The eighth of the Fast & Furious movies is upon us. This is an exciting, nerve-wracking time.

If you’re only just tuning into the Fast & Furious franchise today, you might think that the series is—and always has been—a raucous series of action-movie epics, each new one trying to out-class its predecessors with bigger explosions and crazier stunts. It wasn’t always this way.

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NOTE: This article covers all the movies, including the newest one. But we’ll warn you when you should bail out before hitting spoilers for movie number eight. Go see that film, and then come back for the wrap-up.

Fast & Furious began in 2001 with the original movie, The Fast and the Furious, which was inspired by an article in Vibe about undergound street racing. It was one of a handful of late-nineties and early-2000’s action movies centered on cars. There was also Collateral, Gone in 60 Seconds, and Transporter. It’s amazing and at times difficult to explain how Fast & Furious survived for 16 years and became one of the most popular and lucrative action series ever. It’s also remarkable that it did so with (mostly) the same core cast members and characters.

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To make it as long as it has, the Fast & Furious series, much like its own stars, has had to perform a number of quick, dramatic shifts and seemingly impossible turnarounds. So how did we get from underground street racing in Downtown L.A. to tanks, drones, and nuclear submarines? Let’s take a look back at the series’ defining moments.

Brian And Dom’s First Race

Remember how things got started, back in the very beginning? Paul Walker plays an undercover cop (Brian) who’s working a case that has to do with truckers being robbed of DVD players by some high-tech thieving street racers. “High-tech” is a relative term, mind you, given how old the original film is at this point. During one of their first conversations, Vin Diesel brags about having his tech-savvy sidekick use the internet to dig up information on Brian.

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To pin down the perpetrators, Brian tries to infiltrates the crew of known car driver and muscular person Dominic Toretto (that’s Vin Diesel, of course). He , first tries to do this by showing up at the gang’s shop repeatedly, ordering tuna sandwiches, and staring intently at Dominic’s sister Mia:

That doesn’t work. Brian gets beaten up by Mia’s other main suitor, Vince, and then told to stay away for good by Dom. So he tries to beat Dom at his own game: street racing.

That doesn’t go well either. Brian isn’t a talented racer, let alone a competent driver, yet. Dom is the 800-pound gorilla of the local street-racing circuit. He’s not only the part-patriarch, part-older brother figure of his crew, but also a powerful enough figure in the racing scene that his mere presence commands respect. That respect is what Brian demands of him—if he can win the race.

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Short as it is, the very first Fast & Furious race establishes key motifs for the series. The CGI-fueled zoom into the inside of a car to show all the mechanical high-tech stuff activating—mostly NOS, or Nitrous Oxide, also known as the special gas that makes cars go super fast with the press of a button:

The “serious shifting”:

It even has a rapper providing comic relief and extra character while simultaneously providing half of the movie’s soundtrack. In this first one, that role was occupied by Ja Rule:

It also gives us one of Vin Diesel’s very best speeches:

Brian: Dude, I almost had you!

Dom: You almost had me? You never had me. You never had your car! Granny shifting, not double clutching like you should...you’re lucky that hundred shot of NOS didn’t blow the welds on the intake...you almost had me?

“Ask any racer,” Dom concludes, “any real racer. It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.” The crowd cheers him on. Brian is humiliated.

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Vin Diesel and Paul Walker would spend a lot more time together in Fast & Furious movies. They aren’t even friends yet at this point. But already, the core dynamic of their relationship is established: Brian looks up to Dom, admires his racing skill and his cool confidence. Dom seems fond of Brian’s mixture of competitive energy and steadfast impassiveness. The two make for a very...expressionless duo.

Luckily for Brian, Mia seems equally chill.

Brian and Mia’s First Date

Once Brian’s finally in with Dom’s crew, he takes Mia out to dinner and once again stares at her intently:

It feels cruel to admit this in light of Paul Walker’s tragic death during the filming of Furious 7 in 2013, but he’s not a particularly good actor. He brings as much personality to his role as the cars he drives do. Jordana Brewster, the actor who plays Mia, is pretty stoic in her appearance, too. And yet the two of them have one of the more important relationships in all of Fast & Furious lore. Walker works so well in the series, because Brian fits within Walker’s boundaries as an actor. He’s an eminently chill cipher of a bro who often seems like he’s displaying more emotion or critical thought than he actually is. That’s thanks to the man’s steely, steely gaze:

Mia couldn’t resist it. And neither could Dom:

And neither could we:

Really, the only person who could (and only sort of, really) resist that gaze was the undercover cop lady from 2 Fast 2 Furious. And let’s be honest, he’s not really doing his best work here:

Alright, enough of Paul Walker’s piercing eyes for now. Let’s move on.

