closes the gate in front of her, "Save my people like you saved me". Ezekiel uses Shiva's chain to lock the gate behind him. He's captured by the Saviors.
Maggie returns to the Hilltop. She goes to the Savior pen and pulls the one that threatened Jesus out. She kills him on the spot, then has his body put in the box. Maggie tells Jesus that the Hilltop must prepare to be the last stand. Survivors will be coming their way. She has the box put out front of their gates with a message written on it. She will use the captured Saviors as hostages.
Dwight sits bleeding by his car. Daryl and the others approach him. Daryl asks how they were able to escape. Dwight responds that it was Eugene. He has no place to go. The Saviors now know he is the traitor. Tara packs up all of the Savior weapons. Rosita helps Dwight to his feet.
Ezekiel is bloodied and being taunted by the Saviors. He will be taken back to the Sanctuary and made an example. Outside the gate, Morgan (Lennie James) is listening to every word. Back on the outskirts of Alexandria, Daryl and the others make their way into the sewer. Michonne does not. She heads toward their burning homes.
Rick arrives at Alexandria. He enters in terror as everything is in flames around him. He goes to his house looking for Carl, but finds Negan waiting. They engage in a brief, brutal fight. Rick grabs his gun, but Negan pushes him out a window. He gets up to see Rick has escaped. Michonne kills a Savior with a sword. Rick sees her and they go together into the sewers. Below Alexandria, everyone is safe but forlorn. Rick sees Judith, then goes towards Carl, who is sitting with Siddiq (Avi Nash). Carl looks pale and weak. As Rick and Michonne kneel before him, he lifts up his shirt to show he has been bitten.
Alexandria burns, the Kingdom falls, and the Saviors strike back with gusto. None of this is a surprise. The entire season so far has been Rick and the gang constantly letting the Saviors live. They could have wiped out Negan and the Sanctuary easily, but played nice and therefore pay the price. None of the buildup to this point made any sense and was ludicrous. Weak narrative aside, Carl looks to be a goner. The father-son duo at the core of the show's premise may be shattered. We'll see how Carl's imminent demise and the battle with Negan play out next February, on AMC.