There is currently no show on television more plagued by social media spoilers than THE WALKING DEAD, but the latter half of the now-complete sixth season was somewhat of a different beast. Whether you’ve read all the comics or never held an issue in your hand, it was all but promised to us right off the bat (no pun intended!) that villain Negan was going to make his presence known at the end of the season finale, which was confirmed when the casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan was announced and the character was subsequently teased in the episode’s trailer. Also promised? Negan was going to brutally murder one of the show’s beloved heroes. It wasn’t a spoiler so much as it was an anticipated fact.
On Sunday, April 3rd, Negan DID kill someone… we just don’t know who. And the fact that we don’t know who, well, it highlights a handful of problems that seem to continually pop up in the world of THE WALKING DEAD. For starters, the show often doesn’t have the balls to actually go ahead and kill off major characters, but even more problematically, the writers have recently become far too comfortable with cliffhangers. Of course, one could argue that cliffhangers are an inherent part of weekly television, and indeed they are, but the cliffhangers in THE WALKING DEAD tend to be downright insulting.
Before I go any further, I must establish that I’m one of the biggest fans and supporters of THE WALKING DEAD you’ll come across, and if you’re asking me, the second half of Season 6 has played host to some of the show’s very best episodes to date. The slow and steady build to Negan’s arrival has been nothing short of exceptional television, and watching our heroes go to darker places than ever before has taken the series to a whole new level of compelling. Knowing that the season was going to end with Negan changing the game in a more powerful way than ever before, it was almost hard to watch Rick and company exhibit such over-confidence in their abilities throughout the season, and I can’t think of a more intense and genuinely horrifying TV moment than the look on Rick’s face when he realized he had been underestimating Negan and his Saviors. That moment worked so well, make no mistake, because the season did such an incredible job building to that point – and nobody can take that away from it.
THE WALKING DEAD, right now, is undeniably at the top of its game. And that’s why it’s so frustrating that the show’s writers have been continually undermining their own brilliance, squandering game-changing moments of true horror by playing it safe and trying to make sure we keep tuning in. Remember when we saw Glenn get torn apart by zombies, only to be told a few weeks later that we didn’t see what we thought we saw? How about when both Daryl and Carol, in Season 6’s penultimate episode, were left dangling off similar cliffs? All of the above were cheap and desperate bids to hold our interest from week-to-week, but none more offensive and outrage-inducing than Negan’s POV murder of… someone. We’ll have to wait until October to find out who he killed, and if you’re not annoyed by that, especially in the wake of the Glenn situation earlier in the season, well, you damn sure should be.
The bigger issue here is not simply that we, the audience, were robbed of a moment we deserved to see this past Sunday night, but that Negan, the character, was robbed of the epic introduction that he kind of needed. Mind you, Negan’s extended monologue, wherein he reduced Rick and his badass team to frightened victims, ensured that the character is already the most evil and terrifying villain in the show’s history – a testament to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s acting abilities, if there ever was one – but imagine how much more impactful his arrival would’ve been if we actually saw him kill one of the characters we’ve come to love. Is that kill going to have the same impact when we return to that moment, six months from now? And wouldn’t it be a much more compelling cliffhanger if we saw what happened and then had to wait six months to find out how Rick and the rest of the group were going to deal with what Negan had done? I don’t know about you, but I’d be more eager to tune in for that come October than the reveal of who was killed off – a question that in all likelihood, thanks to the spoiler-filled nature of the internet, will be answered long before the seventh season even has a chance to answer it for us.
Considering the fact that THE WALKING DEAD is one of the highest-rated shows in cable history, with a rabid base of fans who are going to tune in no matter what, it’s even more confounding that the writers feel the need to resort to cheap tricks and deceptive gags. If Negan’s POV kill was the first time this sort of thing happened on the show I’d be willing to forgive, and perhaps even praise it, but in the wake of Glenn’s dumpster trick and Daryl’s deceiving gunshot wound, it’s getting to the point where I’m quite frankly getting tired of the lack of respect the show keeps exhibiting for all of us who watch on a regular basis. Rather than establishing that anything can happen at any time, and anyone can die at any time, the show keeps on banging it into our heads that nothing is ever really going to happen, and nobody is ever really going to die. So why should we be scared of Negan? Why should we be invested in any of it?
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m giving up on the show, because it’s been good enough in recent months that I’d be a fool to throw in the towel now, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder how many more of these lame stunts I can continue to look past. Great television is being put on the back-burner in favor of cliffhangers designed to greedily (and unnecessarily) boost the ratings, and when you start to feel like the carrots being dangled in front of your face are never actually going to be fed to you, it becomes harder and harder to care. If some people are indeed giving up in the wake of Season 6’s finale, I really can’t blame them, because the show is almost begging us to stop respecting it.
THE WALKING DEAD’s cliffhangers aren’t the kind that make you want to tune in next week/next season. They’re the kind that make you want to STOP tuning in. And if the show has any uphill battle to fight, going forward, it’s in regaining the trust of fans like myself. A good deal of damage has been done, especially this past Sunday night, but here’s hoping that Season 7 washes the bad taste of the Season 6 finale out of our months. Not simply because I want it to, but more importantly because it NEEDS to.
For now, we wait.
*All Photos: AMC Networks