The First Family Dinner

Technically this comes before the date scene since it provides the lead-in to their budding romance (the two of them doing dishes as he continues to stare intently at her). But it was an easy episode to overlook, because we only realized how tear-jerkingly important it would be years later. Also during their dinner at Cha Cha Cha, Mia says something interesting regarding what would come to be known as The Family.

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Brian asks her how “the gang” got together in the first place, and she scoffs at him.

“The gang?” she continues. “No, they don’t call themselves a gang.”

“Well, what do they call themselves then?” Brian responds.

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“They’re a team, they call themselves a team.”

Family, which would become the defining theme of the entire series, isn’t what they even call themselves yet. The only character who actually uses the word “family” in The Fast and the Furious is one of the FBI agents steering Brian from behind the scenes. Late in the movie, Brian is squirming under the pressure to offer Dom (now his BFF) up to the authorities, saying that Diesel will likely refuse to go back to prison, meaning that he’ll end up dead in any confrontation.

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“Well that’s a choice he’s going to have to make,” the agent says. “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. That’s a choice you’re going to have to make.”

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Family, The Fast and the Furious suggests, isn’t who you’re born to, or who you grow up with. It’s who you choose to spend your life with. This is a theme Justin Lin would return to once he took over the reins of the series with Tokyo Drift.

Family—that is, the strength and love the core cast of Fast & Furious find in supporting one another—is the single most important reason why serious fans of the series set it apart from any other, more forgettable action movie franchise. The concept of The Family has been around since the beginning of the series. But as Fast & Furious has evolved and leaned ever more heavily on the term “family” for all its branding needs, the exact meaning of “family” has changed in interesting and sometimes troubling ways.

When Dom Tried, And Failed, To Save Vince

As the leader and patriarch of The Family, Vin Diesel’s Dom very rarely fails at things. He’s the undisputed champion of pretty much every race he enters into in the entire series; Brian is the only one who’s even had a hope of beating him—and that’s really just because Dom let him. But he does fail at one, very important thing, and that’s when he tries to help wrest his childhood friend Vince free of a wire that’s trapped him at the front of a Mack Truck driven by a man who’s very fed up with being robbed and has a shotgun to prove it.

Ultimately it’s Brian who has to save Vince, using both his jumping-off-of-cars skills and his cop connections to chopper in a medic to stop Vince from bleeding out:

The final chase scene in the original movie established one of Fast and Furious’s most memorable visual tropes: Vin Diesel leaning precariously out of a car he’s driving insanely fast while somehow still managing to steer. He usually does this to try and save the lives of other members of his crew. And, again, he’s usually successful...but not with Vince.

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More on this later.

When Brian And Dom Say Goodbye

When Brian tells Mia during their date that his goal in getting into Dom’s inner circle was actually to get to her, he’s staring so intently that you just know he really means it. But he clearly starts to care about Dom a lot, too. Their half-brotherly, half-fatherly relationship comes to a head when Brian casts his undercover cop duties aside and lets Vin Diesel get away from the incoming fuzz.

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Brian giving Dom the keys to the last race car either of them have at their disposal was probably something the original film’s masterminds came up with to make the ending seem dramatic and vaguely ambiguous—that is, ambiguous enough to leave it open for a sequel but not feel obligated to make on if it’d ended up tanking at the box office. But it actually ended up working really well. The two of them wouldn’t see each other again for quite some time.

Suddenly, We’re In Miami. And Here’s Ludacris!

2 Fast 2 Furious is the black sheep of the series. It’s not hard to see why. A lot of people from the original movie simply walked away after its release, not seeing much potential in its future and thus losing interest. Dom, Mia, and Letty were all gone. Even Ja Rule turned down an offer to return to the sequel with an expanded role. Ja Rule! He must really regret that decision now.

