A running joke between Pop Culture's managing editor Andrew Gruttadaro and I has been the ways in which various actors from The Walking Dead describe upcoming premieres and finales. Their statements are routinely hyperbolic and consist of the same simple message: “shit has never been crazier.” Often, especially when the source is Norman Reedus, engine imagery is invoked. Andrew Lincoln told EW the back half of season six "jumps a gear, maybe two gears" and later said to THR that the finale is so "hard-core" it deprived him of sleep and made him sick to his stomach. Danai Gurira (Michonne) added that the episode "redefines finale." It’s all laughably predictable and utterly useless, but you can’t really blame the actors. They have to stay on-brand, and they have to titillate viewers without letting any spoilers slip. It’s all in the game, but never has the fourth quarter been as disappointing as the season six finale.
Season 6B has been spent entirely in service of Sunday night’s big reveal, the first appearance of the comic book favorite villain Negan, the result of which has been a mostly abysmal half-season after a mostly abysmal half-season prior. Spending so much effort setting up the OMG moment isn’t inherently problematic, but TWD has primarily done so by breaking an essential rule of storytelling: don’t force your audience to suspend belief.
Until season six’s penultimate episode the Alexandria crew mopped the forest with the Saviors’. Each conflict had been remarkably one-sided, with Rick and his gang slaughtering countless goons and suffering zero casualties. Denise, just as she was becoming a rare OG Alexandrian we could care about, was the first to be killed, as Dwight’s crew surrounded Daryl and Rosita and presented a captured Eugene. But once again our protagonists were able to get the slip. It wasn’t until that second to last episode that the Saviors suddenly discovered competence and were able to capture Daryl, Rosita, Glenn, and Michonne—if for no other reason than we were finally nearing Negan’s arrival. The idea was to lull the Alexandrians into a false sense of confidence, but the switch from Stormtrooper-level incompetence to tactically worthy foes was too sudden and arbitrary to work properly.
It’s been even more confounding to watch our favorite characters, who’ve become survival experts and brutally efficient killers six seasons in, make such irrational decisions. No grudge is worth Daryl going off on a solo mission to find and kill Dwight and a grip of other survivors. And when Rosita, Glenn, and Michonne go after him, it’s nonsensical for Rick and Morgan to bail on Alexandria for their own mission to find Carol and convince her, against her own wishes, to return. That’s seven of Alexandria’s best warriors outside of the walls when they know the Saviors could attack at any moment. It’s a miracle the Saviors never showed up at the gate, but it doesn’t excuse the uncharacteristically poor decision making. And of course, one fool’s errand leads to Daryl, Rosita, Glenn, and Michonne in captivity.
This heavy-handed storytelling led us to last night’s episode, which, admittedly, built a great sense of dread. Rick, Carl, Abraham, Sasha, Eugene, and Aaron all embarked on an RV road trip to deliver Maggie to the Hilltop Colony so she could deliver her baby. (Another questionable allocation of Alexandria’s human resources, sure, but let’s not dwell on that.) At each route and alternate route the group encounters a Savior blockade, including a delightfully gruesome zombie fence and a subgroup led by Steven Ogg, who you may remember as the deranged voice of Trevor in GTA V. The knots in our throats grew bigger with each stop, as Rick and Co. drew closer to realizing how powerless they’ve become.
After nearly the entire 90 minutes of the show (this episode had no business being so long), they finally fell into the hands of the Saviors, and were lined up with their captive brethren for a long overdue introduction to Negan, played spectacularly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. His maniacal monologue oozed charisma as he admonished the Alexandrians for killing his men and established the one rule of their budding partnership: “Give me your shit or I will kill ya.” For comic book readers, or anyone who couldn’t help but be given a synopsis of the comics, it was everything we expected, everything we could have hoped for in the show’s next villain.
But the enjoyment was capped by the inevitability of it all. This entire season, we knew someone who would fall victim to Negan's bat, Lucille, whether it be Glenn—like in the comics—or another character. Which takes us to that goddamn cliffhanger.
The episode ended with a first-person view of what it’s like to be beaten to death by a barbed baseball bat, and it faded to black without revealing the victim’s identity. In any other circumstance this could be excusable, maybe even enjoyable. But when mountains were moved and belief was suspended in order to get here, the cliffhanger was just another cheap trick. The finale gave us an unforgettable introduction to Negan, but it didn’t give us any new information. It didn’t answer the one question we’ve had all season, the one question TWD promised to answer: who will Negan bludgeon to death? In TWD’s second attempt to Jon Snow it up (the first being Glenn’s faux death), we’ll have to wait until the season seven premiere to find out who’s been offed. It’s so emotionally manipulative—and repetitive—and marks such an underwhelming climax that I may quit watching the show altogether.
Normally, this is when I’d follow up my grievances with some suggestions for how the show could be better going forward. But I’ve given up hope TWD being anything more than a string of OMG moments held together by shoddy storytelling and whimsical character development. The show will sacrifice anything to hit you in the heart, but what happens when there's no heart left?