One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead under showrunner Scott Gimple’s influence is that it has, more or less, eschewed the traditional narrative structure for a season of television. The storyline of the prison and The Governor seemed to be building to a finale at the end of Season 3, but then it didn’t really end until several episodes into Season 4. Afterward, the show embarked on its Wandering in the Wilderness/Terminus storyline that stretched from roughly the midpoint of Season 4 until the beginning of the Alexandria storyline in Season 5. Then that plotline, about our heroes discovering a new community and gradually integrating into it, reached its natural conclusion with this year’s mid-season premiere, where the Rick’s group and the town came together to defeat the zombies at the gates as a whole. Only then, did the current arc begin in earnest.
Which is to say that as Season 6 draws to a close, we’re not at either the end or the beginning of the Negan storyline; we’re in the middle. That’s admittedly a little strange. It’s a departure from the annual Big Bad structure that Buffy the Vampire Slayer established and many other shows adopted. And it’s even distinct from the trend started by The Wire and The Sopranos, where the real fireworks happen in the penultimate episode of a season, with the finale reserved for aftermath and reflection.
That idiosyncratic structure sometimes puts The Walking Dead in a difficult position. It means that the show’s season finales still have to feature big moments, but cannot simply be the climax of a major arc. It means that premieres must still set a tone for the season ahead, but must also remind the audience where we left off and cannot start a given story from the beginning. But truth be told, I like that tack, or at least I admire the ambition of it. It’s unorthodox; it’s just a hint avant-garde, and in a show that can struggle to distinguish itself from its peers despite big ratings, it gives the series unique storytelling rhythms that help it to stand out.
Which is why, perhaps, I’m not particularly bothered by the “Who Shot J.R.?” (or, for my generation, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”) quality of the cliffhanger in “Last Day on Earth.” Sure, it’s a cheap way to add intrigue to a season premiere that won’t happen for six or seven months, but it is, narratively speaking, just a bump in the road. I won’t deny that there’s something kind of silly about it, especially the POV-shot that makes it look like the viewer just lost a game of Goldeneye, but it’s just another death on a show that’s rife with them. Maybe it’ll be a major character. Maybe it’ll be the equivalent of the random racist lady dying in Arrested Development. Either way, I can stand to wait.
I understand the frustration though. From the fake out with Glenn earlier in the season, to last week’s awkwardly pasted-in non-fake out with Daryl, the show’s been bad about teasing the audience along these lines. A show can only place its significant characters in supposed peril, and then depict them escaping largely unscathed for so long before each new danger starts to feel like a perfunctory obstacle our heroes will inevitably leap over. But to that end, the success of the cliffhanger hinges much more on whether the show has the chutzpah to kill off a major character instead of someone much less essential like Aaron, than on the somewhat corny mechanism The Walking Dead uses to get there.
I’ve said before that I often like what TWD is trying to do much more than what it actually does, and “Last Day on Earth” is no exception. The episode is, in many ways, meant as an antidote to those complaints that our heroes are all too bulletproof. Rick seems to vocalize this when he reminds Maggie that her compatriots have all made it this far, and that they’ve proved that, as a group, they can find their way out of any bad situation.
There’s a blitheness to this sentiment, a quiet arrogance to the idea (also present in the group’s negotiations with the Hilltop) that there’s nothing out there they can’t handle. “Last Day on Earth” emphasizes how Rick feels as though he and his companions have tamed this wild land, that however hairy things may get, and however rocky the road that led them to this point, his people know what they’re doing now and can weather any storm. They’ve won. All there is to do now is protect what they have and plan for the future.
Then, the travelers in the RV hit roadblock after roadblock. Each time, the obstacle in their path has more soldiers, more guns, more horrors waiting for them. And each time, Rick has a plan. Rick always has a plan. Surely his scrappy band of survivors can find a way to outwit or outmuscle or outmaneuver these ruffians. After all, they always find a way out; it’s just what they do. Those Saviors don’t know who they’re screwing with, right Rick?
Slowly but surely, the episode reveals that The Saviors do, in fact, know exactly who they’re screwing with. And they’re better prepared, and better organized, and better armed. For once, Rick’s band of merry men–the same ones who sold the Hilltop on their combat abilities and decimated the Savior compound with their superior planning and skill–have run into a group of people who do exactly what they do, and do it better.
I like the disquiet of that, the sense that Rick & Co. are genuinely overmatched. It creates a sense that we may actually lose someone important in that final confrontation, that there may be a real cost to whatever the next step is. There’s a “can’t go over it; can’t go under it; gotta go through it” dilemma for our heroes for what feels like the first time in this series, and that’s both interesting and different.
The episode even doubles down on this idea with Eugene’s tearful farewell. That scene had all the trademarks of the usual Walking Dead trope, where one character sacrifices themself so that the others can go on and live to fight another day. “Last Day on Earth” sells the hell out of the misdirect: with the emotional goodbyes, the bullet recipe, and Eugene’s smile as drives away, all signifying the end point for his character’s arc toward newfound competence and redemption. It’s an easy way to suggest that Rick and his cohort are using their old tricks to outsmart their pursuers, and it would otherwise fit as the culmination of Eugene’s journey.
