Usually you can count on a script by Scott M. Gimple (and co-writer Matthew Negrete) directed by Greg Nicotero to be a high-point for the season. They’ve been so consistent that I’d have been willing to bet money that the season 6 finale, “Last Day on Earth,” was going to blow everyone out of the water with its sheer awesomeness. We already knew that somebody was going to die, and we already knew that Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was going to make his debut. We’d also heard from Andrew Lincoln that reading this script made him feel sick to his stomach and that it left him unable to sleep, angry, and frustrated. Lauren Cohen called it one of the “most raw experiences” any of the actors had ever had.
It would literally take a concerted effort to fuck this up.
Well, fuck it up, they did.
In the desire to milk the audience’s anxiety and attempt to create one of the most talked about cliffhangers in television history, Gimple, Negrete, and Nicotero completely did whatever the opposite of sticking the landing is (although people are definitely talking). And the worst part is that it didn’t have to be this way.
The main story begins with the gang desperate to get Maggie to the doctor at Hilltop after her collapse last week. Rick opts to take the caravan since it would be the most comfortable. And then, hey look at that! It also means we can fit the entire supporting cast, minus creepy priest Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Enid (Katelyn Nacon) – who’s been locked in a closet – in the damned thing. Well, at least those who aren’t already captured by Saviors before the episode even begins.
There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for every member of the cast to go on this trip other than to get them all in the same place for the final scene in Negan’s camp. None. Nada. Each character comes up with a reason they should be allowed to come along and they’re all bullshit designed only to serve the plot. Especially when the whole community thinks the Saviors are ready to attack them at any minute.
Nothing says preparedness like sending ALL of your best soldiers out away from home base on the eve of a potential invasion.
This, like nearly every major narrative incident over the past three episodes, is an example of letting the plot dictate action, rather than action dictating plot. It’s lazy and sloppy and is so far beneath the work Gimple’s been responsible for since taking over the showrunner position that it’s almost as though nobody is actually at the wheel.
Or worse, it’s as though they brought back Glen Mazzara.
But even though this was horrible writing, it could have been forgiven – if the rest of the episode lived up to the expectations. And the old college try is actually given.
Morgan (Lennie James) finds a horse, which I assume belonged to that dude who said he was looking for his horse last week. And the horse is cool. This allows for a very nice shot of Morgan on horseback that recalls shots of Rick on horseback in that very first episode. It could be a subtle way of letting the viewers know that Morgan (and Carol when he finds her) is heading out on another journey similar to the one that set the stage for the entire show.
Instead, he finds Carol (Melissa McBride) huddled in a doorway, pathetic and wounded in an incident that we never even see. For me, this is another slight to Carol’s character. At least let us follow her and see what happens. Let us pay witness to her desperate attempts to not be a killing machine. Let us get some sort of insight into why she’s behaving this way.
Oh yeah. She’s behaving this way because Plot.
And because she must be put in peril so Morgan can sacrifice his values to save her from generic Savior guy she didn’t kill last week.
Also, it allows for the arrival of two dudes in body armor and on horseback who volunteer to take her to safety. And hey! One of them is the dude from the barn (which I would never have known if I hadn’t checked out the official recap), who is apparently NOT a Savior.
This is huge; a piece of information that could potentially open up another whole world of politics, danger, and drama.
But nobody gives a shit because back in the other plot, our heroes are being herded by the Saviors, who have every road barricaded and manned by more people than we’ve ever really seen in one place (who weren’t already dead). While this sequence is arguably boring and tends to make most of the episode seem like a gigantic waste of time – a literal spinning of wheels – I did like what I assume is an homage to The Birds, with more and more Saviors appearing at each subsequent roadblock.
By the time night falls, our heroes think it would be smart to send Eugene (Josh McDermitt) on alone in the camper while they cart Maggie – on a stretcher – through the darkness of the woods in an attempt to circumvent the inevitable. And guess what? Horrible idea works horribly.
This leads to the ending we’ve been waiting for all season. Readers of the comics know that this is where Glenn (Steven Yeun) met his maker, but after the massive Glenn-is-dead fakeout from earlier this season, it doesn’t seem like Gimple and Company would repeat that clusterfuck, right?
At least we get Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan. And he is gloriously charismatic, charming, and subtly frightening in the calm and reasoned way he explains to our heroes all kneeling before him, that one of them has to die – just to make a point. This isn’t a revenge-fueled madman ranting and raving. He’s got a business to run and he hopes Rick and this crew will be great additions to that business (provided Rick doesn’t have an aneurism as he tries to process the utter helplessness his overconfidence has caused).
That business of giving Negan half your shit. And apparently, business is good.
Like I said, this was salvageable, if only due to the excellent work of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as he walks up and down the line of heroes with his baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, Lucille. His “eenie meenie miney mo” routine ratchets up the tension with every shot, cutting from character to character, almost at random – in order to avoid giving away who would meet Lucille – until he picks his victim and proceeds to beat them to death while the others watch.
Instead of letting us know who dies, Gimple and Nicotero opt to cut to a first-person shot as Negan beats the camera (and by extension, the audience??) into submission. We hear screams, we hear Negan say “they’re taking it like a man,” and then we get horrible digital blood dripping down the screen. After finishing last week with digital blood splattering the screen.
So the creators of The Walking Dead don’t tell us who died, using the next-day justification that it’s the end of this story and revealing who’s dead will be the start of the next story (or comparing it to classic cliffhanger endings like “Who shot J.R.?” or “Who’s in the Hatch?”). But let’s be clear.
This is a cop-out. It’s an ending designed to manipulate the audience and cause conversations rather than actually build tension, and it is mostly backfiring. There are barely any critics who found it effective – myself included – and a healthy segment of the fans are in a rage. There’s probably a ten-to-one ratio of hate-to-love in online commentary and the finale turns out to have gotten the lowest Walking Dead finale ratings since 2013 (and is down double-digits from last year’s all-time finale high).
But the real question is does any of the outrage or criticism matter? The Walking Dead is still the most popular scripted drama on television and while we’re all pissed off that we don’t know who died, I’d be willing to bet that the Season 7 opener will break records.
I’m also kind of prepared to see a Season 7 opener that follows Morgan and Carol, leaving the who’s dead question open until the second week!