With the release of “Last Day on Earth,” The Walking Dead finally passes fully into the age of Negan. Season 6 has been a time of transition: our heroes have finally found a place to settle for more than 1 season (I’m looking at you campsite outside Atlanta, Herschel’s farm, the prison, and Terminus). This is a big moment in the series, and one I’m glad we’ve finally arrived at.
For the previous 5 seasons, our heroes have schlepped along a familiar trajectory: go one place, think they’re safe, realize they’re not, and be forced to leave and wander the hostile wilderness looking for another. The compelling micro-storylines and characters have kept us hooked: we care about these people and want them to succeed. The macro-storylines, however, have never taken center stage. This is likely why many of the best episodes have been one- or two-character pieces, such as Morgan’s brilliant 90-minute episode “Here’s Not Here,” Beth’s “Slabtown,” and Rick and Daryl’s “The Next World.” “Here’s Not Here,” in particular, was a virtual masterpiece; a beautiful self-contained story that made you fall in love with a side character and bring him into the inner circle of main players. In “Slabtown,” we’re introduced to an entirely new cast that completed Beth’s arc from wanting to kill herself to escape the horror of this world to willing to sacrifice herself to save her friends (similar to Nux’s arc in the also-brilliant Mad Max, actually!).
The point is, some of the best episodes set aside the main cast to focus on specific problems and angles of the anything-but-zombie apocalypse. And that brings us to Alexandria and Negan. Fans of the comic (I count myself among them) know that season 6 represents a sea-change in the Walking Dead. As Robert Kirkman explained on Chris “Twinkly-Eyes” Hardwick’s Talking Dead, Negan was introduced in the 100th issue of the comic. To him, this represented a turning point. The comic could get stale. I’d be willing to say the macro-plotting of the show was already stale, even while new characters and inter-personal conflicts stayed (mostly) fresh and interesting. It was time to make a big change, and Negan is that big change.
The Walking Dead now almost mirrors the comic. It is a large ensemble piece, and the show has done a decent job of establishing that Alexandria is a big place populated with many people. They are even now well-trained enough that they can theoretically defend the homestead while the entire main cast leaves. Of course, that may just be the impression the Saviors have given our heroes prior to the finale.
Up until now, the Saviors have seemed about as effective as the faceless goons of a super-villain. Our heroes heard from the Hilltop how they were terrorized by this group that demands 50% of their supplies in exchange for not being murdered, but the first real confrontation between our heroes and the saviors ends in “No Way Out” with Daryl murdering one of them off-screen and then rocket-launching the rest into bloody bits. Next, our heroes went into one of the Saviors’ bases in “Not Tomorrow Yet” and slaughtered them like sheep in their sleep (some literally!). Two of our heroes were captured, but zero were killed or even injured. In the following episode, “The Same Boat,” Carol and Maggie escape their captors by slaughtering all of them in awesome and horrific fashion (oh that fire trap). Then in “East” Carol again goes buck-wild and mows down a whole group of Saviors, even after they ambush her car (though it was badass the way she begged them to not make her kill them all: that’s why we love you, Carol and The Walking Dead).
The point is, I’d believe it at this point if they left just Gabriel behind to defend all of Alexandria against these level zero mooks. Establishing the Saviors as hapless idiots only good at accidental assassination was an interesting choice (Dwight claims he missed his real target when he bolted Denise in the eye). I suppose in some ways it was clever as a way to give Rick that sense of invulnerability he exuded. We felt like our heroes could overcome all, and then the rug was swept out from under us in “Last Day on Earth.”
Rick and his crew are making a simple drive to the Hilltop to get Maggie desperately-needed post-apocalypse pre-natal care (I don’t like them odds). They seem to have made the trip easily before with a simple cut-scene. This time, however, they find the road blocked by a gang of Saviors. The leader gives a menacing speech that Rick should treat his people well, because it could be their last day on Earth, but offers no chase when Rick and crew opt to back up and take another route. It soon becomes apparent that the Saviors are guiding our heroes. Each path is lined with traps and obstacles, some passable, some not: logs piled onto the road, a chained zombie-blockade, and a hanged man.
As the episode wears on, a sense of doom begins to hang overhead, like maybe the positions are becoming reversed and our heroes are now the cattle being driven towards the slaughter. And so it is. the climax of the season peaks as our heroes are driven from the safety of their RV, forced to trudge through the woods at night with Maggie on a makeshift gurney. Soon they are surrounded by an eerie and maddening whistling: the call of the Saviors. Driven into a clearing, our heroes are surrounded by an overwhelming force: all are stoic and armed-to-the-teeth. Vastly outnumbered, out-gunned, and out-maneuvered, our heroes are quickly disarmed and thrust to their knees in a line. Enter: Negan.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan does incredible work as the charismatic psychopath. His introduction to the series is a 15-minute monologue at the climax of the season finale, and he pulls it off with peerless acumen. Our heroes are on their knees, disarmed, surrounded, and totally at his mercy, and he soaks it up. He loves it. He lives for this moment. He cracks jokes at their expense, and completely justifies why Negan is one of the most beloathed (sort of like beloved, but, you know, for an awful person) characters in the series.
The build-up of this monologue is masterful. The feeling of theatrical dread and suspense is palpable. Negan is putting on a show, and he’s doing it just so that he can avoid killing our heroes. Well, maybe not all of them. They did kill more of his people than he’s “comfortable with.” So someone has to pay; an example must be made. And so a horrifying game of Negan Roulette begins where he plays “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” with all of our favorite characters’ lives. Someone does indeed appear to die, but the show’s creators have left the identity a cliffhanger. Comic readers know who Negan kills in that version of the scene, but who knows how the show will play it? This decision is a bit frustrating, and more than one joke was cracked in our household about “Whoever demands the biggest raise for Season 7 will be the person who got the better end of Lucille.”
Well, so be it. We don’t get to know who (most likely) bit the dust, because we instead got a first-person view of our (probably) dying hero’s fading perception as the camera fades to a blood-soaked and muffled black. Guess we’ll have to stay tuned to see who it is. The show’s creators attempted to justify their decision on Talking Dead, stating that learning who dies and the effect on others is the beginning of the “next story” and therefore belongs in season 7. I disagree. I think learning who dies is the end of this story. The effect on everyone else and Negan’s New World Order is the next story.
The Walking Dead likes to pull the “Did they die?” and the “Who died?” card. It’s not a strong one. Uncertain fates do not drive the stories in The Walking Dead. The drama and conflict between characters and groups drive the stories. That is what’s compelling. Cheap parlor tricks are not: see, e.g., Glenn’s frustrating death fake-out at the end of “Thank You” and Daryl being shot at the end of “East.” The show seemed to catch onto their error in “East” by adding some voice-over as the camera faded to blood-soaked black with Dwight saying “You’ll be alright.” But here we are again at the end of “Last Day on Earth.” Another pointless mystery. If the episode went that one extra step to wrap up the season by showing us which major character took it on the skull, I’d say the finale was damn near perfect. As it is, it left me feeling deflated. Angry. What could have been a heartbreaking moment to mourn, brood, and speculate over until season 7 became another eye-rolling parlor trick. Way to ruin the icing on an otherwise excellent season 6 cake.
Oh well, I’ll just compartmentalize my frustration until we get our answer next October. Only 6 months away! In the meantime, good luck with those contract negotiations, cast members. Remember: it could still be you.