Twelve Halloweens ago, post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead’s feature-length pilot premiered on AMC, ushering in an entirely new wave of prestige pulp. Over the course of 10 and a half seasons spanning nearly 170 episodes, the franchise has broken viewership records, fomented intense debate among its legion of fans, and taken its sprawling characters across numerous localities and entire eras. And while its legacy will continue through sister series like anthology Tales of the Walking Dead and upcoming New York-set The Walking Dead: Dead City, the last episodes of O.G. Walking Dead premiere on AMC and AMC+ on Oct. 2.
For those of you who never latched onto the phenomenon or stopped DVRing it several seasons back (for shame), it’s not too late to join the communal experience of seeing how the saga concludes. It’s also possible that even loyal audiences have had trouble keeping track of the stakes and circumstances as they stand heading into these last episodes. To that end, we offer you this concise digest of the five things you need to know to immerse yourself in The Walking Dead’s big sendoff, whether you’ve never caught a glimpse of its macabre melodrama or merely need to be reoriented before the undead thriller comes alive one last time.
1. It’s all Eugene’s fault
More than a decade of disease, death, and threats from the undead (called “walkers” in The Walking Dead universe) has led the remaining protagonists to a too-good-to-be-true community dubbed The Commonwealth, located some distance from their longtime basecamp in Alexandria, Virginia. Its leaders, Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) and Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton), characterize their compound as a socialist utopia, and it is indeed equipped with many of the comforts of pre-apocalypse life (top-notch medical care, ice cream shops, and furnished residences). Naturally, it’s all a front for a brutal caste system, and an underground resistance is ready to surface. And you can lay blame — or perhaps eventual credit — for the group’s predicament at the feet of Eugene (Josh McDermitt), a verbose and brilliant Texan native who was essentially catfished by one of the Commonwealth’s operatives over long-range radio. This is kind of a pattern for Eugene, whose intelligence is often undermined by his longing for companionship. Heading into these last episodes, Eugene, Rosita (Christian Serratos), and a (mostly) reformed Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are among the last Alexandrians left standing. If they can help turn the Commonwealth into what it purports to be, Eugene would arguably have been the galvanizing force that unwittingly steered our fan favorites to freedom. Unless, of course, it turns out this well-meaning pied piper finally paraded our fan favorites off a cliff.
2. That Rick guy isn’t around anymore, but he’s never far
The name Rick Grimes has grown familiar to pop-culture junkies, regardless of whether they’ve glimpsed a frame of him in action. For the first nine seasons, Rick was the audience’s avatar as The Walking Dead unraveled the rules of post-apocalyptic warfare. Once a sheriff’s deputy and devoted husband and father with a prescribed sense of wrong and right, Rick’s grasp on the line between the greater good and necessary evil was relentlessly tested, as was his leadership of a migratory group that wended its way up the Southeast in search of shelter and a place to start the world anew. By the conclusion of season 9, Rick is presumed dead by those in his circle. Turns out he was wounded but breathing, and whisked away via helicopter by ex-Alexandria resident Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) and a shadowy paramilitary group known as the Civic Republic Military. More will be revealed in an as-yet-untitled spinoff airing in 2023. In the meantime, his character’s exit from The Walking Dead prompted the several-year time jump that jolted us into the Commonwealth; motivated his partner Michonne (Danai Gurira) — with whom he had a child, R.J. (Kien Michael Spiller) — to go on a pilgrimage to find Rick, who she believes is still out there; fueled the resolve of apocalypse brother-from-a-different-mother Daryl (Norman Reedus), who has stepped up alongside fellow season 1 stalwart Carol (Melissa McBride) to take on all threats to their survival; and left a legacy large enough to have become lore among Pamela, Lance, and the Commonwealth elite. Dead, living, or somewhere in between, Rick Grimes continues to resonate across the storylines he left behind.
3. There are no real good guys
Did we mention that good and evil are thoroughly subjective in the Walking Dead universe? Rick’s body count alone rivals any horror-movie bogeyman, including his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). He and his cohort laid waste to hundreds of humans and thousands of undead during the show’s first nine seasons, dispatching adversarial forces like the reformed baddie Negan’s Saviors — as well as the dead-skin-mask-donning Whisperers, feral predators the Wolves, and duplicitous would-be dictator the Governor (David Morrissey) — with prejudice. In one spectacularly violent sequence, Rick and his followers viciously murder Terminus founder Gareth (Andrew J. West) and his gang of bloodthirsty cannibals amidst the pews of a church. A Walking Dead through line is the idea that if viewers were living vicariously through any of these so-called “villainous” factions and stumbled on Rick’s survivors, they’d be the ones who looked like unsympathetic murderers. It’s the show’s defining tension, culminating in these last episodes as we find out whether the Commonwealth can reach its true, democratized potential for a better world, and who decides what that even means.
4. Yes, there are apocalypse babies
R.J. Grimes isn’t the only Walking Dead survivor who’s never known a world without flesh-eating corpses and constant threats against their way of life. For one, there’s his adoptive sister (long story) Judith (Cailey Fleming), who knows her way with a six-shooter and keeps Rick’s influence alive by brandishing his iconic deputy’s hat. Not to mention Hershel, son of still-living warrior Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and her late husband Glenn (Steven Yeun), who was killed in season 7 by Negan, seeding some serious revenge issues. Or loveable big man Jerry’s (Cooper Andrews) three kids with Nabila (Nadine Marissa), whom he met while they were both members of a fallen settlement called the Kingdom. The grown-ups want desperately for R.J. and Judith to salvage a childhood more like the ones they remember — a notion that should resonate with any parent who’s navigated our real-life pandemic. It’s actually the words of Rick’s late, teenage son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who succumbed to a walker bite in season 8, that have served as the survivors’ North Star. Shortly before dying, he implored Rick and the rest that no matter how much carnage occurs, “There’s gotta be something after.”
5. Not everyone dies all the time
Don’t be deterred by the fact that men, women, and children of all ages have been unceremoniously slain, slaughtered, and sacrificed. The body count has ebbed significantly as The Walking Dead paces itself for a final lap. The current core of ostensible heroes — Daryl, Carol, Maggie, Eugene, Negan, Ezekiel, Yumiko, Magna, Judith, Princess, and a select circle of allies — has managed to avoid the indignity of meeting their maker and coming back as a brainless skin-muncher. There’s no guarantee of zero fatalities among the above motley crew and their comrades, but the resistance to Milton and Hornsby’s rule is swelling in numbers, and there’s more than enough people power to sustain a semi-functioning new society under less authoritarian sway. For all the show’s macabre genre signatures, it has evolved over its 12-year run into an allegory for our troubled modern times, and seems poised to leave us with an unlikely model for what a truly fair, just, and inclusive world would look like. There will be blood, but in its own way, The Walking Dead’s ultimate bow may also offer a roadmap for how to heal.