[Warning: SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 6 finale ahead.]
Last night finally brought the season finale of The Walking Dead that had been teased and hyped to death by AMC and the show's actors in the weeks leading up to it, but the fan response to the episode's final scene (and the finale in general) has been largely characterized by frustration and irritation.
If The Walking Dead has perfected its narrative stalling tactics, then the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the latest arch-baddie Negan turned them into an art form. Negan burst out of the RV with his barbed wire-covered bat in hand and started talking. Then he kept talking. Then he carried on talking, saying the exact same things over and over again, but phrased slightly differently each time around. "I'm gonna beat the holy hell out of one of you," he revealed at least, and then he kept talking. He talked for so long that eventually the finale's extra-long 90-minute running time ran out, and when he finally got around to picking a character to beat the holy hell out of, the episode ended before his choice could be revealed.
While it's certainly possible that season 7 will open with a key character - perhaps even Glenn or Daryl - getting battered by Negan's bat, it's not exactly going to feel "shocking" after half a season of build-up, then a cliffhanger, then a months-long wait filled with the show's actors and producers feverishly insisting that the season premiere will blow everyone's minds. After so much hype and so little pay-off, those promises just aren't convincing any more.
The Walking Dead's fans are both its blessing and its curse. The relationship between the show and its viewers is perhaps best summarized by the call-to-arms, "If Daryl Dies We Riot" - a message from the fandom that the writers can kill off any character they please, so long as that character is not the crossbow-wielding, husky-voiced bad boy Daryl Dixon (Norman Rheedus). Or badass sword-fighter Michonne (Danai Gurira). Or domestic abuse victim turned lethal killer Carol (Melissa McBride). Or lovable ex-pizza delivery boy and father-to-be Glenn (Steven Yeun). Somehow the tables have turned and instead of fans being terrified about who the show might kill off next, the show itself is kowtowing to its fans - thereby losing much of its original appeal. "If Daryl Dies We Riot"? Let them riot. Rioting is infinitely preferable to boredom and indifference.
By keeping these fan-favorite characters alive (along with mainstays Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs)), showrunner Scott M. Gimple and the rest of the writing team may think that they're giving the fans exactly what they want, but what they're really doing is forgetting what made audiences get hooked on the show in the first place. Once upon a time, The Walking Dead followed similar rules to HBO's brutal historical fantasy Game of Thrones: there is no such thing as a character who is too beautiful, too strong, too clever, or too well-loved to die. More recently, however, the zombie drama seems to be living in fear of the same fans who elevated it to its current heights, and has traded sudden and brutal deaths of key characters for stalling and fake-outs.
Season 6 brought with it a let's-pretend-we-killed-Glenn cliffhanger that was embarrassing for everyone involved, and the penultimate episode of the season saw Dwight shoot Daryl (in the shoulder, of course) for apparently no reason other than to end the episode with a bang. Then, in the season finale, Carol was left at the mercy of one of the Saviors, who shot her in the arm and then the leg, but seemed reluctant to do anything that would finish the job (and if a slow, painful death was his aim, then shooting her in the stomach would have been the best bet). The Savior, supposedly on a murderous revenge crusade, dithered around for just long enough to give Morgan time to literally ride up on a white horse and rescue Carol.
There have certainly been efforts to pretend that everything is fine and that the show is as brutal as ever. The Walking Dead's formula does, after all, require pretty regular doses of human sacrifice, and that role has increasingly been filled by newer characters and those that the viewers aren't particularly attached to. In fact, the set-up for these deaths has become comically predictable; there's a sudden flood of character moments that desperately try to earn a bit of emotional depth (Noah wanting to help build Alexandria, Beth getting a whole episode all to herself, Denise trying to find a can of soda for Tara etc.), and then the character gets taken to the chopping block in a "shocking" twist. That's what The Walking Dead has been reduced to: a series of "just two days left until retirement" jokes.
Can we use this to predict who will get whacked in the Walking Dead season 7 premiere? Season 6 did keep getting sidetracked by a dull love triangle between Abraham, Sasha and Rosita, so perhaps that will resolve itself by having one of the corners removed. It's even possible that the show will stick to the comic book lore and have Glenn graphically killed off, but it's hard to imagine that splitting the horrifying scene into two parts with half a year of waiting and speculation in between won't end up taking some of the wind out of its sails.
For what it's worth, Gimple seems to at least be somewhat aware of just how poorly this cliffhanger ending was going to be received. Speaking on the follow-up show Talking Dead, the showrunner was already talking about making amends in season 7:
"We have to do an episode that justifies it to you. We have to do something so great and so intense that you're like, 'OK, fair play.' And that's the challenge we have and 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, and we're going to deliver you a story next season that justifies it."
And so the cycle begins again: The Walking Dead's creatives hyping up what's still to come as an apology for how little has gone before. Season 6's midseason premiere was hyped up as a payoff for the midseason finale cliffhanger, and ultimately all that happened was a tiny handful of side characters were sacrificed, the zombie siege was resolved in a rather unconvincing way, everyone else miraculously survived, and Alexandria was back to normal by the next episode. Then the season 6 finale was hyped up as the real kicker, and it ended up being 90 minutes (including almost 30 minutes of commercials) of Rick and co. glumly encountering roadblocks and turning around, culminating in a poorly-executed cliffhanger.
Now fans can no doubt look forward to months of being promised a jaw-dropping seventh season of The Walking Dead that really ups the ante... but you could forgive them for being unconvinced this time around.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC this fall.