The Walking Dead and the Cheapness of Death
As expected, the inevitable showdown with the Saviors arrived.
Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
David Sims: After all that build-up, all that pointless meandering, and all of that media hype, there couldn’t have been a more perfect closing shot for this season of The Walking Dead. The camera faced the new villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as he slammed a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire down on top of somebody’s head, with blood running down the screen. The point-of-view angle was designed to keep the dead cast member a mystery until next year (fuel for the endless online-gossip mill that keeps the show in the news during its off-season). But it had another, perhaps unintended, effect: making the viewers feel like they’re the real victims. In short, we suffered through this whole season just to get beaten over the head.
This finale is certainly the end of my relationship with this show, a decision that was solidified by me catching the first few minutes of Talking Dead (the after-show debriefing that airs every week on AMC) and seeing the comic-book creator Robert Kirkman promise that Negan would drive The Walking Dead’s story for “several seasons” to come. This is no hit on Negan himself, who was quite an agreeable psychopath in his 10 minutes of screen time, and quite well played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It has more to do with the miserable bunch he had at his mercy in the final act of “Last Day on Earth,” who spent 90 minutes (yes, this was an extra-long episode) stumbling toward the trap he had set for them in the most predictable way possible.
The episode had only one thing to do: introduce Negan, who’s been so hyped that he got a special poster announcing his arrival on the show. He showed up 80 minutes in, after Rick and his group (Abraham, Glenn, Carl, Eugene, Aaron, and Sasha) bumbled around in the wilderness trying to get medical help for Maggie at the Hilltop. By the way, this is clearly why Denise got killed off a couple weeks back—to justify Rick’s decision to strike out onto the road, after provoking war with Negan’s Saviors. It still felt flimsy. Rick’s RV ran into elaborate road blocks over, and over, and over again: a bunch of zombies tied together, an armed gang, a burning pile of logs. Still they didn’t get the message, and they were eventually herded into a clearing where Negan’s men surrounded them, and the big boss finally emerged and proclaimed victory, saying he’d kill one of the group and make the rest work for him.
Most viewers knew that was coming, which made the rest of the episode such a bore to watch. Along with Rick’s wandering, a side-plot involving Carol’s solo odyssey on the road and Morgan coming to rescue her was frankly confusing. Morgan broke his no-killing rule to execute a man trying to kill Carol, but if that moment was supposed to be loaded with philosophical weight, well, it just wasn’t. Everything was pointed toward Negan’s introduction, and I can’t deny that scene was tense. When an entire cast of characters (Daryl and Michonne, taken prisoner last week, were there too) are lined up and one of them is threatened with gruesome death, it’s almost impossible not to be frightened.
The only way for the show to blow the moment was to overplay its cliffhanger, to leave the audience with nothing as it cut to black for another six months. Viewers knew Negan was coming; we didn’t know who he’d kill off. Well, we still don’t know, and frankly I don’t care to know at this point. Watching “Last Day on Earth,” I realized it didn’t really matter to me who Negan picked for death—I was just steeling myself for the gory violence that would result. When a show’s cast is facing execution, and you’re not worried about losing any of them, then it’s time to say goodbye. Goodbye, Walking Dead. It’s been a wild six years, but it’s long past time to bid farewell, and a baseball bat to the head is as good a way as any.
Lenika Cruz: The stress and thrill of waiting for the next big character to die is a burden viewers accept when they commit to a certain kind of drama series (ahem, Game of Thrones). There are usually, though, plenty of other good reasons to keep watching. Unfortunately, this last season of The Walking Dead points to the sad fact that the show views the question “Who will die?” as its only narrative currency—ironically, The Walking Dead’s excessive dependence on death hasn’t elevated it, but has instead cheapened it. This approach has by extension cheapened the lives of everyone on the show, especially the most beloved characters.
I spent years getting to know and genuinely love characters like Carol and Glenn and Maggie and Michonne, despite the show’s ups and downs. “Last Day on Earth” was a whole lot of filler leading up to a climactic 15-minute ending, but I still felt my stomach lurch and my heart pound in my ears when Negan’s moment to choose his victim came (Jeffrey Dean Morgan was mesmerizing in that scene). But even worse than the idea of Negan brutally killing someone was the realization that whoever died would’ve been killed off in one of the worst hours of the series—one that came after a pair of awful lead-in episodes. And the reality was even worse than that: Yes, someone died, but we have no idea who.
I’m sure there’ll be plenty of viewers who, though upset by this cliffhanger, will tune in next season anyway. And I’m sure when the network gleefully announces its ratings for this finale, the numbers will be astronomical. Good for AMC, I guess. But more than just being a not-so-great show, The Walking Dead has turned into an aggressively cynical series that seems to care far, far less about giving viewers a good story than it does about getting them to watch at all costs. And if that means pretending to kill a major character and then playing coy for four episodes, or advertising a supposedly wild 90-minute finale that’s largely fluff plus commercials, or killing a mystery character onscreen but making fans wait half a year to find out who (while hyping the hashtag #WhoIsIt?)—then that’s fine by the showrunner Scott Gimple and co.
But it’s not fine by me. Like you David, I’m ready to stop watching this show for good, and I suspect many others are too. I’ve been tempted to quit at different points in the past, but I always stuck with it—either because I loved too many of the characters, or because The Walking Dead would come out with an episode good enough to convince me to stick around a while longer. But also like you, David, after catching a good chunk of Talking Dead immediately following the finale, I’m even more certain that it’s the right call, at least for fans like myself who’ve been growing increasingly disillusioned.
For me, the telling point came when Gimple and Robert Kirkman tried to make the case to Chris Hardwick that this episode wasn’t technically a cliffhanger. The reason? Because the story they were trying to tell this season was about Rick’s downfall, while the issue of who died is meant to be the main story for next season. Hearing them try to explain away this disaster of a finale on the basis of artistic integrity felt like another barbed-wire-covered-bat thwack to the face. If they can’t see why this kind of thinking is deeply unfair to the viewer (and disingenuous), why continue to trust their judgment? More cheap moments like the one that capped “Last Day on Earth” are almost definitely in store in the future. Moving forward, I can’t promise I’ll be around to witness them.