Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve watched “The Walking Dead” Season 6 finale, Episode 16, titled “Last Day on Earth.” Find out what led our survivors into their dire situation with Negan by checking out last week’s recap here.
Is anyone surprised? After so much speculation, rumor-mongering and myth-making in the run up to Negan’s introduction, the eventual outcome of the “Walking Dead” Season 6 finale couldn’t help but feel like a cop-out, especially in a season that has been loaded with fake-outs and fan-baiting moments, from Glenn’s dumpster dive to last week’s Daryl misdirect.
Purposefully removing an actor’s name from the credits just to rile up fans is cruel and unusual punishment (although it was certainly a savvy strategy in terms of building buzz), but “Last Day on Earth” doubled down on the producers’ penchant for trolling their audience, unmistakably showing us a death, but refusing to show us who died.
In any other year, that might’ve seemed like a canny and unique way to ensure that fans come back for Season 7 in October, but in a season that has gone out of its way to toy with its audience under the guise of “keeping us guessing,” it feels less like a valid storytelling device and more like a petty game of keep-away. Charlie Brown might continue falling for Lucy’s football trick, but at a certain point, we as viewers — free of the confines of a comic strip — should probably know when to walk away.
This season has certainly pushed many critics to that point, judging by conversations I’ve had, but “The Walking Dead” obviously has no shortage of viewers, and many may be satisfied to be strung along through the plot’s many contortions, which have strained credulity fairly consistently this season, especially in the last few episodes.
The most frustrating plot thread was once again courtesy of Carol, since the finale sadly confirmed the fact that she really did decide to do the post-apocalyptic equivalent of committing suicide, leaving Alexandria just because she didn’t want to be forced to kill anymore (never mind that her self-preservation instinct necessitated killing a whole car full of Saviors she otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if she’d just stayed home), and not, as I had hoped, because she wanted to launch another one-woman attack on Negan and the Saviors, similar to her Hail Mary pass at Terminus.
This character 180 might’ve made sense if the show hadn’t rushed it, or had offered a little more insight into her thought process instead of simply focusing on lingering shots of her smoking pensively on the porch — and I could’ve understood Carol’s motivations if this flip had taken place after “The Grove” — but given what the group has had to deal with at the hands of the Wolves and the Saviors this season, it seems especially questionable that she’d be squeamish about killing humans when humanity has shown them its dark side again and again this year. Sure, she’s probably afraid of becoming like the people they’ve been forced to face this season, but when Alexandria has walls and supplies and hope for the future in a new generation that includes Judith, Carl, and Maggie and Glenn’s unborn baby (if it survives), it seems like there’s even more that’s worth fighting and killing for than there was before.
As with last week’s episode, in which pretty much every character made completely ridiculous decisions purely because the writers needed them to end up in peril, the finale showed the strings being pulled above our puppets a little too clearly (how apt, then, that the episode featured two men being hanged).
This week, co-writers Scott Gimple and Matthew Negrete seemingly wanted to prove that Morgan was capable of killing someone under the right circumstances, so Carol had to make an uncharacteristic choice to go out and put herself in harm’s way just to facilitate Morgan coming after her, which, in turn, facilitated a showdown between Morgan and the Savior who was trying to kill her. (It’s basically the “Walking Dead” equivalent of the “Superman doesn’t kill” debate that’s been raging in fan circles since “Man of Steel.”) Yes, anyone is capable of taking a life if pushed, and most people have someone they care about enough to kill for — so did we really need to spend a whole season having a prolonged morality debate when the show always intended to prove that even when our characters try to take the moral high ground, they’ll probably have to betray their beliefs for the sake of the greater good in the end anyway?
Carol and Morgan’s jaunt did allow us to meet two inhabitants of yet another community, following Rick and Morgan’s encounter with a fellow who was looking for his horse in Episode 15. While the man didn’t offer his name when Morgan met him again this week, comic book fans may have an idea of where this spear-toting warrior and his horse come from, and that community will undoubtedly play a part in Season 7.
While the episode had plenty of frustrating moments, it had its high points, too (which only made the lows that much more infuriating). Although first 45 minutes felt like any other installment — sometimes meandering, occasionally exciting, often obnoxiously portentous — the last half was a tight, terse ride, as Rick and his group raced to try and get Maggie to Hilltop so a doctor could check on her unborn child.
The episode really hit high gear when the RV encountered the Saviors’ ingenious zombie roadblock — a line of walkers chained together, wearing items of clothing taken from Michonne, Daryl, Glenn and Rosita. From there, the Saviors drove them right into a trap — an even bigger roadblock of men and cars, ratcheting up the tension as the group scrambled to find an alternate route as Maggie’s condition deteriorated.
The finale certainly required a lot from its actors, and while Melissa McBride and Lauren Cohan were particular standouts, the episode unquestionably belonged to Andrew Lincoln. It’s rare to see Rick looking so uncertain and out of control, but as “Last Day on Earth” wore on, we watched him unravel in front of our eyes, his confidence beginning to crumble as the RV hit obstacle after obstacle despite his reassurances to Maggie that they’d be okay. Rick has undergone quite an evolution already this season, and it’s intriguing to imagine what kind of condition we’ll see him in next season, after being so thoroughly outfoxed by an adversary he severely underestimated.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan was also worth the wait — the actor has made a career out of dropping into dramas and stealing the show with memorable, charisma-laden guest arcs (see: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Supernatural” and “The Good Wife”), and “The Walking Dead” is no exception. The show has tested our patience in its slow build-up to Negan’s introduction, prolonging the agony so much that I started to lose interest in the character purely because we’d heard so much about him without seeing him in action (show, don’t tell, writers!), but Morgan’s charm made his entrance suitably compelling and tortuously tense in equal measure.
When a storyline has a clear purpose, “The Walking Dead” can be a thrill ride, and the episode shone in those cat and mouse moments when Rick and his group went head to head with the Saviors, trying to outsmart them only to find that Negan was one step ahead of them. That bodes well for next season, when our fearless leader will have to face his most formidable foe to date, one who has him outgunned at every turn and clearly doesn’t shy away from spilling blood when needed. But for now, faced with a summer of further speculation, the finale can’t help but leave a sour taste (of grey matter?) in the mouth.
Who do you think Negan killed? Were you happy with how the finale ended, or frustrated by yet another cliffhanger? Weigh in below.