[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 15. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is a big event coming to The Walking Dead that has dominated much of the conversation around season 6. Even while the early episodes were stuck dealing with lackluster hours and the fallout of the Glenn non-death at the hands and mouths of a pack of hungry walkers, the promise of something big seemed to keep fans' faith intact. As such, the arrival of Negan and the accompanying expectations surrounding the character's arrival have become one of the biggest talking points the series has seen in quite a while. A great deal of the interest in Negan appears to stem from the guarantee that the bat-wielding leader of the Saviors will dispatch one of the show's core survivors. And if there's anything the show loves doing, it's getting the audience riled up about the violent death of a major character.
A few weeks ago, the series took an interesting detour in how it tackled the issue of the Saviors and the war that Rick had started with them, both on the grounds of needing supplies from Hilltop and his overconfident belief that he and his crew could overcome any obstacle. Rick's reasons for doing what he did may not have been typical by TV protagonist standards, but there was a clear line of thought that at least helped make the decision feel logical, if not ill advised. While Rick once again taking his survivors down the road to possible ruin isn't really anything new, what The Walking Dead chose to do on that road was. There was a concerted effort by the show to depict the Alexandrians as something other than the heroes of this story and, by contrast (and thanks to a great performance by Alicia Witt), to demonstrate that while the Saviors have been designated the villains, they weren't so different from Rick and his group.
All of that seemed in favor of approaching, from a new and interesting angle, what is ostensibly a character designed specifically to outshine the Governor in the psychopathic villain department. And yet, in the last two weeks, The Walking Dead has shoved the more interesting discussions about who is a hero and who is a villain in this world to the background, in favor of pushing its characters toward a confrontation with Negan. While many fans are clearly looking forward to the moment when Jeffrey Dean Morgan introduces Lucille, the anticipation of that moment has resulted in a narrative obstruction, forcing many of the characters to make decisions simply because the season's endgame needs them to.
Last week's ill-fated excursion outside the safety of Alexandria's walls was a little more understandable than what transpires in 'East.' Then, it was reasonable for Rick and everyone else to assume their actions in 'The Same Boat' had rendered the problem of Negan and the Saviors moot, and so, while such a daytrip was not without its risks, it wasn't entirely foolhardy. 'Twice As Far' may have been an unsuccessful hour of television that walked a fine line between table setting and outright filler, but in its need to set up one very specific scenario, 'East' puts the issues with the show's current storytelling under a whole new light.
This is made most evident by the actions of Carol and Daryl, both of whom have been in need of more significant threads this season, and the show has deemed them worthy of some screen time via the same bad decision. Carol's choice at least stems from her (underwritten) adherence to Morgan's no-kill way of thinking, so seeing her flee a conflict-prone place like Alexandria does make some sense as far as her character is concerned. And considering her value to the group – especially in terms of her ability to neutralize large threats – one can sort of see why Rick and Morgan would risk a journey with a high probability of conflict.
But the same leeway doesn't necessarily apply to Daryl's impulsive move to seek revenge for Denise's death and his regret for having let Dwight live all those weeks (or months?) ago. Adding to the issue of Daryl's thirst for vengeance is the way the story then pulls as many now emotionally vulnerable characters into the effort to find and stop him. The presence of Glenn and Michonne reveals just how obvious the series is being in setting up a finale where the stakes will be impossibly high. This has the added effect of making the recent pairings of characters like Rick and Michonne, Abraham and Sasha, and to a lesser degree, Carol and Tobin, and Rosita and Spencer, feel like a deliberate move to amplify the impact of the oncoming conflict. It's a means to a narrative end, but it also exposes the cheats taken in order to get to that end.
But the cheats don't stop there. 'East' ends with Daryl being shot by Dwight as the camera is splashed with gore. The move is distressingly reminiscent of the fake out earlier in the season, but with the added bonus of Dwight saying his victim is going to be all right. Whether this is the show remarking on and trying to avoid the criticisms it received for the Glenn scenario or not is unclear, but it does suggest a disturbing trend in teasing the death of well-liked "core" characters and then pulling back at the last second.
All of this, then, feels like more preparation for Negan's arrival, in which he'll almost certainly take someone's life as a way of proving the show's anyone-can-die bona fides. Who it will be remains to be seen, but with all the recent bogus deaths the series has teased and then gone back on, it stands to reason this death needs to be bigger than expected for it to pay off all that has come before. Does that mean Rick or Daryl are on the proverbial chopping block instead of the character thought to be Negan's big kill? Maybe. While that death will certainly strike a chord with loyal fans, it sparks a larger more troubling question: After Negan makes his grand entrance, can The Walking Dead do something interesting and meaningful with him beyond him hitting people with a bat?
The Walking Dead will conclude season 6 next Sunday with 'Last Day on Earth' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC