I love The Walking Dead. The TV series is perhaps my favorite of all time. Everything about it resonates with me. I love it so much, in fact, that I go to places just to hear people talk about it.
Among super fans, I am not a super fan, because that kind of love takes a special kind of attention that I just can’t devote to anything that isn’t my wife, my work, or my dog. But in the scheme of things I’m a fan of, The Walking Dead is near the top.
This past Sunday, April 3, AMC aired The Walking Dead’s season six finale. I was more amped for it than any TV event in my life. For the first 89 minutes of the 90-minute (minus lots of advertising) episode, it was a 10 out of 10, one of the best episodes the series had ever created. But something happens in the final seconds that completely undermines everything the show had done in the second half of season six, and it’s a terrible shame.
[Spoilers for The Walking Dead season six follow, especially the finale. If you haven’t seen it yet, go away and come back after you have done your duty as someone who enjoys such things.]
Presumably, you’ve read the spoiler tag above, and you’re continuing now because you’ve seen the episode. If you maintain your eye-slide over these digital shapes, that’s on you.
The season six finale introduces a character named Negan, who is the leader of a group called the Saviors. Through the second half of season six, the show has slowly introduced us to this group, and even in the first lines of the first B-season episode, we hear the name “Negan” mentioned. Of course, any fan of the comic book knows his name, and if you speak to him or her, he or she no doubt excitedly warned you about him.
As the season progresses, we see Rick’s group begin to stand proud in the wake of their reclamation of Alexandria. Rick is confident in his people, and that confidence may seem like a blessing after all of the hopelessness of past seasons, but the show sets up a kind of dramatic irony any viewer can follow, even if they don’t know about the comic books. It really isn’t subtle about where it’s going, and if you pay attention to media coverage of the show, or if you’ve been to any Walking Dead event in the past six months, or if you watch Talking Dead, or if you pay attention to AMC’s marketing for the show, you’ll have known something very bad was coming.
In the season finale, we and Rick’s group learn together just how big of a force the Saviors are. With Maggie possibly dying from an unknown sickness, Rick and Co. load up in the RV and try to get her to the Hilltop’s doctor but find increasingly intimidating Savior road blocks on every route. Eugene then has the idea that they can put Maggie on a stretcher, carry her on foot through the woods, and he can go from roadblock to roadblock in the RV, keeping the Saviors thinking Rick and the gang are still looking for a route to pass.
Rick then takes his people on a literal path that leads them to their fate. The Saviors find them and herd them into a clearing where Rick’s people are surrounded. The RV is there, and Eugene is on his knees. The Saviors put the rest of them on their knees.
In these final minutes, Negan makes his grand entrance, and it’s every bit as satisfying as is should be.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is brilliant. The setup was contrived, but this scene justifies every meh episode and errant direction. Negan paces in front of our beloved characters and tells them they now work for him, but there’s a but: they have to pay a price, and that price is one of their lives.
We knew this was coming. We dreaded it, but we were prepared to grieve. As Negan literally plays “eenie meenie” to choose his victim, the tension builds until we are served a first-person point of view through the chosen victim’s eyes. Negan winds up. And he takes payment in full. The screen fades to black, and we hear the wooden bat shatter skull.
Why it didn’t work
Because we knew it was coming, and everyone involved (including the material, which telegraphed all of this) told us as much.
I’ve been talking about this all week, so forgive me if this comes across a bit convoluted. The finale angered me as a viewer, and I believe that was not the intention. I went into the episode prepared to lose a character I loved, to feel that loss, and then have six months to grieve. Instead, I finished the episode knowing no more than when I went in, and the event became an exercise in gratuitous disturbing violence.
Generally speaking, as a writer, I think it’s good to subvert expectations, but not when it leads to disappointment. I think that only causes people to become less invested. When a reader or viewer is surprised in a way that is fulfilling and satisfying, that’s the ideal. When a reader or viewer is surprised in a way that feels like denial and rejection, that’s a turnoff.
Let’s rewind a bit. Let’s go all the way back to November 2015. AMC announced Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan. Even before that, the network announced that they were looking for a Negan. So it was never a secret that a character named “Negan” would be in the show. What’s more, at this time, the media ran with it, describing elements of the comic book without really spoiling it. Negan was unilaterally described as the greatest adversary for Rick, even more threatening than the Governor.
Remember season three and four? Yeah, the Governor was responsible for more than a few primary and secondary character deaths, so saying that is enough to convey that this is going to be bad.
Let’s jump forward a bit. In February, the show returned from the mid-season break. During that event I plugged at the beginning of this post, Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple, Executive Producer and Special Effects Wizard Greg Nicotero, and star Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) made a point to bring up this season’s ending.
Just like the marketing, media coverage, and everything else, they didn’t spoil anything, but through the tone and subtext, the message was clear: they were preparing us for a very shocking and dark moment. And in all of that conversation, it was clear: someone or someones was/were going to die. We weren’t going to be happy about it. But we would know who it was at the end of the season.
As people really started to get wind of it, they started to speculate who would die in the show. It became a Walking Dead cultural event. AMC even plugged the official Twitter hashtag #WhoIsIt and started a marketing campaign that literally told audiences there would be a price, which suggests someone we love is going to die.
Thing is, implicit with that is the understanding that we will learn who we lose when we watch the finale. The implied promise was that all of the preparation, all of the dread, all of the lamentation would be justified at the end of the season, when we would learn who Negan would choose.
I’m all for a storytelling property playing with audience expectations. In many ways, it’s necessary for good drama. In this finale, The Walking Dead achieved that, but in the worst way imaginable. And, as succinctly as I can put it, it sucks for two reasons:
- It isn’t a cliffhanger.
