“Sucks, don’t it? The moment you realize you don’t know shit.”
What Negan says to Rick in those final, nerve-wracking minutes of The Walking Dead’s sixth season finale, just before he finally swings Lucille straight into a mystery character’s skull, could double as a direct taunt to viewers left dumbfounded by yet another surprise cliffhanger.
“Cliffhanger,” of course, now being this show’s official code for “troll.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan made his anxiously awaited debut as the zombie apocalypse’s ultimate supervillain at the end of what had been a slow-burn mindfuck of an hour. Like Negan’s sinister game of “eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” the episode’s emotional peaks seemed to make Lucille’s wrath inevitable for one character then another, inducing heightened levels of dread with every new possible target.
At one point, Abraham’s dopey talk of having children with Sasha made him seem ripe for skull-bashing. In other moments, it was Eugene who seemed doomed, especially after he volunteered himself to lead the Saviors away from the team in the RV. (Throw in one surprisingly touching man-hug between the two and either death would have been painful.)
Maggie and even left-field choices like Carl suddenly seemed entirely possible in those tense, sweaty moments before Negan swung the bat. And then, of course, there was Glenn, who had two seasons’ worth of foreshadowing, an ill-fated comic book alter ego, and a dangerous, last-minute outburst working against him.
But no matter who Negan killed, if the show had truly meant to deliver the powerful, “sickening” paradigm shift cast members and producers have been promising for months (conveniently omitting the “in October” caveat), audiences should know whose skull just got bashed in.
Instead, a half-season of constant Negan talk, both onscreen and off, sputtered out in a half-ending that felt too transparently designed to deprive anyone the satisfaction of having predicted the big death. At worst, it was another cynical ploy that came at the cost of good storytelling.
It’s especially a shame that, apart from the copout ending, the episode wasn’t half bad. The Saviors’ mind games, escalating from a simple roadblock to a nauseatingly creepy chain of zombies adorned with Michonne’s hair and Daryl’s arrows, were genuinely unsettling. The episode’s climax, in which our heroes walked directly into the Saviors’ trap despite their clever plan to misdirect, began with a jolt and maintained an agonizing, ever-intensifying sense of dread throughout.
Melissa McBride and Lennie James, two of the show’s most gifted actors, remained stuck in Carol and Morgan’s killing vs. no-killing debate that has finally, mercifully resolved itself after a whole season. Disappointingly, the show ultimately had nothing more interesting to say about their opposing philosophies than the simple fact that even someone like Morgan can be pushed to kill under desperate enough circumstances—a point the show has already proven time and again. (Remember Farmer Rick?)
You gotta hand it to Andrew Lincoln, though, who does more than all the discordant violins and Savior whistles in the world to create a sense of panic-inducing imbalance in the episode's climax. Rick lately has been all bravado and confidence in the face of his enemies—and, unwittingly or not, viewers have been trained to look to his face to gauge danger in a crisis. Here, for the first time in years, Rick looks like someone backed into a corner, ghost-pale, mouth agape and sweaty as hell. Nothing does more to convey the gravity of the situation than that.
It all simmers and pops with palpable tension until Negan unleashes his final monologue, overly long but delivered with unnervingly cavalier charm. Finally, he chooses a victim—and then the camera switches to a first-person viewpoint, concealing the victim's identity and dragging out speculation over this one damn scene for another six months.
Showrunner Scott Gimple has tried likening the episode’s ending to a legendary Lost finale, in which characters finally opened a mysterious hatch at the end of the first season. But where that Lost cliffhanger inspired wonder and wild speculation—literally anything could have been inside that hatch; this was a show that believed in smoke monsters and tropical polar bears—The Walking Dead’s cliffhanger comes after it’s already worn viewer patience dangerously thin.
Negan’s entrance comes just one episode after another cliffhanger, when Dwight shot Daryl and coated the camera with blood just before a fade to black. That episode was driven by maddening, out-of-character irrationality, with Carol and Daryl hurling themselves into harm’s way for the sole sake of giving other characters someone to rescue. Season 6 was also the season of major death fake-outs, most infamously involving Glenn and a Dumpster—a stunt that also included a craven attempt at misleading the audience by removing Steven Yeun’s name from the opening credits.
Finally revealing who Negan chooses to kill in the most-hyped Walking Dead moment in recent history was a chance to make good on all the rest—to assure us that, despite the season’s ham-fisted narrative lows, the show would deliver in the end. Instead, that big final death will remain a secret in order to…ensure that viewers tune in in October? Finally get people to shut up about Jon Snow? Like I said: cynical.
All this is to say: Don’t mislead your audience. If a show’s cast and creators do endless rounds of press teasing a “shocker” of a season finale, then go on and deliver one hell of a shocker. Don’t save your show’s biggest secret for off-season paparazzi to reveal. (Just ask Jon Snow how that turned out.) And certainly never take for granted that audiences will continue to tune in, even as they increasingly feel they’re being manipulated and strung along.
Your show may have won the guessing game for now, but everybody loses in the end.