In the most recent installment of the most excellent "Doctor of the Dead" podcast, Arnold Blumberg addressed speculation rampant among internet fans of THE WALKING DEAD that the series' season 6 finale would build to a climax featuring the first appearance of the archvillain Negan, who would swing his infamous barbed-wire-wrapped bat, everything would go black and viewers wouldn't know who had been killed by him until next season. Arnold suggested this would be an example of quality dramatic television, providing a cliffhanger that would keep people talking. I disagreed with this assessment when I first heard it a few days ago and after that exact sequence of events played out on tonight's ep ("The Last Day On Earth"), I still do.
I am, to be sure, all about good cliffhangers, something TWD has never pulled off, and this seemed an obvious one--that's why everyone thought it would happen. The problem with using it here is really the season that precedes it. Season 6 has crept along at a pace that makes snails look like Indy contenders. This has been the most filler-packed season of TWD since the Mazzara era, to the point that most of what we're shown just feels like something ginned up and tacked on to delay events until something else happens down the line. From the moment Negan's bikers turned up, everyone has been waiting for the man himself. At the time, I wrote that as slow as this season has been, Negan probably won't even show up until the last ep, only to be informed by another poster that this, reportedly, was exactly what TWD's creators were going to do. And it's what they did, which brings me back to my disagreement with Arnold. When the direction of a series becomes so obvious one can predict it with that precision many episodes out, the creators of that series are doing something to which one can legitimately affix many descriptions but "quality television" definitely isn't one of them.
A lot of TWD fans are going to disagree with Arnold as well but for different reasons. The audience has been waiting for a payoff and if the creators are going to throw this extreme an amount of filler at them, there must eventually be one. Viewers waded through the molasses-in-winter slog of the first 8 eps in order to get to a payoff in the midseason finale that never came. The last several episodes have been nothing more than standard TWD delaying actions aimed at getting events to that final moment and, in fact, that's all tonight's ep was as well. And then--yet again--there's no payoff. I don't really care who Negan may or may not have killed. I don't approve of TWD fans who seem to derive such a disproportionate share of their enjoyment of the series from the question of who will be killed next--I've always yearned for a TWD to which people look forward for other reasons, like quality storytelling--and I don't feel sorry for them being denied the blood they crave by tonight's ep but in the context of this season, it's hard not to view this particular cliffhanger as just another example of TWD perpetually setting up, setting up, setting up and never coming through with anything. No climax, just another delaying action that can't help but feel a lot like the writers are mocking their viewers, as they have throughout this season. More significantly, it robs one of the most powerful moments from the comic of most of its dramatic impact.
Tonight's ep begins with a moment that seems absolutely surreal. Everyone at the safe zone knows the Saviors are out there and that they have designs on their town but last week, all of the town's best fighters decided to leave on various missions, leaving the town wide open for attack. Tonight, Maggie is experiencing what may be a miscarriage and needs to see the doctor from Hilltop. Taking her there is a two-man job, maybe three if a second automobile is involved (and there should be a second). Instead, Rick and nearly all of the town's best fighters load into one vehicle, the RV, and leave town again, and as the viewer stares at the screen in utter disbelief trying to absorb this turn of events, Rick then opts to leave the defense of the town in the hands of the cowardly, backstabbing slug Father Gabriel! It sounds like the plot of a Saturday Night Live spoof of TWD. The writers wanted those characters present for the climax and damn every logical consideration, they just wrote it that way.
On the way to Hilltop, Rick and co. encounter a Savior roadblock. In the pre-credit sequence, this particular group of baddies had hunted down a fellow, the lone survivor of a group that had resisted them, and said they were going to make him an example of what happens when one defies Negan. An example for whom, he asks? Everyone else in his group has already been killed. As it turns out, he's to serve as an example for Rick and here, the ep runs into a major plot-hole. What I've just described takes place before Rick and co. had even left the safe zone--absent the power of clairvoyance, the Saviors have no way of knowing they would be leaving the zone that day and no way of knowing they'll be coming up that road yet there they are, before the RV has even departed, waiting in the road for it.[see Update below] This becomes an even bigger hole as the ep proceeds.
Hold that thought.
When the RV comes to the roadblock, Rick handles the matter very badly. Mr. I Don't Take Chances Anymore steps out with his hands raised and tries to talk! "We can make a deal right here, right now." The Savior leader tells him the "deal" is going to be taking everything he has and killing one of his people. Rick's force outnumbers them and shooting them down would not only be a simple matter but should be the immediate reaction--Maggie isn't getting any healthier. Because the writers still have most of a 90-minute ep to fill, Rick instead just opts to back away and leave. The bulk of that 90-minute ep is then filled by having Rick's group attempt alternate routes to Hilltop only to encounter increasingly elaborate and well-manned roadblocks. They try a different way, they run into a different roadblock, repeat, right up to the last few minutes (with plenty of bad speeches in between). There are six roadblocks in all and some of them would have taken quite some time to prepare. Fear those clairvoyant Saviors--THEY KNOW YOUR FUTURE!
The b-plot involved Morgan continuing to search for and soon finding Carol. She's injured and he wants to take her back to town for treatment but she's having none of that. They make speeches to one another and Carol runs away. She ends up being attacked by the last survivor of that group of thugs she shot two weeks ago (yeah, this has been dragging on that long). The guy has had a bullet in his lung for hours but he seems to be gifted with TWD's magical healing powers and is still spry enough to walk around, talk, even power-tackle Carol then outwrestle her. He has the idea of shooting her full of holes until she dies but then Morgan shows up and, having randomly decided to abandon his "all life is precious" philosophy, kills the fellow, perhaps removing that countdown clock from his own head.
When Rick's group is finally captured and meets Negan, Rick reverts to one of his uber-wimp personalities and falls to pieces. There's no trace of any brave leader here--he's weeping, visibly scared to death and won't even look his tormentor in the eye. It isn't an unique display--he behaved the same way back in season 4 when Woodbury 2.0 turned up at his fence--but it's no easier to stomach here than it was then. For all the grief I've given TWD over the years, I almost always spared the actors. No matter how badly they come off--really, really badly, at times--I've always suspected their more wince-inducing moments are much more a consequence of the wretched material they're being given. Andrew Lincoln's Rick in tonight's ep makes me wonder if perhaps I've gone too easily on them.
Overall, TWD season 6 was a spectacular failure. As I've written before, it has become pretty clear that with season 5, TWD entered the stuck-around-way-too-long seasons through which every long-running show seems to stumble when the creators are shot but the ratings are still high enough to keep drawing renewals. This season saw the writers committing major character assassinations of
both Carol and Morgan, two characters who were previously quite
popular. The writing was sloppier than usual--big, obvious plot-holes abounded, subplots were introduced then never taken anywhere, etc. Every ep featured
situations in which the writers seemed to be openly mocking their
viewers and the sheer amount of this was a new development and a sign that the series is on its last legs. Perhaps anticipating the lower ratings this season would draw--if I could do this, the professionals AMC employed certainly could--the series began to lean on gimmicks: the big zombie herd; the scene with Negan's bikers, which came from the second half of the season, was released immediately after the midseason finale; Glenn was fake-killed in order to cause an internet firestorm. The amount of underwriting and filler was off the charts. As little happened per ep as possible and every turn of the plot was made dependent upon the characters being written as idiots. This was a throwback to the bad ol' days of the Mazzara era--a complete waste of space.
 IOn the Walking Dead board of the Internet Movie Database, which I frequent.
 I've done this here and elsewhere many times--it's no trick.
 Tv TWD has always shied away from the harsher elements of the comic; it wouldn't surprise me if we're never shown this murder at all and only get details about it in retrospect.
UPDATE (Mon., 11 April, 2016) - I looked at the ep's opening again and this is a slightly inaccurate recounting of the order of events. The RV is, in fact, shown departing the safe zone before we see the Saviors waiting in the road. This doesn't really change anything though because the Saviors hunted down that fellow they intended to turn into an example before the RV had left and when, after roughing him up a bit, they dragged him up on to the road, they already had their vehicles blocking it. The whole multii-roadblock thing was done to specifically impress Rick, the safe zone leader, yet they'd set up their roadblock and hunted down their victim before they knew anyone, much less Rick, had left to go anywhere.
Some readers have suggested the Savors could have just been watching the safe zone and radioed ahead but that's not a tenable explanation unless this theoretical spy had the benefit of clairvoyance or time-travel equipment. The Saviors wanted Rick but if they had such a theoretical spy in place, Rick and Morgan had left town earlier that same day (in the previous ep) and that would have been the time to nab him with minimal fuss, after which they could have just gone back to town and outlined, before its entire population, the way things were going to work from now on.