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Lacking most of its original cast, Fast & Furious had to reinvent itself, and it did so in hilarious and awkward ways. Of all the movies in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious feels the most dated—which is saying something, considering that The Fast and the Furious is so old that Dom’s tech specialist sidekick uses floppy discs.

2 Fast 2 Furious feels so old because, more than any other installment in the series, it confines itself to a particular time and place. In its effort to reinvent itself, the movie takes Brian down to Miami, rewrites him as a guy who wears West Coast Choppers shirts and says “bro” every other word, and gives him Eva Mendes as a new potential love interest and co-star.

Now lacking Ja Rule as the rapper-actor who not only stars in the movie but also makes all its theme songs, 2 Fast 2 Furious found a new star in Ludacris, who was still very much known as a distinctly Southern rapper at that point in his career.

(As later Fast & Furious movies got bigger and bigger, Luda would continue acting but eventually cede his role as the series’ rap impresario to other rappers like 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa. If you want another indication of how far back this series goes: 2 Chainz was actually already in the Fast & Furious musical canon starting with the 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack—but he was using his old moniker “Tity Boi”)

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It’s not just the yachts, bikini-heavy tropical parties, and street races that Tej (Ludacris’s character) puts on that really play up the early-aughts Miami-ness of the film. It’s also the deliciously tacky clothing that the villain and his two henchmen wear. Just look at the size of those collars!

Brian ends up defeating the tacky suit-wearing villain by driving a car off a crazy jump and landing it on the guy’s boat:

It’s tempting and easy to write 2 Fast 2 Furious off as a fluke, a sign of the adolescent growing pains the series went through before it could find itself. But it does something cool with its final, characteristically ridiculous set piece that deserves some credit. First and most obviously, it introduces death and gravity-defying car-based stunts into the Fast & Furious canon in a new and much bigger way than The Fast and the Furious could. And in so doing, it draws a direct parallel between the fun, recreational part of street racing and the inevitable insanity of the good guys taking out the bad guys with high-speed cars. That final jump over the water and onto the boat almost perfectly mirrors another jump Brian makes at the very beginning of the film when Tej, in a final dramatic flourish for a race he’s hosting, raises a drawbridge the racers are about to cross.

In The Fast and the Furious, truck robberies were something that Dom and his crew did in secret on the side. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, Brian’s thrill-seeking and his bad-guy-thwarting are one in the same, both as an experience and as part of his identity.

Brian And Roman’s Rekindled Bromance

2 Fast 2 Furious departs from the “family” theme of the original in some sense. But only sort of. It keeps the spirit of fraternal bonding alive by introducing Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce, Brian’s once and future bro. The bonds of friendship are still formed through cars. There are still different types of family out there for Brian, it seems.

When Tokyo Drift...Happened

Tokyo Drift is the most divisive film in Fast & Furious history. Starring neither Paul Walker nor Vin Diesel—except for a crucial few seconds at the end—the third movie seemed to hope that cars alone could be a narrative and thematic glue for the series’ future. For some fans, it’s the series’ all-time low from which it had to recover by (once again) reinventing itself. For others, it’s an unappreciated gem—maybe even the best film in the series.

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Regardless of how one feels about Tokyo Drift, it was a commercial low point for the series. It grossed $158 million off an $85 million budget, making it far less successful than either of its predecessors and, ultimately, the lowest-grossing film in the series to date. It was received so poorly in pre-release screenings that Justin Lin, Neal Moritz, and Chris Morgan, the director, producer, and writer respectively, went to find Vin Diesel and begged him to appear in a last-minute cameo so people would expect him to return in the fourth film and, hopefully, the series would be saved from a direct-to-DVD fate. Diesel only agreed to come back, funnily enough, in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise and a greatly expanded producer role to help define the future vision of Fast & Furious. At this point, he calls himself the “saga visionary.”

Some things still worked about Tokyo Drift, though. Lin and Morgan kept their roles atop the franchise post-Drift to help turn it into the action series we know today. It also introduced Han, the charming ex-smoker and seasoned drifter who quickly became a fan favorite.

