Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “East,” ended with what felt like a dozen cliffhangers. Maggie, after getting a new hairdo for reasons that were far more symbolic than practical (if she were truly concerned about a walker grabbing her by the hair, she would have cut it a long time ago), clutched her stomach in agony and fell to the floor. Did she lose her baby? Carol, after obliterating a group of Saviors, set off for destinations unknown, with Morgan and Rick hot on her trail. Is she forever lost to her friends and surrogate family at Alexandria? And, of course, there was Daryl’s blood as it splattered, like something out of a pulp film, on the camera’s lens as Dwight shot him from behind and said, “You’ll be all right.” But is he truly all right?
The Walking Dead, like most shows, delights in assailing viewers with uncertain outcomes. That’s one of the pleasures of serialized television, of course, but the idea of the cliffhanger, how it tugs at our emotions and toys with our knowledge, has become an almost singular obsession for the AMC drama—and for better and worse. I, for one, needed to start reading Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic series to fully comprehend that the show’s sometimes perverse carrot-dangling tactics are more than just a way of capitalizing on the public’s spoiler-phobia, but a means of striking the difficult balance of keeping things interesting for fans of the comic and those who’ve never picked it up. The Walking Dead faces the very unique challenge of needing to be two shows at once, and the series is at its best when it plays to its sometimes dueling impulses in artful ways.
Though the strongest episodes from The Walking Dead’s sixth season had nothing to do with the comic and, at least on the surface, very little to do with our expectation of what would happen to one (or more) of the show’s characters in tonight’s season finale, there was purpose, even grace, to the much-contested means by which, for nearly half a season, Glenn’s fate was kept from us. Give me the emotionally fraught two-hander “Here’s Not Here” or “The Same Boat,” another impressively self-contained morality tale, over the rest of them, but for all their failures of imagination, episodes such as “Now” had us prematurely grieve for Glenn in ways that felt at once winking and humane, as if we were being prepped for a truly gut-wrenching horror.
And “Last Day on Earth” builds to that moment with a self-consciously melodramatic flair epitomized by the rhythms on the soundtrack that evoke the sounds of medieval armies heading off to war. Morgan (Lennis James) goes about his lonely journey looking for Carol (Melissa McBride), quickly finding her, injured but otherwise all right, notwithstanding her adamant desire for him to lose her again. Equally in need of help is Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and company attempt to rush to the Hilltop in order to save her unborn child. And as they move unknowingly closer to the Saviors’ home base, the series doesn’t let you forget that this day will not end well for one of The Walking Dead’s most beloved characters—if, that is, the Savior they encounter on the road with hostage in tow is to be believed when he pushes them to think about what may be their “last day on Earth.” If anything, the man is a troll cut from the same sly and callous cloth as the writers responsible for orchestrating Is Glenn Dead-gate.
The season finale of The Walking Dead builds toward its conclusion with self-consciously melodramatic flair.
All roads toward the Hilltop are blocked by Negan’s people, who make Rick and his group understand that they have absolutely no agency, at one point plopping signifiers of the captured Michonne and Daryl on a bunch of zombies whose bodies are connected by chains. The perversity with which the Saviors flaunt their might is chilling because of how starkly and surprisingly it catches Rick off guard. It’s as if he’s being subjugated into a state of psychological servility that will become his albatross. Would that Morgan’s pursuit of Carol felt as meaningful. She keeps running, oblivious that one of the men she didn’t kill on the road during last week’s episode is on her trail. The entire subplot confirms that Carol has been suffering from a kind of sudden, plot-necessitating personality disorder for several episodes now, as if her agony has only existed to pave the road toward what appears to be yet another safe-zone that will inevitably figure into future storylines.
Even more conspicuous is the embrace that Eugene (Josh McDermitt) gives Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) upon their group deciding to split up, the sonorously elegiac music on the soundtrack suggesting that this may be their last heart to heart. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but certain is the fact that Rick’s past (mis)deeds will not be forgotten, as attested to by the whispers in the woods that suggest the hauntings of clinging spirits. Everything, yes, everything up to this point has been a justification for the force, physical and psychological, that the Saviors’ leader, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), subjects them to once they’re captured. The series has made mention of Negan before, though nothing uttered across the last few episodes could have prepared Rick for the unblinking, luridly collected show of nihilism that the leader of the Saviors puts on for them as he rails about how Rick’s group works for him now. “Swallow it, you most certainly will,” he says. The line isn’t without its sexual implications, and in case you missed it, he introduces us to the love of his life, a barbed-wired bat he calls Lucille.
I’ve dreaded Negan’s appearance because, on the page, he harks back to some of the comic’s worst impulses throughout its early run. Everything about him, from his foul-mouthed temper to the laughably self-conscious means by which he treats Lucille like a second phallus, feels like a concession to those fans who’ve come to consider him a favorite. Everything he does, everything he says, suggests a fantasy: an expression of what a boy wishing to be a man simply isn’t allowed to express in a civilized world. Even on the screen he’s all unbridled id, but as the final 10 or so minutes slowly and maddeningly progress, with Negan ranting about his “new world order” and the payback that he must enact for the killing of his Saviors throughout the second half of the show’s sixth season, it’s clear that Morgan is already doing his finest to bring the character a little more down to earth. It helps, too, that AMC can only go so far with regard to how Negan can colorfully express himself: With no f-bombs to lean on, the writers may have to actually work toward rationalizing the man’s nihilism by rooting it in recognizable inner turmoil.
But that’s neither here nor there. Right now, in the more knowable present, all that matters is the horror of watching Rick, Carl (Chandler Riggs), and their friends and surrogate family—Eugene, Maggie, Abraham, Rosita (Christian Serratos), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Aaron (Ross Marquand), and Glenn (Steven Yeun)—lined up before Negan as the Saviors leader does his song-and-dance number about vengeance. Well, more song than dance, announcing as he does that he’s going to kill one of Rick’s people while uttering the words to “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” The anticipation is grueling, and it isn’t made easier by the fact that the season has already made us mourn these characters, and some in off-handed ways, such as Abraham in “Knots Untie.” And as Lucille comes down against one of these characters’ heads, and screams fill the soundtrack, the greatest horror of all reveals itself: that we will have to wait until October to know who we have to mourn for. Sick? Perhaps. Blame the show, blame your own thirst for instant gratification, but at least Negan is right when he says that we know shit.
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