Instead, that old chestnut of a plan, employed in one form or another many times on the show, fails miserably. Eugene is captured; the rest of the group is rounded up afterward; and it turns out that The Saviors already had Daryl, Rosita, Michonne, and Glenn locked up and waiting the whole time anyway. The bad guys were always two steps ahead, and for once, with almost all of the show’s major characters assembled, our heroes are at a clear and distinct disadvantage, with enemies who’ve demonstrated that they’re capable rather than just crazy.
That’s a great idea; it just doesn’t work very well in practice. Many of the traps set for Rick’s gang seem fairly implausible, even if they make for cool visuals, a recurring issue on the show. Rick’s attempt to trade threats with Negan’s lieutenant at the first “checkpoint” had an awkward quality to it that made it reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s argument with George Bush Sr. over who wanted “trouble.” The episode didn’t quite impart that sense of foreboding it was clearly shooting for, with the awkward pacing and lack of real tension permeating the episode right up until the Eugene feint. And, as is very frequently the case on The Walking Dead (especially in finales), several characters offer action movie one-liners, or grand on-the-nose statements that call out the themes the series has been playing around with over the course of the season in an all-too-blunt fashion.
That problem extends to the Carol-Morgan storyline in the episode, which features the only pair of major characters on the show not caught up in Negan’s whistle-filled menace. The slow burn of Carol struggling with the weight of her past has been one of my favorite parts of Season 6, even if there have been several hiccups along the way. But we didn’t need to have her repeat that “you don’t get to choose, the world gets to choose” line. We didn’t need her begging for death to understand that she was hurting and wanted a way out. We didn’t need any number of other obvious exchanges or bluntly-employed devices to shake the audience by the shoulders and yell “Carol is not okay right now and here’s why!” at them. As always, Melissa McBride puts in a good performance, but the material doesn’t live up to it.
Despite that, I have hope for the story going forward. Morgan’s willingness to shoot someone, proving that even he will take a life so long as it’s the only way to save another, is more than a bit contrived as a turning point on Carol’s road to recovery. But I appreciated the way the show put the two characters together here. Morgan sequestering himself with a recalcitrant Carol, who now thinks the world has nothing for her, is a nice parallel to Morgan’s own encounter with Eastman in “Here’s Not Here”, the episode that introduced his new ethos. That philosophy of all life being sacred filtered through to Carol and led her to her current state of misery. But Morgan is there to help her find the other half of it, a half that The Walking Dead is all too miserly with — healing.
“Here’s Not Here” stood out as one of the few times this show has depicted someone recovering from the pain and hardships this new world imposes. Morgan’s journey wasn’t merely “death as redemption.” It wasn’t some miraculous realization about becoming a better person. It was the story of how one man found his way back from the edge of despair, little by little, until he could go on once more.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve never had a problem with Morgan’s pacifism on the show, despite the obvious problems with that mindset in his current circumstances. It was never meant to be a practical philosophy for Morgan. It was meant to be a way for him to cope with the loss of his wife and son. In that, it succeeds, and with any luck, he can continue Eastman’s work and help Carol find a bit of peace as well.
But peace doesn’t seem to be on deck for the rest of the group. If there’s one thing to say in favor of “Last Day on Earth”, it’s that Jeffrey Dean Morgan lives up to the big introduction his character has received throughout Season 6. He chews the scenery and adds a malevolent charm that makes him feel like everything The Governor was intended to be but never quite achieved. His monologue devolved into a few clichés–this is still The Walking Dead after all–but he was an absolutely commanding and mesmerizing presence who lived up to his billing, which is no small feat given how the mystique of Negan was built up over the course of the season.
And yet, his presence crescendos in an act meant to exemplify the very obvious theme of the episode — that in this world, your life can end in a second, and just when you think you have it all figured out, when you think you’re safe and can start planning and building toward a new tomorrow, death can still strike; random chance can still deal you a losing hand, and your entire world can still be turned upside down.
It’s an idea that The Sopranos touched on in a much more subtle, artful fashion. But that’s The Walking Dead in a nutshell — taking its cues from the best of prestige television, trying to infuse the show with big themes and rumination on serious issues, only to lose the plot in cornball dialogue, puzzling story directions, and the occasional stunt that leaves the fanbase gnashing its teeth.
So we enter another interregnum between seasons, wondering who lives and who dies, who rises to the occasion and who falters, and how our heroes will get out of this year’s pickle. Because, once again, we’re in the middle of the story. It’s a story about Rick and company kicking the hornet’s nest that is The Saviors, but it’s also a story of the show itself.
The Walking Dead is a series that leaves us perpetually in the middle, always wondering when it will trust its audience to understand the intended points without having characters scream them at us, when it will string together a nice streak of quality episodes rather than a persistent sense of “two steps forward and one step back,” when it will be more than just an impressively produced collection of zombie kills with the patina of depth behind them, and when it will stop being a pretty good show and start becoming a great one. As the show concludes its sixth season, a point where some of the best series in television history ended their runs, it becomes apparent that we’ll be waiting forever, that this is simply what the show is — an endless parade of middles.
I suppose I’ll be back in the fall then, complaining about how small the portions are.