It’s fun to rewatch Tokyo Drift today because by casting aside the majority of what constituted Fast and Furious lore up to that point meant it could have fun with itself by exaggerating the playful, often adorable rivalries that drive much of the tension in each movie’s plot. This one is literally a high school drama. Look at how the hero squares off against the jerky captain of the football team in its first scene:

He ultimately switches locales to Tokyo, of course, but besides having to learn some new racing techniques, things are no different. There’s another hot girl he wants to impress, and another bully with a gang of toughs to try and stop him—or outrace him with the fancier cars their dads gave them. It’s more a sports movie than one about elaborate heists or organized crime. It has both the least amount of guns in the series and the most amount of screen-time dedicated to street racing.

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For all of its relative harmlessness, however, it also happens to be the only film in Fast & Furious history where a main character actually dies in a car accident.

...though that ends up being a more malicious “accident” than it originally seems.

Getting The Gang Back Together

2009’s Fast & Furious is one of the weaker entries in the series. But it’s also an important one, albeit in a purely functional sense. Looking back at it now, we can see that the movie did four major things for the series. First, it reunited the original foursome—Dom, Brian, Mia, and Letty—for the first time in eight years. While Letty appeared to be killed off and thus removed from the series again right after the intro sequence, the renewed sense of family was at least somewhat preserved by Brian and Mia’s reunion.

Second, Fast & Furious officially told us all that it was ok to call it Fast & Furious instead of the old-school mouthful The Fast and the Furious.

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Third, it brought back Han after his death in Tokyo Drift, establishing that this new movie was actually a prequel of sorts. Han’s only in 2009’s Fast & Furious for two scenes, but he makes sure to mention he has plans to travel to Tokyo in case there’s any lingering confusion.

Fourth—and this is especially important coming after Tokyo Drift—it showed that the series was done fucking around. The stakes have been raised much, much higher. Lin opens the 2009 half-reboot, half-revival with a direct reference to the original movie; Dom, Letty, and the rest of their crew are once again robbing a truck, only this time it’s a friggin’ oil tanker, and they only just escape a fiery death thanks to Vin Diesel’s impeccable driving skills and American muscle.

The family might be back together, Fast & Furious says, but they aren’t the family that gets together to make popcorn and watch a movie anymore. They’re international criminals and crime fighters now. Paul Walker’s traded some of his ratty t-shirts and converse for button-down shirts, and even a suit.

Audiences took the point.

When The Rock—And A Different Ludacris—Showed Up

Fast Five is where things really got going again. The original four weren’t the only ones who showed up for the party. Tej (Ludacris), Roman Pearce (Tyrese), Vince, Han, and Han’s nascent love interest Gisele all came back, too. Also, perhaps most importantly of all, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stepped boldly into the series.

Johnson established his now integral role in the Fast and Furious canon as Luke Hobbs, the cop in its ongoing cops-and-robbers shenanigans who has a comical, half-antagonistic, half-friendly relationship with The Family. Only, since this is Fast and Furious, he’s not as much a cop as a towering ogre made up of muscle and military hardware. Much of the rivalry between Hobbs and Dom seems to stem from the fraught debate over which one of them has bigger pecs.

Personally I’d say they’re about equal, but The Rock wears much tighter shirts.

The Rock’s debut highlights a funny aspect of Fast Five and all its successors: how the series switched gears and started adding more and more standard blockbuster action movie motifs. The camera is given far less time to pan around parties and errant street races, and focuses more and more on big explosions and tank-sized weaponized vehicles. Garages are replaced with hideouts for the newly-minted team of international super thieves. Bloomberg published a study just this week breaking this phenomenon down in meticulous data-driven detail: Fast & Furious 5-7 have all featured less racing, less talking about cars, and less partying than their predecessors. I didn’t take a stopwatch with me into the theater when I saw The Fate of the Furious this week, but it definitely sticks to this trend. And as the films’ budgets and ensuing profits have soared, so too have the amount of fistfights, gunfights, car chases (as opposed to car races), and close-ups of women’s butts.

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Fast Five barely tries to explain how or why characters have suddenly changed and the stakes have been raised to ever-higher levels. What’s truly astounding about Fast Five is how it just manages to work in spite of that. It’s not just a phenomenal action movie, it’s also a surprisingly coherent capstone to four other wildly different movies. One might be tempted to ask: “How did Ludacris go from owning a garage in Miami to being the dude who cracks high-tech safes, sits behind fancy computer screens, and talks to Vin Diesel and Paul Walker on the radio during chase scenes?” Or: “If Tokyo Drift took place after this movie since Han is still alive, why does everyone in Tokyo Drift use flip phones?”

