Well, it’s been a week since the season six finale of The Walking Dead aired. How’s everybody doing?
The second half of this season has been all about getting ready for Negan, the new villain who finally appears in the finale, although not until the last ten minutes — out of ninety. The bulk of the much-too-long episode is filler, of course, making it frustrating and often boring to watch. Most of the dialogue feels like it was written solely to kill time, as every conversation is stilted, bloated with long pauses, and takes twice as long as it should. The episode that promised to be an epic, gory finale ending with the death of a beloved character at the hands of the most blood-chilling villain yet in fact featured:
- three conversations about gasoline
- repetitive establishing shots of the RV driving down country roads (I stopped counting after nine), and
- three awkward inclusions of the episode’s title in the dialogue.
When Negan finally does show up, it’s to deliver yet another monologue wherein he takes a very long time to say very few things. The phrase “pee-pee pants city” makes me less scared and more, what’s the word…burst out laughing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly a wonderful actor — I did enjoy the moment where he pointed to Glenn and said, “I get it,” and his dazzling smile hardened into the briefest of death glares — but it’s too little, too late at that point. And instead of delivering the promised character death, we see the infamous beating for a few seconds from the victim’s point of view before the screen goes black. It’s all a big mess, but in being a mess it’s a fitting end to a completely mishandled season of television.
The terror I’m supposed to feel as Rick and the rest kneel to the ground to receive their judgment is mitigated by the lingering frustration and confusion that’s built up over the course of these sixteen episodes, because it barely makes sense that our characters are here in the first place. The episodes leading up to this finale were clearly working hard to demonstrate Rick’s overconfidence, but the annoying thing is that it doesn’t make sense for Rick to be overconfident. His arrogance comes off more as sheer stupidity, and Rick’s not stupid. It didn’t make sense for The Group to agree to wipe out the Saviors so quickly, with so little information about them. It didn’t make sense for Daryl, Glenn, Rosita, and Michonne to scatter themselves outside Alexandria, and Dwight somehow getting the jump on Daryl definitely made no sense at all.
In this episode, it doesn’t make much sense to load up all of the remaining best fighters into the RV when they know an enemy attack is likely imminent. Carl and Aaron even have a brief exchange on the road where they ask each other why they came along, as if the writers (Scott Gimple, Matthew Negrete) anticipated the audience not buying it. It still wasn’t clear to me what their reasons were — who does Carl “owe?” Abraham and Eugene? What does Aaron specifically “owe” Maggie for? Helping his boyfriend when he broke his ankle way back in season five, maybe? They could’ve used some of that ninety-minute run time to better explain themselves.
Elsewhere, we see Morgan kill a Savior to save Carol, which should be a powerful moment, but the scene building up to it is so drawn out that it detracts from the impact. They’ve done a generally terrible job of telling Morgan’s story this season; aside from his stand-alone flashback episode he’s largely been sidelined, which is a waste of Lennie James as an actor. I got so tired of waiting for the conversation about killing to go anywhere that I stopped caring if it ever did.
The entire side plot with Carol and Morgan was inaffective. No amount of Melissa McBride’s superb acting can justify Carol’s odd and rather sudden shift. It’s not that struggling with having to kill other people is an uninteresting or unbelievable experience for these characters to have. But it’s surprising that she’s going through it now, rather than, I don’t know, when she killed two of her stick friends in the prison just in case they spread their illness. Or after she killed Lizzie. After everything else she’s done, why is she suddenly having an emotional breakdown at the thought of killing clearly evil people who want to hurt her loved ones?
On the list of things that work (it’s short), the featured actors all deliver fine performances in this episode. Andrew Lincoln skillfully takes Rick from arrogant swagger to shaky, sweaty panic, through the various stages in between. And as problematic as the final scene with Negan is, everyone plays their parts well. Sonequa Martin-Green looks terrified, Lauren Cohan is pale and shaking. It’s rough seeing Daryl so beaten up, gaunt-faced and covered in his own blood, and Norman Reedus manages to emanate rage while also looking up at Negan with dead, broken eyes. Finally, for as little as I typically care for Abraham, there’s one note that’s always rung true for his character: bravery. I felt a small swell of respect watching him sit up straight and look directly at Negan, unafraid.
Abraham’s goodbye hug with Eugene is touching, and this key moment in their relationship manages to feel significant while not overdone. There’s a nice tenderness between Rick and Maggie in the RV as he assures her everything will be OK. The episode was filmed in the winter, and the gray skies and bleak landscape did add a sense of darkness and eeriness, though not enough to make up for the failings of the writing overall. This, of course, is the really frustrating thing: seeing these little bits and pieces that work, seeing a talented cast undercut by poor material. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
The story would have been better served if they had introduced the Saviors in the first half of the season. Leave the Wolves out entirely. The Saviors attack Alexandria, and the tension between Morgan, Carol, and Rick could just as easily develop over keeping a lone Savior alive as prisoner. Lace the first eight episodes with these cat-and-mouse interactions with the Saviors, gradually building a sense of dread while also keeping them far enough away to be mysterious. Maybe scatter some of those creepy roadblocks throughout the episodes, rather than jamming them all in at the end, so that the Saviors seem good at something other than being continually mowed down by our heroes. Negan shows up in the mid-season finale, and they might even get away with the ridiculous cliffhanger (since the winter gap is much shorter than the break between seasons). Then the second half of the season takes off full force into the conflict with Negan, introducing the new key characters, and properly laying the groundwork for season seven. Cut out all the stalling, all the meaningless side plots, and get right down to the story they’ve been wanting to tell this whole time.
