(Needless to say, due to the timely nature of this piece, heavy unmarked spoilers are just ahead.)
The last time I did a reaction-analysis like this, it was to defend a controversial narrative decision made by a popular series. This time, on the other hand…well, let’s start with the positives. And in fairness, there’s a healthy number of them.
The b-side of season 6 has been fantastic. Absolutely terrific. From a shocking but ultimately triumphant midseason premiere, it never let up. The walkers, actually, are pretty much incidental to most of the b-season. Rather, it’s all about testing how far our group is willing to go against other humans to secure what’s theirs: Carol and Morgan grapple with the morality of killing, while Rick and the others pre-emptively strike against the Saviors, a deceptively-massive gang of survivors led by the enigmatic Negan.
The storytelling here is marvelous. After following Rick’s group for so long, we’ve seen him do some questionable things (and grow a questionable level of facial hair at one point), but now we have to probe the uncomfortable question: what kind of protagonists are our heroes becoming? After all, they sneak into one of Negan’s compounds and slaughter his men wholesale while they sleep. Yes, they knew about the bad deeds of the Saviors ahead of time, but this represents the point where Rick’s group turn from mere defenders of what’s theirs, to going on the offensive. Even when Daryl blew those other Saviors up, it was because they were being directly threatened, therefore it was defensive.
Going from defenders to attackers was always going to have terrible consequences. After all, in the episode before the finale, Morgan talks about how life is a circle: he saved the Wolf, who saved Denise, who was able to save Carl after he got shot. Knowing that “blood’s coming”, as that one Savior said with his dying breath, I picked up on the awesomely-written subtext of Morgan’s speech. Just as giving life has a positive reaction, taking life has a negative reaction.
As for the finale itself, you really feel how the Saviors’ vicegrip is closing around our group while they try to get to Hilltop to find medicine for the ailing Maggie. The consequences are coming. And then the night falls, and the forest starts to whistle…
The big climactic scene in the forest clearing is, bar none, one of the best things I have ever seen on The Walking Dead. It is absolutely terrifying, and there isn’t a zombie in sight. In fact, it’s scarier than any zombie that’s been on the show thus far. The haunting whistling, the feeling of our heroes being completely and utterly out of options, the slow-burning tension…
I was honestly sweating and trembling during that scene from sheer immersion, and I’m not afraid to admit that, because the cast and crew deserve that much. That’s how good it was.
And then he comes. It’s time for Negan, boys and girls.
David Morrissey’s Governor was great, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, Supernatural, The Good Wife) as the infamous Negan? Oh my god, you guys. I had the same feeling of awe as when I first saw Heath Ledger as the Joker: there’s that feeling that you’re witnessing something iconic, that this is a villain performance that will go down in history.
(Also, apparently they filmed two versions of the scene – one with a bunch of f-bombs and one without – because Negan in the comics is quite the swearer, and AMC with its weirdly inconsistent puritan censorship apparently forced them to use the censored version, even after the 10 PM EST cutoff at which point shows on AMC can drop the f-bomb without being fined. But I bet we’ll be able to see the uncensored version when it comes to blu-ray, so I’ll reserve judgment until then.)
Now, there’s some intertextuality to consider here, because part of the reason Negan is so perfect is because there’s a graphic novel series to go on, and in the same issue where Negan is introduced, something happens. Namely, this whole conversation is leading up to him beating a beloved survivor to death with Lucille, his spiked baseball bat. That’s part of the reason the entire world was collectively clenching up around 10:22 PM EST on April 3rd: we knew this was coming. The impact of this was completely predicated around what we’d lose in the process. Hints were dropped throughout the b-season: the brain-splattered pictures on that one Savior’s bedroom wall. “Blood’s coming”. The repeated meme in the finale that this would be someone’s last day on earth.
Negan chooses his victim, the beating is done in a chilling first-person POV where we don’t see who it is, and then…credits. See you next season.
I spent most of The Talking Dead scribbling on post-it notes in front of the television so that I could wake up and bang this thing out instead of trying to remember everything, and if these post-its are any indication, I had a lot to say about this.
First of all, I’d like to make clear that I’m handling this from a writer’s perspective. Now, that kind of forces me to be calm and collected, because I’ll be talking about the ways in which this impacts the greater narrative, rather than running off of knee-jerk emotions. I appreciate the concern of the family member who cautioned me to ‘not write it angry’, but there’s no danger of that.