“I had a life before we met, Brian, let’s just leave it at that,” Tej says when Brian all but raises the Ludacris question.

Don’t think about it too hard, the movie says. This is The Family now. Just come along for the ride. 

“This is not what we do”

Fast Five will go down as one of the greatest action movies ever made. Fast & Furious 6 is a great movie too, but some fans and series skeptics might look back at it as the beginning of the end for the franchise. It’s the moment when The Family stopped acting like a jocular group of bank robbers and started acting like a paramilitary force.

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Even though Fast Five 5 added things like The Rock and a lot more special effects and explosions, it was still a heist film. The characters were all having fun and they didn’t try to hide it. Fast & Furious 6 took a lot of the dourness of 2009’s Fast & Furious and brought it to a larger scale than the series had ever seen before. They weren’t robbing banks this time; they were stopping an international terrorist force. That meant more gadgets, more fancy computer monitors, and more military vehicles. In doing so, it lost much of the color, humor, and warmth Fast & Furious was known for—the same personality that Fast Five had revived and enhanced so successfully. The film acknowledges the discomfort when Tyrese returns from one of the first chase scenes with other members of the team, shocked that they were suddenly confronted by a new league of bad guys, these ones using tricked-out cars that look like they were designed more for urban guerilla warfare than strictly street racing.

“This is crazy,” Tyrese’s Roman Pearce says. “We are not in Brazil. So now we got cars flying in the air, on some 007-type shit? This is not what we do!

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“Man,” Ludacris’s Tej replies, “you really gotta check that emotion.” Tej might be uncomfortable too, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t also appreciate the opportunity to play with some snazzy new toys.

Fast & Furious 6, and later 7, both try to cope with their new dramatic heft by leaning heavily on the “one last job” cliche. What makes it work so well in Fast & Furious 6 in spite of its generic action movie-ness is Justin Lin and the rest of the team found powerful ways to take all its newfound blockbuster-y characteristics and wove them into critical themes of the series—loss, love, and family.

When Dom Proved His Love For Letty By Jumping Out Of A Car And Over A Bridge

This movie has probably the craziest single chase scene in Fast & Furious history, except for maybe the one that concludes Fast & Furious 6 in which a car bursts out of the front of a plane. It’s hard to call anything involving a tank and half a dozen cars chasing each other across a bridge “subtle.” But it actually is, and artfully so.

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Think about Dom’s motivation in this scene, when he sees Letty get launched off the overturned tank. Remember that first final chase scene, from so many years ago? Since he’s able to drive so crazily without ever losing control of his car, he’s probably letting his mind wander its way back to that other fateful moment of car-on-car combat. The one that went down so many years ago:

When he reached as far as he could, but just couldn’t get a hold of Vince:

The moment Dom the Patriarch let down Vince the Prodigal Son. The moment he failed one of the members of The Family.

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He must be thinking about how that failure played its part in encouraging Vince’s departure from The Family when everyone went their separate ways after the first movie ended. And how Vince’s potential disappointment with Dom lead him to lie about his true intentions at the beginning of Fast Five when he asks the rest of his old crew to help him steal some fancy cars.

“Look at our family now!” Vince screamed at Dom in Fast Five after the latter confronts him about his betrayal.Vince ultimately tried to come back into the fold, and Dom even tried to embrace him again, but it was too late. Dom couldn’t keep the entire family together; he couldn’t resolve the long-simmering acrimony between Brian and Vince over their shared love for Mia. Something had to give for The Family to remain a coherent unit, and Dom chose Brian. Vince either had to leave for good, or he had to die. He tried to win his way back into The Family one last time, and so he died.

He won’t let that happen to Letty, the only woman he’s ever truly loved.

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And that’s why he doesn’t just reach out of the car window this time. He climbs halfway out of the thing:

...and then leaps out just as it crashes, so he can rocket himself over a bridge:

...catch Letty while they’re both flying through the air:

...and then crash into another car on the opposite of the bridge:

That’s “I love you” in Fast & Furious-speak.

No wonder, then, that Dom’s epic stunt is the thing that finally does the trick and convinces Letty she’s actually working for the bad guys:

The Second Family Dinner

Well over a decade after Vin Diesel first slapped someone on the wrist and told them to say grace as punishment for being the first one to reach in for food, the team finally makes it all the way back home at the end of Fast & Furious 6. Who else teared up during this scene?

