[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Beyond the sure-to-be divisive cliffhanger ending that everyone pretty much knew was already coming anyway, The Walking Dead concluded season 6 with more of the same odd choices that mired the first half of the season in the senseless question of whether or not Glenn's supposed death was a cheap trick or the real deal. Most of these choices have nothing to do with the reveal of the long-teased villain Negan or the way in which actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan chose to portray the potty-mouthed sociopath. Instead, these odd choices have more to do with the lengthy delay in revealing Negan and holding off the season's final act and worst-kept secret in television.
Knowing someone was going to die at the end of the season was the worst-kept secret in television because of the immense benefit it was to the show and to AMC to all but ensure that Negan's arrival would become seared into the brains of those watching by doing the one thing that The Walking Dead can reliably fall back on in order to be memorable. With all that going for it, and with all that expectation being built in, it's difficult to see how anyone would think 'Last Day on Earth' needed to be a circuitous 90-minute episode where Rick runs his group into slightly more impressive roadblocks, while a tangential narrative involving Morgan and Carol continually cuts the tension of the A-plot. Anyone watching knows nothing of real consequence will happen until the leather-clad, scarf-lover oozes his way onto the screen. So, although the Carol and Morgan interludes were plainly already filler, nearly every interaction between Rick and the rest of the group was also reduced to a deliberate attempt to delay for time and stretch things out until that moment when Negan takes his swing.
There was undoubtedly a lot of pressure surrounding the arrival of Negan and the question of who was going to fall victim to his gleeful wrath. And The Walking Dead succumbed to that pressure by going all-in on that one expectation weeks ago, basically losing sight of a very interesting thread that placed Rick and his cohort in the same murky moral waters as the Saviors. But once it was clear the season could (or would) only end with Negan's grand entrance, it also became clear everything leading up to that moment could only be of minimal importance, as whatever happened to these characters (beyond falling victim to a cheap, meaningless death), or what ever choices they made (no matter how foolish or out of character they were) absolutely had to result in them playing right into Negan's hands. As such, viewers were left with an episode like last week's 'East' that again toyed with those watching by teasing another "maybe" death after forcing half of Negan's potential victims to walk directly into harm's way.
The scenario is repeated again in 'Last Day on Earth' (making the episode's title as dialogue the third-most repetitious element of the 90-minute journey), but this time there is a more legitimate reason for characters to leave the safety of Alexandria, instead of sheer hotheadedness or in response to a hasty character overhaul – the origins of which have yet to be fully explained. And while Maggie's plight is reason enough to get Rick and a handful of major characters to pile into the family RV and go on a road trip, it's still the characters doing what the plot needs them to in order to reach a prescribed and obvious ending. There's even a bit of genuine, entertaining tension in seeing the group be herded toward their doom, but what trips up the slow realization that Rick and co. are definitely in over their heads is the inconsistent depiction of the Saviors. What was seen just a few episodes ago as a bumbling crew of loose denim-wearing cowards is now a well-oiled machine, complete with their own distinct whistle that sounds like they were all really into The Hunger Games.
Despite the overlong episode and the meandering choices that were taken in order to get to where it was going, 'Last Day on Earth' stood a good chance of redeeming itself provided Negan lived up to expectations and delivered the sort of villain the show had been promising for so long. And for a character that is basically the Governor with more advanced social skills, Negan actually turns out all right – though that has more to do with the smart choice of casting someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who not only has a magnetic screen presence but also knows how to wield that magnetism while also exuding a palpable sense of danger. And The Walking Dead puts Morgan to the test almost immediately, asking him to utter the phrase "pee-pee pants" and be somewhat scary about it. Your mileage on that may vary, but on the plus side (maybe), Negan's presence immediately makes the show feel more like a comic book than it ever has before. That's an interesting feeling for a series that has often felt too self-serious and too nihilistic. There's no telling whether or not this will free the series up to make more interesting choices down the road, but anything that encourages greater creativity could go a long way in justifying the storytelling decisions that were made here.
So while Morgan is engaging, does Negan's grand entrance justify the hour-and-twenty-minute wait 'Last Day on Earth' put viewers through to meet him? No, not really. And considering the length of his monologue actually drives the moment beyond the point of retaining any tension, you're once again reminded just how much you've sat through to arrive at the entrance of an event the show has no intention of letting you in to see. While the trickery surrounding Glenn's would-be demise at the hands and hungry mouths of a herd of walkers played with the viewer's emotions by showing what seemed to be a sure thing, the finale shows a sure thing, but obscures the identity of character who falls victim to Negan's sentimentalized baseball bat.
It is hard to say what actually drove the decision to end on a cliffhanger like this, but the notion of it being the strongest possible storytelling move the writers had available to them probably isn't going to convince a lot of people. This isn't the same as say, the question of Jon Snow's survival. That may be equally vexing for a lot of viewers but at least it delivered a complete moment; 'Last Day on Earth' handed the audience half a moment and said, "See you in the fall."
The Walking Dead returns to AMC in the fall of 2016.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC