When star Lauren Cohen talked to EW about filming the season six Walking Dead finale, she said that “it took a really, really long time for everybody to feel okay again.” After watching the episode, it may be a long time before I feel okay again, too—but I bet it’s for completely different reasons. Spoilers, obviously.
If last week’s episode was “kinda bullshit,” this week’s episode was total bullshit. All I want to do is scream (write) profanity about the failure of “Last Day on Earth” but let’s recap the episode, because it actually won’t take that much time. As you recall, Maggie is sick, and Hilltop has an obstetrician. So Rick, Carl, Abraham, Rosita, Aaron, and Eugene get in the RV and hit the road to Hilltop, where they discover a barricade of Saviors. This is where we get the scene from last week’s “Next Week On” preview, where Rick tries to make a deal and the Saviors refuse, possibly because Rick’s group recently snuck out of nowhere and murdered an entire compound of them.
The Saviors very genially let Rick and the others drive away, and the group chooses another path… where an even bigger blockade waits for them. So they turn around and choose path #3, where a terrifyingly elaborate chain of zombies—by which I mean a chain has been literally woven through the zombies’ flesh to keep them from getting free—blocks their path. When Rick and the others investigate, they see one zombie has one of Daryl’s crossbows in it, and another has a few of Michonne’s dreads nailed to its head, which is easily one of the more unsettling visuals TWD has ever given us.
Here’s the thing: The Saviors start shooting at them, but only at their feet; Rick manages to kick away enough of the zombies to drive the RV through… until they eventually find an even bigger blockade of even more Saviors, and have to turn around anyways. After blockade #5 (a large pile of logs, which are set ablaze as they approach), when it’s finally dark out, Eugene has the great idea to drive the RV while the others carry Maggie on a stretcher through the woods, where the Saviors won’t be looking for them.
Except the Saviors are looking for them, because Negan is basically the Joker in The Dark Knight: he has an impossible pool of resources and infinite time and he can create the most elaborate scenarios, all to engineer a single result. Through aggressive whistling, his men herd them into a clearing where several, several dozen Saviors wait, with floodlights, and the RV (Eugene was instantly captured). The Saviors even bring Michonne, Daryl, Glenn and Rosita along, so all of Rick’s group can kneel together for Negan’s grand entrance.
Negan is… awesome. The character actually lives up to the hype, and when Jeffrey Dean Morgan strides out of the RV (where he was waiting for everything to come together exactly as he wanted it), he’s one of the most charmingly evil people I’ve ever seen on TV. He made me laugh, and he actually made me like him, even though I knew he would be murdering one of the heroes almost immediately. He says Rick’s group are entering “Pee Pee Pants City.” He tells Rick that “You killed a lot of my people. More than I’m comfortable with.” He’s amazing.
I really don’t know Negan the comic character; I know he has a sense of humor and a sense of honor, albeit very twisted. But I’m pretty sure TV Negan’s charm is due a great deal to Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Either way, the character brings a life to The Walking Dead we haven’t seen since… god, I don’t know when. (Pun intermediately intended.) He’s exciting and fun and actually restrained and effective. He’s the Anti-Rick, really.
Then the episode turns to bullshit. This is not my opinion as a critic, it’s a completely objective assessment of what happens when the show teases the arrival of one character for the entirety of a 16-episode TV show season, and the show goes out of its way to promote his arrival by unequivocally proclaiming he would kill a major cast member as part of his debut (just as the character did in the comics). This has literally been all we’ve been thinking about since at least the second-half of the season started, and all the show has wanted us to think about it. TWD executive producer David Alpert didn’t mince words when he told IGN, “I cannot wait to see the reaction to when we do the things we’re going to do at the end of this season. I think we will melt people’s minds.”
And so we forgave the fact that we had to dawdle through 7.9 episodes to get to this moment, but we expected it. Big character, big moment! Sure, there was some dodgy storytelling in season six, but we let it go, knowing that it was all being done in the greater service of introducing Negan and establishing him as the biggest badass in the zombie post-apocalypse. Gotta save his debut for the end, right?
Wrong. You save it—well, at least half of it—for the season 7 premiere.
Because Negan shows up, all right, but he fails to kill anybody—or at least he fails to kill anyone we see. Instead the show goes to a first-person view of whoever the poor victim is. And we see blood dripping down the camera lens, and the camera/person raises their head a couple of times, and Negan is impressed, and the show clearly thinks it’s so goddamned clever for all this that it’s infuriating.
Negan may have swung the bat, but we won’t really see it connect until season 7. This renders all the time we spent watching the 7.9 episodes before it less valuable. In fact, the scene is such bullshit that it makes this entire half-season aggravating, which is a damn shame. While there were the aforementioned slow bits and weird bits, there were also some really good moments and individual scenes tucked in the second half of season six. But thanks to this tremendously bullshit cliffhanger, the whole damn thing ended up being less than the sum of its parts.
The Walking Dead has no one to blame but itself for this, and I can’t help but think that its tremendous, eternal ratings success has gone to the show’s producers’ heads. Because I don’t think this cliffhanger was done because they had to, I think they just thought that Negan’s arrival alone was enough to anchor eight goddamn episodes, and the person he kills would make for a great season premiere. WRONG. I hate to use the term blue balls, but this is literally the moment that every single Walking Dead fan who ever went online to do a minute of research on her/his favorite show has been waiting for. Postponing it and teasing it so damn much is genuinely insulting.
There’s a parallel here to be drawn with Rick, who spent the latter half of the season also thinking he could do any-goddamn-thing he wanted and it would work out, most notably starting a fight with the Saviors. He says this over and over in “Last Day on Earth,” whether he was talking about how secure Alexandria was from attack, or that Maggie would get to the doctor, or that “Hey, if we do things together, everything always works out!” Bullshit which surely would have seemed insane to anyone else listening who didn’t have a 104-degree temperature.
Both Rick and the show not only are 100% confident they know what they’re doing, but 100% certain they can do no wrong. Rick thought he could take on the Saviors without a single consequence. The show thought it could stretch the one goddamn moment we’ve been waiting for all this damn time to a season finale and a premiere. Both were dead wrong.
Maybe… maybe now that Negan is on the scene, the show will kick back into high gear. Maybe they were worried about the show catching up to the comic, and needed to slow things down. I’m an anime fan, and that happens all the time there. No matter what, there are plenty of ways—and plenty of time—for the show to pick back up in season 7.
However, I won’t be spending the next six months wondering which character Negan might have killed. I’ll be thinking about this finale and being irritated as shit. I’m guessing I won’t be alone.
• So, of the people present for Negan to kill, it’s: Rick, Carl, Michonne, Daryl, Abraham, Sasha, Rosita, Eugene, Glenn, and Maggie. The episode takes a shocking amount of time telegraphing that Eugene is going to die, with a lot of tearful farewells as he drives the RV solo. He even gives the recipe to make bullets to Rick, making him essentially unnecessary. I would love to think that TWD wouldn’t embrace such a cliché if it wasn’t going to tweak it, but who knows? That said, if this is who Negan kills, this cliffhanger will be even more infuriating.
• The rest of the episode is Morgan chasing after Carol; he finds her, she runs away; that surviving Savior finds her and shoots her in the arm; Morgan finds her again and kills the Savior to save Carol’s life. I have no idea how this fits into Morgan’s morality—he was pretty much “There’s always a way” just a few episodes ago—but when Carol’s life is 100% on the line, he protects Carol. I hope this doesn’t mean Morgan is returning to the dark side of “murder everyone who vaguely worries you,” because Rick still has that worldview covered.
• Morgan and the wounded Carol are found by two guys in body armor carrying spears. One is riding a horse, and the other seems to have been riding a horse that Morgan found earlier. I thought they might be Hilltop for a minute, but they don’t ask any questions about Alexandria or the Saviors, and they seem very willing to bring Carol in to be healed. Normally in TWD, anyone who seems nice and helpful would be devious nihilist cannibals or something, but there’s something so goofy/innocent about their horses/armor/spears combo that I think they may be okay. Check it:
• Also, there’s a dude at the very beginning of the episode that the Saviors catch who says he’s from a place called “The Library” but everyone there is dead. A bit of color, or an easter egg for a future location?
• Rick trusts Gabriel to be in charge of Alexandria. Man, apparently a lot of major relationship changes in the two months between the two halves of season 6.
• I don’t know how long the season finale was sans commercials, but maybe 60 full minutes? It was longer than a full episode, but not by much; the rest was a ton of commercials. Which shouldn’t be too shocking when you’re airing the season finale of the highest rated showing on basic cable.
• “Ride with Norman Reedus, premiering in June.” It’s only six episodes long, so there’s no need to panic. Probably.
• Apparently there are a lot of Hunger Games fans in the Saviors. Not a lot of people who can carry a tune, though.
• That Savior who leads the show in the clearing before Negan makes his entrance is rocking a Sean Connery Zardoz mustache, and I couldn’t take my eye off it.
• “Do not make me kill the future serial killer!” Negan has Carl pegged.
• “Bitch nuts.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Abraham.