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The Family had changed a lot over the course of the years, Fast & Furious 6’s conclusion showed us.

It lost some members.

It gained some new ones, too. The Rock even shows up right before the reunion meal, so he and Dom could do this weird stand-off thing:

(Why can’t they just look at one another?)

More important than any of its changes, though, is this one essential truth: it’s never stopped being The Family.

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Part of me wishes that Fast & Furious ended right there at the conclusion of 6, with The Family sitting together for one more meal. It’s one of the few endings to a Fast & Furious movie that wraps things up as perfectly as it possibly could—the “one last job” finished, the painful and sometimes fatal consequences felt deeply by the surviving Family, and everyone finally given a chance to retire

But we all know that couldn’t have happened. More powerful than any tank of NOS is the roaring engine of capitalism, and Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 had both taken the series to new box office heights. Fast Five was the first film in the series to pull in more than $600 million, earning $263 million more than its next most lucrative predecessor. It was no real surprise, then, to see Jason Statham pop up in a post-credits scene, revealing that he was directly responsible for Han’s death in Tokyo Drift.

And so we continued onward to Furious 7.

Furious 7 Soldiers On Without Paul Walker

It’s hard to watch the end of Furious 7 without tearing up.

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Paul Walker was killed in a car accident on November 13th, 2013, while the cast and crew behind Furious 7 was taking a short break for Thanksgiving. In a tragic bit of irony, the car crash that took his and his friend Roger Rodas’s life unfolded at a curve in a road in Valencia, California that’s a well-known spot for local drifting. The two were leaving a fundraising event put on by Walker’s Reach Out Worldwide charity to support victims of Typhoon Haiyan. Police determined that Rodas and Walker weren’t street racing, nor were they inebriated, but they were going very fast—somewhere between 80 and 93 miles per hour, which put a lot of strain on the car’s nine-year old tires.

Neal Moritz, the producer of Fast & Furious from the very first movie onward, recently confessed to Bill Simmons on the latter’s podcast that he and the rest of the series’ core team almost decided to call Furious 7 off entirely after Walker died. Universal tried to delay them from making any decision, and Moritz ended up continuing with production after he decided to rejigger the film to be an extended tribute to Walker.

Moritz and co. wanted to honor Walker by using as much of the material he’d brought to the film before dying as they could. And unfortunately for the film, they’d only shot about half of the stuff Walker was supposed to be in. “We had him in a lot of the action stuff and not a lot of the dramatic sequences,” screenwriter Chris Morgan recently told Collider.

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The fact that Furious 7 was essentially unfinished shows itself in the final product. On the action front, there’s an impressive amount of spectacle that once again outdoes a lot of what came before it. Cars go skydiving:

...and jump between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi:

The Rock wields a minigun ripped from a downed drone, and there are more explosions than ever before—just one less than the entire rest of the series combined.

Furious 7 delivered all the action the series is known for and then some, showing once again that this franchise could keep on moving forward if it wanted to. But everything in the movie also came with a tone of finality.  The film makes it eminently clear that certain things from Fast & Furious history are simply over. Like The Family’s life in LA, which they’d only just regained at the end of Fast & Furious 6. It doesn’t take Furious 7 very long to give this signal by—how else—blowing Dom and Mia’s old house in Los Angeles to smithereens:

Moments like the Toretto house blowing up show that while “The Family” still exists in the movie, it’s become difficult to tell what that family actually is. Furious 7 gives the main characters more children than ever before, as if to try and cement the Family in a literal way. Brian and Mia are expecting a second child. The Rock is revealed to have a daughter, which allows him to bark phrases like “Daddy’s Gotta Go To Work.”

But no matter how many babies Furious 7 throws at you, the entire “family” theme becomes far less coherent than it used to be simply because newly-minted villain Jason Statham (playing Deckard Shaw) is motivated by family too. He sets out to kill all the good guys because he’s the older brother of Owen Shaw, the last villain they took down in Fast & Furious 6, even saying to Dom at one point: “You should know better than to go after a man’s family.”

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When Vin Diesel walks up to Jason Statham in one of their final showdowns and delivers the most-hyped line of the film, “I don’t have friends, I got family,” then, it leaves you asking: “...doesn’t Statham have a family too?”