- It fails to deliver on the promises that so many aspects of the show’s storytelling and marketing made.
Let’s address those in order.
1. It isn’t a cliffhanger.
Many (including Gimple and Walking Dead Co-Creator and TV Show Executive Producer Robert Kirkman) argue it’s a cliffhanger and that season finales often end in cliffhangers. There’s one problem with that argument: it isn’t a cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers stop at pivotal moments, leaving audiences wondering what will happen next. We know what has happened. We just don’t know who, and the denial of that information is a pretentious, self-affirming tactic that does anything but serve audiences in a moving, meaningful, or at least entertaining way.
The tragedy is it overshadows the actual cliffhanger that the Alexandrians are finally (some would argue they always were) at the mercy of the Saviors. They are still kneeling in that dark clearing. They still have to figure out how to get out from under Negan’s thumb. They still have to figure out how to survive with only being able to keep half of their food and supplies and (probably) no weapons.
That is the actual cliffhanger that season seven will have to resolve.
2. It fails to deliver on promises.
Since Gimple and Kirkman started preparing people for this event in November 2015, because they knew it would be devastating, they were open with what was going to happen. Avid fans like me have been on the edge of our seats since then because it was implied that we would learn who would meet Lucille. Hell, like I wrote earlier, anyone who was paying attention at all knew what was coming.
We didn’t learn the answer to the question, so actually seeing the event was meaningless. Worse, because of the way they presented it, the beloved character who is now dead will have served a narrative arc that will have been in vain, as their death will not add meaning to their life. Instead it will be a plot device for season seven, which is such a shame!
There’s just a very important distinction that I think the show runners missed: right now, I’m not waiting to see what happens next. I’m waiting to understand the meaning of what I saw, and a beloved character’s life hangs in the balance. It is simultaneously heedless of my emotions and investment in the series as well as unjustifiable from a storytelling perspective.
And now I have to sit on it for six months. It was needlessly mean to the most invested fans.
I did not experience sadness or grief. I felt anger. It is by far the meanest thing any TV show has done to me.
One final note on this is that Kirkman and Gimple argue the ending is justified because the finale concludes the season six story arc and that who Negan kills is irrelevant. Considering everything this show has done for six years, that perspective is something they can’t believe because they have time and time again showed us that they understand a character’s death holds meaning for that character’s life. Arguing who Negan kills is irrelevant to season six is ignorant to this basic tenet of storytelling.
I subscribe to the idea that, when a primary character dies, it has to have meaning for that character’s arc, and I know Gimple and Kirkman do, too. Because I can say that with confidence, I can confidently say their argument for the finale’s ending is disingenuous at best. At worst? AMC dictated it.
And, you know what, it was genius
Because it’s going to work. We’re going to talk about it (a lot), and come October, we’re going to talk about it again. And a lot of people are going to tune in for the answer. And maybe the show will do it again. From a ratings perspective, it really is amazing. However, it tarnishes the show’s long-term artistic integrity and reputation.
On Talking Dead, Gimple commented that he knows that they now have to make a Walking Dead episode 701 that justifies this ending. Man, they sure have their work cut out for them. I hope Gimple understands, though, that they don’t just need to make an episode 701 that repairs fan favor. They have to make an entire season that makes us forget what they did, and they can’t do it again.
This is simply a tactic they can’t use again. But right now, when the show is mature by TV standards and fears over ratings slippage are high, it may prove to be a really smart move.
Right now, theories are circulating through the Internet. Of course, the comic book offers an answer. People on the Internet have tried to divine the answer through video and audio manipulation, but Scott Gimple has assured us there is nothing in the episode that would offer a clue.
I have my own theory. For many reasons, I don’t believe it is the same character as in the comic books. It wouldn’t fulfill a narrative, and it would undermine everything about that character that we love.
I’m going with Abraham.
They did a lot with him in this B season to build out his character. My original guess was Daryl, but Daryl hasn’t murdered Dwight yet. That sorta has to happen at this point.
It also would make sense that Abraham would “take it like a champ,” and they even showed him straighten up when Negan pointed at him. He is a soldier after all. Anything less than accepting such a fate with honor and dignity would be unthinkable.
I’ve also been thinking at this from Negan’s perspective. His “eenie meenie” might seem random, but it isn’t. He obviously skips over people, and I think it’s because he’s already chosen. He just wants to make a bigger spectacle of it.
Consider this: You’re Negan. These people are dangerous, probably the most dangerous people you’ve ever dealt with. They’ve killed a lot of your guys, and you have to find a way to make them work for you. So you walk out of that RV. You know you don’t want to kill their leader because they still have to be productive for you. What are you looking to do? You’re looking to send a message. If you kill the same character as in the comic books, you just appear sadistic.
So instead, you pick out the biggest son of a bitch from the lot, and tear him down. It’s kind of like prison in that regard. This shows you are more powerful than their biggest guy, and it means he won’t be a problem for you in the future. They won’t need him anymore anyway because you’re the biggest threat they have, so as far as you’re concerned, he is expendable to them.
Of course, this is all if I were writing it, and I’m not. So Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman may very well have chosen to stay faithful to the comics. I think it would be a bad choice.
But I also think this ending was a bad choice.
As it stands, I’m extremely eager for October. For my sake, I can only hope that enthusiasm holds until then, and I hope the same for the show’s general viewership. The absolute worst scenario (and it’s a likely one) is that people lose their interest in the six months off from the show. That would undermine everything the show did in the second half of season six, and in many ways, the very character death itself.
It would be such a waste.