[This article contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead television show and comic book.]
AMC's The Walking Dead has been a fan-favorite series for the past six years, ever since it first premiered to record numbers in 2010. Over the years, its popularity has only grown – that is, until season 6. This past year saw the first actual decline in the ratings for the zombie drama, which also happened to coincide with April's critically divisive season finale.
Many fans and critics alike have said that the finale, "Last Day on Earth", took the show's penchant for baiting viewers way too far. Deaths on the show are not unusual and cliffhangers are to be expected, but viewers were still surprised to see the last episode end rather abruptly. With all the characters at the mercy of new villain Negan (guest star Jeffrey Dean Morgan), we didn't even get to see who was at the end of his deadly bat.
Yet now executive producer Greg Nicotero has told IGN that the cliffhanger was all a part of their master plan. Nicotero reveals that the killing blow from Negan will be a major turning point for everyone, and it needed to be reserved for the start of season 7. He admits, "It propels our people. It affects our people profoundly, as it does in the comic book. That changes everyone's direction."
While Nicotero does reference the comic book in his comparison to the TV show, he warns that doesn't mean the person who dies will be the same. It's the impact of the death that fans will find familiar when The Walking Dead returns, as Rick and the gang learn another valuable lesson that they're just small fish in a big pond. And that realization, Nicotero says, will really open their eyes:
"The main thing about Season 7 is establishing that the world isn't what everybody thinks it is, the world out there. At the end of Season 6, Rick was so confident. 'We're just going to knock out that outpost, we're going to f--k these guys up before they f--k us up,' and it ends with him going, 'Heh, oh well, I had no idea. What I perceived as the world is not even close to what the reality of the world is,' and Negan's there to show him that."
The big death (or deaths) that start season 7 will send the crew packing and out of Alexandria, thus starting off a whole new chapter for the series. Nicotero adds:
"Season 7 of The Walking Dead, there's all new worlds that we're going to meet, so it wouldn't have made sense to end a chapter and then start it halfway through the next chapter. You want to end in one place and pick it up."
We already have some idea of what's next for the show if the casting of The Kingdom leader Ezekiel (and his pet tiger Shiva) is any indication. In the comics, Rick comes to Ezekiel with a plan to use the Alexandria Survivors, the Hilltop Colony residents, and the inhabitants of The Kingdom to defeat Negan and The Saviors. Season 7 is sure to be a massive undertaking, involving many different groups of people interacting together and against each other. So maybe it was better that the big death start everything anew.
The Walking Dead season 7 premieres in the fall of 2016.