An Autopsy on The Walking Dead: Season 6 Cliffhanger & Season 7 Premiere

An Autopsy on The Walking Dead
Season 6 Cliffhanger & Season 7 Premiere

***WARNING: “The Walking Dead” Season 6 and 7 spoilers ensue, as well as a couple of minor comic book spoilers****

We done pissin’ our pants yet?

Good. ‘Cause I wanted to give myself a couple weeks after the premiere to let the dust settle, just so I could analyze this topic under more rational, less reactionary conditions.

And right at the outset, I feel it’s important to note that while this article will deal largely in criticism of the various creative choices the show has made lately, it isn’t necessarily meant to be another dead-horse-beating, dick-bite-impotent fan rant about the ineptitude of last May’s much-maligned cliffhanger that had lit up social media for months on end. It’s not like I can ignore it in the final analysis – and indeed I’ll be offering my armchair booking of what could’ve and should’ve happened - but it’s been ranted and raved about so much that to belabor the anger at this point is trivial, I’ll freely admit. Especially considering recent real life events that are obviously cause for more anger and passionate condemnation than a fictional TV show.

No, I’m more concerned at this point with the underlying condition at the heart of the show’s development, something that’s been steadily creeping into the way the writers’ room seems to break its stories. And I figure it’s better to focus on the disease than the symptom that resulted, because let’s face it - what’s done is done, and judging from the premiere itself and the subsequent episodes of Season 7 as of this writing (the third one in), showrunner Scott Gimple and his team seem to have recognized the misstep and have gotten off to a pretty good start with earning back some goodwill. But then I also have to ask - what good is sewing up an infected wound if you don’t recognize the need for antibiotics to prevent sepsis in the future?

I have a certain level of faith in Robert Kirkman and Gimple to course-correct and make Season 7 work, because I know for a fact, given the comics’ quality and the improvement of the show in Seasons 4 and 5 under Gimple’s leadership, that neither of these two guys are hacks. But just in case, I’m putting this out there as a cautionary piece. Why? I have too much love for the Negan storyline from the comics, not to mention the potential for greatness that this show could achieve but has oftentimes proven incapable of attaining despite having every ingredient (see: The Governor in Season 3). After all, first impressions are IMPORTANT! As a TV writer, you NEED viewers... to KNOW you’ve learned from your mistakes.

SO! ... ... Back to it!

To say the least, the cliffhanger left many fans feeling betrayed and robbed of the heartbreak that was well-earned in the moment as the season came to a close, and many threatened to rage-quit over the blatant mishandling of arguably THE most impactful moment in all of The Walking Dead comics. I doubt very many actually followed through with this declaration, but if they did, good for them for standing by their convictions. I, on the other hand, resolved to stick with the show despite its worst instincts at times and how aggravated the cliffhanger made me, since I feel they get more right than wrong. I’m still a fan, for better or worse, which is why I’m writing this.

I think part of the virulence behind the finale’s backlash had to be in the knowledge that someone had to actively TRY to fuck something up that was basically pre-baked in its awesomesauce. Apparently in this case, that sauce is a Chunky Ragu marinara with extra eyeballs (apologies in advance to those planning for Spaghetti Tuesday)... ... I know. Too soon. I get it. Sorry.

Anyhoo! Another component of the backlash, I believe, is actually a complimentary contradiction of sorts, given that the finale itself, as an episode, was so damn effective, from the build of dread as the noose closed tighter around Rick’s ragtag band to the final sequence marking the charismatic debut of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the long-awaited big bad Negan. For my money, that was one of the most tense ten minutes of television in the history of the medium, but the emotional payoff was squandered because... WHY?

And there’s the crux of my problem, and why the cliffhanger was such a disaster, especially after having seen the premiere. I mean, what creative reason NOT beholden to AMC’s shallow social media strategy did a cliffhanger like that serve? I hoped for the best and was willing to take the writers’ words for it that there was a plan and a reason that the identity of Negan’s victim was pushed into next season, and that the premiere would illuminate that very important “WHY?” more definitively. But in the end, the premiere, a terrific episode in its own right and clearly one of the show’s strongest, only proved more definitively that perhaps the show’s brain trust and/or executive overlords are more keen on stoking buzz around the show in the Twittersphere for the sake of insta-ratings and sensationalism than telling a good story that will stand the test of time. It seems born of an ethos that thinks getting people talking in and of itself is a good thing, even if that discussion offers no emotional content to speak of. To whit: the question of “Who died?” is a lot less interesting than “Oh my God, ______ died! How does this impact the group, and what the fuck can Rick even DO next?!” There’s a sense of closure AND an opening for speculation on the future and what it might entail in Negan’s New World Order.

It didn’t help that every defense of the cliffhanger was weak and further added to the tumult among the fanbase, already fairly sensitive to bullshit. Greg Nicotero, for example, a genre legend and the show’s go-to gore maestro who I have the utmost respect and esteem for, cited the “I am your father” cliffhanger of The Empire Strikes Back as a comparison to what they did with Lucille’s fatal kiss. But that rationale only works if instead of Vader telling Luke he was his father, he started to say “Luke, I know who your father is. He is—” and the screen cut to black, making you wait two years for Return of the Jedi.

Another defense brought up by some fans who loved the cliffhanger (which is fine, all the power to ‘em) was in asking the question of what would make us want to come back in the fall to see what happened if there weren’t a cliffhanger like this? This one was particularly ridiculous, because if you applied the same logic to every show, then Game of Thrones would’ve been shedding viewers from Season 1 on after it gives away its big emotional climaxes before the finale even airs, and clearly the opposite has happened there. And using this bizarre logic, imagine if at the end of Season 3 of GoT that instead of what happened, we got as THE final scene: [SPOILERS AHEAD FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 3] The doors of the banquet hall close on our face just as Catelyn realizes Bolton is up to no good. We then hear the sudden sounds of clashing metal and screams to the tune of the Rains of Castamere, and the unseen carnage cuts to black, in which we’d then have to wait a year to find out what happened at the Red Wedding. [/ END SPOILERS]

Not to mention the simple fact that it’s THE WALKING GODDAMN DEAD. People are gonna come back anyway, regardless of what happened. So there’s that.

Selling Negan’s weight as a villain required that exclamation point of Abraham or Glenn’s death to work, not only to show us how serious a threat he was, but to put a tragic face on Rick’s hubris that literally gets beaten into the gravel. And to the excuse I kept hearing from Gimple, Kirkman and the rest, that “Who died?” was the central question propelling Season 7’s storyline, I simply say this, now that we’ve seen the premiere and confirmed that it is indeed the case, why was that the only way to effectively get the point across?

Contrary to Negan’s assertion, I argue that there WAS a Door Number 4 here. If you’d given us Abraham’s heroic death at the end of Season 6, we could mourn the loss of a major character and then begin speculating, as any good cliffhanger will inspire one to do, about where Rick and company go in the immediate aftermath, how the death impacts this character or that, if the nightmare is even over yet, etc. etc. All interesting, thought-provoking questions that stoke REAL discussion and story possibilities. Then you could’ve come back after a summer of emotional decompression, had the REAL kick to the nuts ie. the catalyzing death of Glenn as it was depicted in the premiere, and you’d have pretty much the same episode with the same goal accomplished. That way you also give Abraham some respect as a sacrifice before you shock us with Glenn, and let him take center stage as HE deserved, without overshadowing the loss of Abraham like they did here. Simple and hard to fuck up... but they did. Hell, even making last season’s finale into the penultimate episode and this premiere as the Season 6 finale would’ve been a better choice as well. Whattaya know? A Door Number 5!

Anyway. Enough armchair booking, I suppose. What’s done is done, like I said. Kirkman and Gimple are no hacks, and I have to believe that they’ve learned their lesson for the most part. But all of this essentially brings me back to the disease at the source of The Walking Dead’s most frequent creative problems that I vowed to call out earlier – that the show’s become caught up in its own hype machine of ratings, blatant trolling for fan reaction and overall manipulation of comic book fans’ expectations. The latter is becoming the biggest problem, I feel. Viewers who haven’t read the comics were robbed of a genuinely shocking, heartbreaking moment that I’m thankful I got to have as a reader, where the buildup and the payoff worked together to haunt me for days. By taking away the impact of a major character’s death at the end of that scene for first-time viewers who had no idea what was coming with Lucille, the writers basically deferred to TV gimmickry of the “Who shot JR?” Dallas era, instead of treating the moment with the grim immediacy it deserved.

Not cool, AMC. NOT cool.

I want this show to succeed creatively, even as it continues rolling along as a commercial juggernaut. And for the most part, I think it has. Missteps aside, and despite my previous comments, Gimple’s run as showrunner has given the show its best run of content from Season 4 to 5, and it’s only in the last that things have started slipping up with several character and plot experiments that simply did not work, in my opinion (see also: The Glenn Dumpster Debacle). There’s so much material to work with going forward into the All-Out War storyline, and I only hope Gimple and the rest can resist their worst urges for pointless cliffhangers and other gimmicks that can seriously undercut the emotional impact of upcoming iconic scenes. One such scene that comes to mind is a tragic, revelatory event that brutally kicks off the post-Negan storyline in the comics, which, while I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, I can easily see being turned into another terrible cliffhanger if they do it wrong. And since they’ve already proven they can fumble the ball when it counts the most, it bears mentioning.

If the past week has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t simply assume that the best outcome will occur just because it seems like a foregone conclusion that better sense will prevail. But no. It doesn’t work like that, Rick. Not anymore. The Negan introduction and the shocking death of a series mainstay was a potentially defining moment that was destined to elevate The Walking Dead into the pantheon of great gut-punch climaxes alongside the Red Wedding. But alas, decisions were made, whether by Kirkman, Gimple and the writers or the focus-group-conscious execs at AMC, that undermined what should’ve been the season finale to end all season finales.

Because the Whisperers are coming, sooner or later. And whether they make an impact as large as comics Negan did or if they’re destined for the same missed opportunity of TV Negan remains to be seen.

Because Negan himself said it best - THINK about what HAPPENED...

...and what could STILL happen.

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