There are some serious inconsistencies in Furious 7. Obviously that’s due in large part to Paul Walker’s passing. Nobody—not the directors, producers, actors, or us the audience—knew where the series was going to go from here. Members of the core cast wondered if it even could go anywhere else now that Walker was gone, and considered leaving the series behind entirely.

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Ultimately, Furious 7 found a solution to its identity crisis by owning up to its weaknesses and shortcomings in a provocative, unprecedented way.

Brian Rides Off Into The Sunset

Furious 7 closes with an extended tribute to Paul Walker. After giving Brian the peaceful and idyllic ending he craved and feared, the film puts Brian and Dom together for one last ride on the highway.

As Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth trade verses about friendship and brotherhood in the background, Vin Diesel intones deeply about how Walker came to be his brother over the course of all their time working together, how they’ll never really be apart from each other, how Brian’s memory will live on.

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Eventually, the two come to a fork in the road. And that’s where they diverge:

It’s an incredibly moving tribute for anyone remotely invested in these two characters, and these two actors, and their shared history together. But it’s also one of the most bizarre scenes in Fast & Furious history.

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Brian doesn’t actually die in series canon—at least not yet. The Fate of the Furious simply leaves him out of things, only explaining his absence briefly when a character insists that they don’t drag Brian back into things to help with the Dom-turned-evil crisis.

Fast & Furious refused to simply kill Brian off, and in doing so it also refused to make its newest movies really cohere, narratively speaking. That might sound like a terrible artistic choice to make—people who don’t like the series, or at least its present form, have certainly taken its renewed persistence as yet another sign it’ll keep pumping out big dumb action movies as long as they’ll keep making money, sense and good taste be damned. But resisting a clean and clear explanation for Brian’s disappearance allowed Fast & Furious to be honest with its audience in a new and surprising way.

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In this final moment in Furious 7, Vin Diesel is turning his head to face the audience directly, stepping over the line from fantasy and fiction to reality. He’s talking to us as much as he’s talking to Paul, acknowledging that he’s as devastated as all the fans are, or even more so. And he’s admitting in his own frank Vin Diesel way that he doesn’t know how he and The Family will carry on from here. The two roads diverge, but we only know where one of them is going.

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Breaking the fourth wall of Fast & Furious in such a way highlights a problem the series was inevitably going to face. Paul Walker’s death might have come too soon, but all of the original and early cast members are going to grow old and die someday. We’ve already seen Vin Diesel morph from a fresh-faced young actor into the muscled armadillo he is today.

Fast and Furious is a superhero franchise at this point. But it’s a superhero movie where all the superheroes are also particular people in the real world. To the credit of Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious, both films realized it would be silly and disrespectful to try to find someone else to play Brian in future films. So how much longer before Dom has to retire his American muscle? Diesel says The Fate of the Furious is just the beginning of a new trilogy. It’s still an open question how many more “one last jobs” the surviving crew can take on.

It’s Family Versus Family Versus...Family?

The Fate of the Furious, the first film of the franchise to enter its new, post-Paul Walker era, has a dark premise: Dominic Toretto has done the unthinkable. He’s betrayed the family and started to serve the aspiring cyberterrorist Cipher, played (excellently, I should add) by Charlize Theron.

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Upon further reflection, the “unthinkable” in this equation is really the highly predictable. It’s been a trend for years now that each Fast & Furious movie tries to outdo the one before it in terms of sheer insanity. Usually this has only applied to the stunts and action sequences—finding bigger and badder things to blow up, basically. But in light of Paul Walker’s death, when Fast & Furious once again faced the question of how it would transform itself if it wanted to survive, of course they decided to raise the stakes with the most seemingly crazy plot twist possible.

I went into the theater to see The Fate of the Furious feeling incredibly nervous. Furious 7 was plagued with many logistical, thematic, and aesthetic problems, and the prospect of the series trying to power through the death of one of its iconic stars wasn’t promising. Once the credits began, I breathed a humongous sigh of relief.

The Fate of the Furious does for Fast & Furious 6 and Furious 7 what Fast Five did for the original four films—it turns an erratic series of preceding films into a coherent whole by picking and choosing disparate narratives, characters, and thematic elements, bringing them all together in a way that almost makes sense, and turning them into something that’s far greater and more beautiful than the sum of its parts.