First of all, the survivor being murdered by Negan is the natural and ultimate consequence of our group going from defenders to attackers. It is, therefore, the organic climax of season 6’s b-side story arc. When you take that away, you have a story arc that has been made incomplete.
This scene, as with all truly great scenes in stories, has a natural emotional ebb and flow, in this case involving the slowly rising tension as the group is blocked in, left without options, meet Negan, and ultimately has one of them meet their end. The constantly rising tension of the scene is intended to come to a head when one of the survivors has theirs bashed in, which is a horrifying and tragic moment, but it’s also the climax and, ultimately, the release of the rising tension. Without that crucial moment, the almost unbearable tension just…fizzles out.
If this was intended to keep people talking over the hiatus before the next season, or to drum up viewers for the next premiere…that’s not exactly necessary, considering The Walking Dead is already the biggest show in speculative fiction this side of Game Of Thrones. Besides, wouldn’t seeing the show have the balls to end on showing such a major death keep people talking anyway?
It’s not even like cliffhangers are a bad thing: Supernatural, another show to which JDM has lent his talents, ends every season with a cliffhanger for the next story arc, but it always makes sure to wrap up the current season’s arc just beforehand. No, what we’ve got here with Last Day On Earth is a story arc and a brilliant scene that was chopped up in the wrong place and sabotaged in the literal last second.
What is intended by this, anyway? What do they think they’ll achieve by dragging this out, Who Shot Mr. Burns-style? The human brain hungers for closure, which is why you constantly have all those intrusive thoughts about parts of your life with ‘plot threads’ left dangling (don’t worry, it’s pretty universal). So it almost feels like a psychological ploy to keep us thinking about it. But when it’s something like this, the human brain just leaves dissatisfied, and looks towards this month’s premiere of Game Of Thrones (a show that didn’t make us wait until the next season to find out who died in the Red Wedding) or something. It almost feels like they’re taking our (as George RR Martin coined) emotional trust in the narrative, and stretching and stretching it out as far as it can possibly go with something like this, where it feels like the editorial and promotional divisions are interfering with the story how it’s meant to be told.
Chris Hardwick on The Talking Dead tried to reassure us that this wasn’t some marketing gimmick, and gave Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman on the couch numerous opportunities to plead their case to the fans. I’m not in the business of bashing other creators – if a work is flawed, I’ll keep my criticisms to that – all I’ll say is that I didn’t find myself convinced by their arguments. Especially when Kirkman argued in favour of the cliffhanger, yet he’s the guy who wrote the comic that had the common courtesy to show the survivor dying on the page! (For all its virtues in probing deeper into the episodes, I understand that The Talking Dead is naturally a bit of a yes-man environment, though. You won’t see Buzzfeed describing itself as trashy clickbait.)
And you know who the biggest victim of this is? JDM. He brought an amazing, possibly even career-defining performance to the table, and he deserves for TWD fans to be talking about that all summer. Instead, we get to hashtag #WhoIsIt?, which is naturally no substitute for uncorrupted, honest storytelling.
And it’s just such a shame, because that’s probably going to be this episode’s legacy now. When the third Killer Instinct game came out on Xbox One, there was such mockery and scorn over it being a free-to-play game with every additional character as pay-to-play downloadable content that half the conversation was about the game’s quality, and half was about the ethics and implications of using Freemium price models in triple-A gaming. It felt like the game’s legacy had been sabotaged by its own company from the second it was finished. I’m getting déjà-vu.
The friend I was watching the episode with called it frustrating. The friend who IMed me after the episode called it “a horrible, absolute ‘f*ck you’”. I call it a mismanagement of narrative for all the reasons I just went through.
This episode deserved to be remembered as the conclusion to an absolutely thrilling story arc, and a truly bone-chilling introduction to a major villain. And, don’t get me wrong, it certainly will. But that will be tempered by…well, this.
What do you think? Several years hence, long after the summer hiatus has ended, do you think this will be looked at as a good idea, or will it still feel like somebody turned Lucille against the natural ebb and flow of the narrative?
All I can do, beyond this article, is to not do this sort of thing in my own stories, and to encourage other writers to follow suit.