For this post I had to break out the ole blog. Yes. Spoilers exist below.
The problem with The Walking Dead‘s season finale was that everyone knew what was coming. The surprise was not that a major cast member was going to die because that fact had been teased throughout the season. Tension wasn’t built on the possibility of getting caught by The Saviors because we knew they would be. It wasn’t about getting to Hilltop because we knew they wouldn’t. The entire season was leading to this moment – this terrible tragedy which may or may not mirror the comic book. It needed to happen and we needed to see it, find out who would die, and how this close family would react.
But we were cheated.
The challenge for the writers was to pick a spot to end the episode where the questions of the summer would be
“How will they go on from here without…X?”
“How will they ever beat Negan and his Saviors?”
“Can Alexandria survive this new world order?”
Instead they opted to leave us hanging on the “who” which is the weakest dramatic element of the scene.
For those of you who live with a firewall between the show and the comic, Issue 100 represents the pivotal event in this episode. The issue did not end before the reveal. Oh no. Negan’s violence was depicted with a Sam Peckinpah level of cosmic indifference. Negan straight up killed a member of the inner circle – a character beloved as much by readers as the characters themselves – and it became one of the most powerful graphic novel moments in many years. Negan’s introduction was part of a larger demonstration of power and about order under the boot of The Saviors. Not only did the murder shock us with the victim’s identity, but showed us that Negan was something new to this universe. He wasn’t The Governor 2.0 but the kind of violent psychopath who could lead an army of Governors. Or destroy one. By dragging us through Glenn‘s murder with graphic close-ups and reaction shots the message of the book was clear – The Rules Have Changed. The aftermath set up the new world of The Walking Dead for years to come.
That new world is a more interesting concept to explore than the question of living or dying because The Walking Dead TV series has made death random and sometimes meaningless. With so many characters fading into the background for weeks at a time, investing ourselves emotionally or intellectually with their stories becomes harder to do. As each random attack kills off supporting characters before the natural resolution of their stories, viewers learn not to expect closure from anything they set up in the future.
Take the budding relationship between Tara and Denise as an example. Denise is an interesting character. Not only does she find the courage to become Alexandria’s doctor/surgeon, but she allows herself to indulge her feelings for Tara. This arc is explained in short interludes that force the writers to tell rather than show the change. When Denise goes outside the walls we know enough to predict she won’t be coming back. When she finds the magic soda – token of her quest to find an offering of love – we pretty much know what’s about to happen. And it does. Aside from Rosita staring ruefully at the site of Denise’s death last night, there has been no fallout from her death, certainly nothing of note from Tara. What we learned is that Denise found her courage and motivation through love – and got a crossbow bolt through the head for it. Wuh-wahhhhh.
The inside “joke” is that this was how Abraham died in the comic down to the “power of love” speech. The show even set up the ruse by putting Abraham and Eugene in the same situation leading up to the former’s death but flipped it. The TV series does that a lot. The difference is that Abraham’s story was at an end. Denise and Tara’s was just getting started. On television, death is nothing but a cast change.
The comic, on the other hand, does an amazing job of setting up and propelling subplots with characters who have clear arcs and conflicts to resolve. They become neighbors in a larger, extended community who can disappear for several issues because their immediate story is done. When they die, even if it is a random attack, they have banked that history with the reader who still feels the loss because of that connection. The recent slaughter of “random” citizens by Alpha of The Whisperers worked so well because some of the heads on spikes were of characters we’ve known for years.
In a show where people die on a weekly basis and are forgotten shortly after, Negan’s new world needed to steamroll a character and prevent anyone from mourning. It needed to give that fated character its moment to react, to fight, to die in his or her unique way. Glenn’s final thoughts in the comic were of Maggie, even as his brains were crushed he called for her. With Daryl it might be ultimate denial of Negan’s authority. With Abraham, fighting inevitable death with the last ounce of his strength. Whatever it was, it needed to be a moment of horror swept away by the greater horror of Negan’s cruelty and complete domination of Alexandria.
For the episode to work Negan needed to martyr someone but also force that grief down into hiding. He promised to kill one but any one of the survivors might be next if they disobeyed. In a departure from the comic, the entire group rides into Alexandria at dawn, pillage the place, and leave with them completely defeated, broken, and helpless. As a final reminder and symbol of that defeat, the remains of the executed are hung high in front of the gate with orders not to remove them under threat of retaliation. No closure, no burial, just a rotting reminder that Negan is watching. Imagine ending the season with the image of Negan’s gang leaving Alexandria, dust rising into the air over the suspended body of Glenn or Daryl or Carl or Michonne or Rosita or Maggie or Eugene or Aaron or Sasha or even Rick.
That final insult becomes both the symbol of the survivors’ defeat and their motivation to fight back. They, and we the audience, have the entire summer to plan how.
However it played out, Lucille needed to come down hard no later than the 60 minute mark and the aftermath played out in Alexandria for the remaining 30. If Carl survived, he might be seen hiding in the truck with a rifle like he did in the comics, depriving Rick of that last ounce of security in returning to his family. We could have seen citizens of Alexandria loaded up on trucks to be taken away, giving us the first signs of Dwight’s deeply buried conflict. Something had to happen to make viewers invest in some kind of hope for next season because right now, it’s pretty bleak. And for The Walking Dead, you can only be bleak for so long before viewers grow numb.
But then, it’s easy for me to be the critic. I have no idea what challenges and issues had an impact on the story they wanted to tell. Maybe there’s an unsigned contract or two out there. Maybe the production isn’t sure about the direction of someone’s character. Who knows. Let’s just hope October makes up for what has been a trying and often tedious season.