In reality, they could not get the pacing right this season. It always felt as if they were intentionally killing time or taking huge narrative leaps and bounds, often clashing with established character behavior, in order to get everyone where they wanted them to be for the finale. The characters should drive the story, not the other way around, but these days it seems all that matters is dragging the characters — and the audience — along to the next finale, the next premiere, the next villain, the next cliffhanger.
It’s exhausting. I’m tired of the gore; I’m tired of the special affects; I’m tired of the show trying to top itself with ever-bigger walker herds and ever-more-complex set pieces and ever-more-comic-book-y elements (Abraham, “pee-pee pants city,” etc.). It’s “a larger world,” The ads for the second half of the season proclaimed, as did the characters themselves: Jesus telling Daryl and Rick that this is “the next world,” Glenn commenting to Michonne that the world is “bigger” than they thought. The guys on horseback who find Morgan and Carol are speculated as being part of yet another community called The Kingdom. From day one (which lasted, what, four or five episodes?), The Walking Dead in season six has been bigger, that’s for sure.
But it’s gotten too big to manage. With the near-constant stream of new characters, new communities, newer, gorier, weirder variations on the walkers, and now a new villain, I can’t help but feel that Rick’s rapid unraveling in the finale is an apt parallel to how the series itself is spiraling out of control. The best moments from the finale featured intimate character interactions: Rick comforting Maggie in the RV, Abraham and Eugene’s hug, even Sasha and Abraham’s brief conversation about starting a family — I still don’t feel any chemistry there, but it’s always nice to see Abraham acting (and talking) like an actual person. The show finds strength in these smaller, tender, human moments; that is, when it actually gives these characters the attention they deserve, and attention that the actors are more than capable of handling.
Variety published highlights of a conference call in which show runner Scott Gimple
gaslighted his audience answered questions about the finale, and the following comments stood out to me:
I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.
I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.
I am skeptical, but only because this season taught me to be skeptical. I want The Walking Dead to be good; that’s why I’ve kept watching through all of this nonsense. But this season has reinforced time and again that for Gimple and the other higher-ups making the big decisions, the ends justify the means. In this case, the “ends” are the ratings, the media coverage, the finale, and the next season. Instead of attempting to tell a good story the entire time, we are told to wait, to endure the tedium and the confusion, and to trust. Season six lost my trust.
It’s a damn shame. They’ve got a great premise, talented actors, and plenty of money. But they are too focused on the next big bang or comic-book-level, crazy plot twist, and so they squander their chances to find depth and meaning in the smaller, more human moments that have the most potential of resonating with viewers.
Even so, The Walking Dead trudges along undeterred toward its seventh season, massive and forceful while also somehow lacking vitality. It’s impressive at a glance, but upon further inspection it’s clear that there’s not much underneath sustaining it. The Walking Dead has never been a perfect show,* but now it’s merely a remnant of whatever worked about its former self. It’s a shadow of what it could be, and what it has been in its better moments, propped up by high production values, excessive stunts, and endless gallons of fake blood.
- Negan’s asymmetrical leather jacket is cool.
- Aaron actually has some screen time this episode, reminding me that I like Aaron. Too bad he’s mostly been forgotten this season.
- Negan calls Carl a future serial killer, but I’m pretty sure that title belongs to Judith. Best case scenario, she ends up as a high-functioning sociopath with severe detachment issues.
- Enough with the whistling. We get it.
- Fr. Gabriel asks Rick if he’s comfortable leaving him in charge of security. Well, let’s see: it’s either Fr. Gabriel, what’s-his-face who’s sleeping with Rosita, what’s-her-face who runs the pantry, a teenage girl currently locked in a gun closet, or those nameless Alexandrians who’ve had less screen time than this RV. So…yeah, I guess it’s cool to leave Fr. Gabriel in charge.
- I’m not going to get too far into theorizing about who is or is not dead, but I will say this: many suspect it’s Daryl, but I don’t think he’s a goner. Personal bias will always make me hope for his survival, but the writers have been unsure about what to do with his character for the last couple of seasons, and through his interactions with Dwight they seem to be laying the groundwork for something more substantial. And while Dwight claimed to have been aiming for Daryl when he shot Denise, he merely injured him in the previous episode in what would have been the perfect opportunity to kill him, so it feels like there’s more going on with his motivations. In the comics, Dwight eventually becomes an ally to Rick against Negan, which may play out through his relationship with Daryl.
- Negan’s tangent about knocking down Rick’s door reminded me of Walter White’s infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech, which — fun fact — was a hundred times more chilling and ten times shorter than this one.
- *see Breaking Bad
- Guys, just watch Better Call Saul. It’s an AMC drama that respects its characters, its audience, and itself.
- However, if you want to actually enjoy yourself while watching something Walking Dead related, I recommend two large glasses of wine and the Honest Trailers.