Season 6 of “The Walking Dead” ended terribly last Sunday night, with a gimmicky, redundant, cartoonishly filmed cliffhanger that seemed like a power trip for the show’s writers and a shameless trick to ensure ratings for the Season 7 premiere. Even that blunder, however, can only partially mar an otherwise great season of television; I’d still give the sixth season a 9 out of 10.
Seriously, Sunday night’s closing minutes were a big disappointment. We did not — I repeat, we did NOT — get to see which of our heroes would fall victim to new arch-villain Negan and his barbed-wire baseball bat, “Lucille.” (I don’t think that I’m writing a spoiler here, as I’m informing the reader of an event that was not yet depicted.) We get to see the dramatic and frightening events leading up our heroes’ capture — overall, the episode was pretty good, I think. And we get to see some iconic images and hear dialogue that we remember from the original comic series. And we finally get to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan appear as the new big-bad, something the show’s marketing suggests AMC believed fans would be happy with alone.
But the season ended with a cheesy point-of-view shot of the nameless individual who Negan executes, then a black screen along with the muffled screaming and shouting of those protagonists who are left to witness their friend’s murder. (Check Youtube — some pretty ardent fans have actually analyzed the sounds and provided subtitles, supposedly providing clues as to who the victim was.) And the manner in which it was filmed was kitsch — it reminded me of the over-the-top POV shots employed by Sam Raimi.
I think this is poor storytelling. The Saviors storyline has been building for at least half a season (earlier if you consider the first encounter with Dwight), and the death of one of our heroes was the universally expected, logical conclusion of that. The cliffhanger also felt like a little bit of a “f*&% you” to the fans. The show’s creators know that its viewership was so eagerly anticipating an answer to the million-dollar question — “who dies?” And they showed us that not only have they enjoyed stringing us along, they’re going to enjoy gratuitously stringing us along for another seven months until Season Seven.
And, hey, it looks as though this parsimonious storytelling will be the case with tie-in promotions as well. I read today over at Hollywood Reporter that Robert Kirkman has produced a 48-page comic containing Negan’s backstory. As you may read at the link below, however, only four pages at a time will be made available to fans, as they are released monthly in a comics preview catalog, “Image +.” (And I’m unclear about whether readers will have to pay for that.) C’mon. Gimme a break:
Furthermore, the final scene was a little problematic in other ways. I liked Morgan’s performance, but I he didn’t knock my socks off as he apparently did for other fans. The monologue scripted for him was far too long. Much of it is lifted from the comics; I think that a lot of it did not translate well from page to screen.
Finally, the cliffhanger was redundant — didn’t the season’s penultimate episode also tease a major character death in its final seconds, employing a cheap visual trick to obscure this person’s fate?
Ah, well. Like I said, I think Season 6 actually was stellar. We hardcore fans tend to criticize our show a lot (hence my bitching above). Our criticisms are often well deserved, but I think we might have been spoiled a bit by “The Walking Dead.” After six years, five of which were downright addictive, it’s easy to lose sight of how groundbreaking the show has been.
There has never been anything else like it on television. The fact that it’s the first real zombie apocalypse serialized horror show is obvious, along with its new levels of gore, pathos and goddam amazing makeup effects. But think also about its breadth and scope — since Season One, I think it’s gone to great lengths to tell an epic story. Budget constraints — including a limited range of shooting locations in rural southern Georgia — restrict it somewhat. But like no other show before it, it portrays a horrifying apocalypse from the points of view of a very broad and constantly changing ensemble of characters.
Sometimes this broad and changing ensemble works against the show. I think one of its weaknesses is that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a well crafted, deliberate story at all, but rather a kind of “reality show” like “Survivor” (2000 – 2016). Instead of watching in suspense to see who is “voted off the island,” we instead watch in suspense to see whether our favorite fictional character meets a grisly end. I wouldn’t be surprised if people placed bets. (I’ve heard that people indeed used to bet on “Survivor” in Las Vegas.) Consequently, it feels more like bread-and-circuses than real meaningful storytelling within a post-apocalyptic context.
But “The Walking Dead” still manages to be damned good. Early on in Season 6, I commented to another fan that the show actually seems to be getting better. It’s getting smarter, with more ideas, and greater attention to detail. I honestly get the sense that its writers sit down and think about the plausibility and logistics of various elements of this imaginary world.
It has essentially become a war story, even when it’s often just a neverending war of attrition with a universal enemy. The writers grasp this, and they pick up the ball and run with it. Attention is paid to strategy, logistics, leadership, morale, levels of training and commitment — Rick’s grand plan to lead the newly released “herd” away from Alexandria in the season’s earliest episodes is a great example of this.
And there is far more world-building. Based on my familiarity with the comic book series, I recently advised another fan that the entire structure of the show would change. Instead of people moving place to place and negotiating the various threats there, we now see stationary groups of survivors either fighting or cooperating with one another’s societies — something we’ve previously only really seen with The Prison vs. Woodbury. This creates a range of larger, more layered and interesting storytelling possibilities. And there are more enclaves even than we’ve seen so far. (I’m trying to keep this spoiler free.)
Complementing this new change in story structure are elements of the show that seem to have improved even further. The action and suspense have increased greatly. I found myself on the edge of my seat during a few episodes — the one that comes to mind is when our heroes invade the satellite station.
The horror elements are new and stronger. Story arcs involving the Wolves were extremely unsettling. (I myself wanted far more of that bizarre little clutch of psychopaths. Are they a cult? Do they have a coherent ideology?) The Saviors, whose survival skills and competence match or exceed Rick’s group, are frightening, especially for those of us who are already acquainted with them through the comics.
I even find I like the show’s drama better in this and recent seasons — more so than in the show’s early years. Yes, the sad, unsupported, inexplicable recent character change in Carol was a disastrous choice. And Abraham’s love triangle was a mostly inscrutable nod to the comics. But there were a lot of other good things to be found this season — Morgan’s backstory, Nicholas’ character arc, the arrival of Jesus and the outcome with Denise.
All told, it was a great season. Maybe someday a DVD special edition can rectify its final minutes, and supply a necessary face for Negan’s anonymous victim. Hey, the show obviously wants to milk each cow for all it’s worth, right?