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I want to explain how F8 does this, but I can’t without spoiling a lot of the movie, so DO NOT SCROLL PAST THE PICTURE OF THE ROCK IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN THE NEW MOVIE.

Fate begins with Cipher confronting Dom, who’s on vacation and thus only occasionally tumbling out of flaming cars.

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You’re going to do exactly as I say, Cipher tells Dom, in so many words. You’re going to betray your family and everything you think you stand for. And when Dom tries to protest, Cipher whips out a smartphone and hands it to him to tell him why he’s going to do all these seemingly awful, anti-Family things.

It takes a little longer to get there, but ultimately it’s revealed that Dom has a son he didn’t know he had, who came from his relationship with Elena, a woman he shacked up with in Fast Five when he still thought Letty was dead.

Elena is cast aside a little too conveniently once Letty comes back into the picture, and her treatment in Fate isn’t much better. But what the big reveal does manage to do is keep the family theme alive without totally mutilating it. Cipher is holding Elena and Dom’s new son hostage, thereby pitting family against family. In true Fast & Furious form, once the new movie finds its way back to its core theme, it hammers it home over and over and over again, as violently as possible.

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There isn’t one strict “family” anymore. Everybody had a family now—except Cipher, because she’s the villain, of course. The Rock has a daughter he wants to coach through soccer games, so he only takes on this “one last job” so he can do that in peace once again. And you know how Statham was the bad guy in F7? Well, that was just because he was trying to protect his family. Cipher also went after his younger brother at one point, it’s explained, so he too has an axe to grind with Cipher. Never mind that he wanted to kill all these people seemingly just a few weeks ago, of course he can team up with the the good guys to try and take Cipher down—and even bring his also formerly villainous brother along with him.

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This is all ridiculous, obviously. But much like Fast Five, Fate of the Furious works by the sheer virtue of its charisma. You just want The Rock and Jason Statham to get along because of how funny their antagonistic banter is. And you want Dom to still be the good guy. It’s probably a sign of just how bonkers F8’s premise is that, in order to pull the whole thing off, they had to bring in some seriously big guns—Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren, who plays the Shaw’s incessantly nagging and prying mother, are both best actress Oscar winners. Statham is one of the most charismatic action movie stars out there who wasn’t already in The Family.

It works.

Now It’s Car Versus Submarine

The final action sequence in Fate is one of the best in Fast & Furious history thanks to the way it brilliantly uses the explosive bombast the franchise is known for to not only outdo itself once again, but also to create a surprisingly moving end. Jason Statham takes out an entire plane’s worth of bad guys while simultaneously juggling Dom’s infant son in a cradle. This bizarre sequence is an appropriate metaphor for where the series as a whole is today: trying to balance the character’s increasing expectations of domestic bliss with their equally powerful love of ultra-violence. It both acknowledges and celebrates the absurdity of the entire situation. Then, once Dom has officially come back to the good side, he uses the gas tank on the back of his iconic “American muscle” Dodge Charger—which he takes with him deep into the Russian tundra, of course—to divert a heat-seeking missile from the rest of his team, then swings it back around to make the missile blow up the submarine instead.

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As he once again tumbles out of a burning-and-about-to-explode car, the rest of his team speed over to him, encircling him with the sheer bulk of their assorted tanks, armored vehicles, and sports cars, shielding him from the incoming flames. It’s an emotionally stirring image, one that surprises you but also makes perfect sense as a way that the characters in Fast & Furious say “I love you” to one another.

(I wish I could show you all of this, but I couldn’t think of a way to capture all of F8’s often spectacular visuals without breaking several laws...clearly I’m not cut out for the family).

The Fast and the Furious isn’t what it once was, Fate shows. But there’s still enough love in The Family to keep it going, and to help it turn into something new once again.

The Third Family Dinner

You know what? There are some things even I don’t want to spoil if you’ve read this far but haven’t seen the newest movie yet.

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NOTE: A version of this article ran on Kotaku in 2015 and has been greatly expanded here for the release of the newest movie in franchise.

Yannick LeJacq is a writer for Blizzard Entertainment. His journalism and criticism has also appeared in places like The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and VICE. Fast & Furious is his favorite movie series, in case that wasn’t already obvious—you can debate which is the best one with him on Twitter @YannickLeJacq.