[This article contains potential SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 6, and the comic book.]
As almost everyone is well aware, The Walking Dead season 6 ended on a cliffhanger. And while the first-person ending was the sort of blood-soaked finale the hype machine around the series had been promising, it didn't quite deliver in full. In other words, the identity of the unlucky individual who got up close and personal with Lucille wasn't revealed – a move that probably rankled more dedicated viewers than it pleased. But there's one very good (very obvious) reason AMC and the producers of the network's hit series decided to take the route they did with regard to Negan and his infamous introduction: It ensures all eyes will be on the series when it returns in the fall for season 7.
That's something of a double-edged sword, as it also means the series will have to go into the sort of television lockdown not seen since Jon Snow was left to chill in the shadow of Castle Black. The series has a big mystery to keep under lock and key for the next few months, which will become increasingly hard as the eventual production on season 7 will almost certainly attract even more would-be shutterbugs and scoop-lovin' Internet-folk like so many flies to the series' titular wandering carrion.
But according to showrunner Scott M. Gimple, there's more to what lies ahead in the show than the answer of which character likely no longer has a head. During a press conference call the morning after the finale, Gimple addressed the obvious questions regarding Negan's victim, assuring fans that, yes, all questions will be answered – apparently in gory detail – and that the death will serve as a major turning point for the show, one that may eventually include the arrival of Ezekiel, his tiger Shiva, and The Kingdom.
First, though, let's start with the elephant in the room.
Negan's Brutal Kill
A few weeks before the season 6 finale, Rick led his group into a compound controlled by the Saviors as payment for supplies from Gregory and the folks at Hilltop. Inside the compound, Glenn was compelled to take a human life for the first time, and in doing so was exposed to a Polaroid collage of some of Negan's handiwork. While many viewers (and comic readers) took both events as a sign Glenn would indeed fall victim to Negan's retribution, the non-committal closing moments of 'Last Day on Earth' suggest it could be any number of people "taking it like a champ."
And while the beginning of season 7 will obviously have to address the cliff viewers have been left hanging from for several months, Gimple wants to assure the audience that not only will they get what was denied them in season 6 (i.e., the gruesome death of one unlucky survivor), but the storyline moving on from there will offer even more. Gimple said:
"In many ways, what we saw last night was the end of the story of season six. Where Rick winds up is completely different from where he started in episode one and episode nine. I've known for a while what is in 701 and presenting what occurs and to show what happened in full force. It is the beginning of the next story. The two - the showing of, it's an incredible work of gore by Charlie Adlard in the book, how we show that on TV - I'm certain that we'll be pushing some boundaries with it."
This echoes some of Gimple's statements in an interview with TVLine, where the showrunner addressed criticism to the finale, saying the season 7 premiere will validate the divisive season ending:
"We have to do an episode that justifies [the cliffhanger] to you. We have to do something so great and so intense that you’re like, ‘OK, all right, fair play.’ That’s the challenge that we have, and we’re going to do it. We’re going to deliver you something fantastic.
We want you to be one of those people in that lineup. We want you to feel that suspense and that terror and that pain. We’re going to deliver you a story next season that justifies it."
As for the identity of the character taking the brunt of Negan's sick humor and sense of justice, Gimple understands the interim months between seasons 6 and 7 will be filled with speculation of all sorts, but he cautions that the details in the finale won't necessarily provide viewers with conclusive proof of the identity in question:
"I believe there is no way. There are a couple of things in there that might help people possibly limit the amount of people who are vulnerable but I will say, I would recommend people not to go down that route. I truly don't think there is a way to puzzle it all out definitively."
One of the key issues with 'Last Day on Earth' was its unnecessarily excessive length. Part of that was due to the show's slow reveal of Negan, but part of it was due to an odd, digressive storyline that featured Morgan in pursuit of Carol – who was also being pursued by a Savior so hell bent on revenge he'd rather succumb to a likely treatable gunshot wound than seek help.
The encounter forced Morgan to kill in order to protect someone he cares about, and it left Carol severely wounded. Things were looking pretty bleak for the would-be pacifists until two men in body armor arrived on the scene and offered to lend a helping hand (a quick glimpse of one of these men was also seen during 'East'). Neither man says exactly where they are from, but given their attire and neighborly approach to strangers, the popular guess is it's a sure sign The Kingdom is right around the corner.
In the comics, The Kingdom is a large settlement that's akin to Hilltop, run out of an abandoned high school and lorded over by a man named Ezekiel. Like Hilltop and Alexandria, the Saviors pose a significant problem for the seemingly renaissance fair-loving folks of The Kingdom, and as such they represent a possible ally. And while Gimple remained coy as to whether or not The Kingdom will be seen in season 7, he did say whenever it does make an appearance it be memorable:
"Those guys may or may not have been from The Kingdom. We may or may not see The Kingdom. If we do see The Kingdom, it'll be a big reveal and it'll be another new world to inhabit and explore."
Ezekiel and His Tiger
One aspect of The Kingdom that will likely appeal to viewers is the aforementioned Ezekiel and, certainly, his pet tiger, Shiva. Ezekiel, better known as "King Ezekiel," runs The Kingdom and has a relationship with the Hilltop community, which eventually plays a role what most can likely assume is the conflict between Negan and those he would subjugate.
While the question of how (or even if) that conflict will come about on the television show is likely on a lot of fans' minds right now, the series has several introductions to make first. And one of the trickiest might be the introduction of Shiva. On that subject Gimple said:
"Can we have a real tiger? That's a great way to put the questions to me because it sort of corners me into a spoiler. I would say, in a really cheeky way, that we can have a lot of things and people are gonna have to wait and see. If I were just watching the show - I'd want to see that tiger."
So there you have it. While the season 6 finale may have ruffled more than a few feathers, it appears the series' showrunner is well aware the high expectations that the season 7 premiere (and beyond) will inevitably bring. It remains to be seen whether or not Gimple and the rest of The Walking Dead crew will be able to live up to those expectations, but by the sound of it, they're certainly going to try. After the reaction to this most recent cliffhanger ending, it will be interesting to see whether or not fans turn out in droves, or if they've been burnt one too many times.
The Walking Dead season 7 premieres in the fall of 2016.