NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of “The Walking Dead” are present in this review
How much can Negan carry The Walking Dead? That was put to the test in the Season Six finale, which was purely structured to introduce Negan, in a grand, self-indulgent ceremony of what’s to come in Season Seven this Fall. I will say that the wait for Negan is worth it, and that’s the main strength of the episode, which has a standout climax that is only ruined by a cop-out ending that is somehow worse than the cop-out ending from the Season Five finale. If you came for Negan, then you will have a grand entrance worthy of the arch-villain. It’s just too bad that almost every other element of this episode wasn’t very good.
This season, while still mostly well-received, has been criticized quite a bit by critics and fans alike for its overuse of pointless suspense, infuriating fan manipulation, and an overall uneven episode quality. As much as Season Six has managed more high points than the somewhat disappointing Season Five, it’s also continued to suffer from frustrating low points like these, which continue to be on full display in this season finale. Before I dive into the episode proper, I want to point out that, after doing some thinking about where The Walking Dead is getting its recent bad habits from, I think I’ve identified the culprit; Talking Dead. It feels like AMC is trying way too hard to create material for Talking Dead over the past couple of seasons of The Walking Dead, resulting in pointless, frustrating and illogically unresolved story elements, simply so its tie-in talk show has something to gab about.
Sadly, “Last Day on Earth” feels far too transparent with its designs, not only to whip up Talking Dead into a frenzy with the long-awaited introduction of Negan, but also to get fans hyped for Season Seven. That’s well and good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of Season Six rapidly running out of gas, only to give way to an awesome Season Seven setup that nonetheless faceplants at the very end with more obvious Talking Dead bait. Buildup is good. Buildup is necessary, especially for big villains like Negan. However, there is a fine line between buildup and wheel-spinning. Foreshadowing is good. Wasting the audience’s time with drawn-out storylines that too often go nowhere, or take too long to go somewhere, is not. At the very least, the show stopped going in circles in this season finale, and that’s a plus, but it’s still very frustrating when this season finale nonetheless amounts to having virtually no real payoff, beyond Negan being very dangerous, which viewers would have already put together, especially those who have read the Walking Dead comics.
Another big disadvantage to this episode is that it really did not need to be a 90-minute episode. AMC, you’ve got to stop it with these 90-minute season finales for The Walking Dead, if this all they’re going to be. The 90-minute season finales are purely a gimmick at this point, and they only serve to further drag out a storyline that already feels kind of dragged-out from the past several episodes.
Most of the time, the added length simply serves to host a subplot with Carol and Morgan. Oh yes, Morgan does eventually stumble upon Carol. What comes of that? Not much, beyond them meeting some armoured folks who are yet another, “Come back for Season Seven” hook. In fairness, Morgan does try to persuade a broken and emotionally battered Carol to return to Alexandria, while Carol protests by saying that she’s unable to kill now, and that makes her unworthy to stay with Rick’s group, but this is still springboarding off of an arc with Carol that, frankly, has been pretty poorly-explained in recent episodes.
Slightly more interesting, is Carol being found and tortured by the bad guy that she didn’t kill during last week’s episode, but this ended up being pretty anti-climactic. While this scene tried to be emotional and hair-raising, this random idiot doesn’t feel like a satisfying way to have Carol confronting her demons. The episode really tried, by having the guy gradually put bullets in Carol’s limbs, making it look like he’ll torture and eventually kill her, but predictably, this didn’t end up going anywhere. The sole interesting bit that resulted from this scene is Morgan being forced to kill again, in order to save Carol’s life, and that would have been a great way to cap off this storyline… Except it’s not addressed. Morgan doesn’t really seem affected by having to kill someone again at this point, even if it was a righteous kill, and the episode quickly glosses over this in favour of introducing the new guys, and leaving this arc dangling for Season Seven. This clumsy execution led to pretty much all of the Carol/Morgan storyline being an unfortunate bust, when it should have been a stronger, emotionally satisfying subplot for both characters.
Fortunately, the buildup to Negan was at least done a lot better, even if it came with an unnecessary amount of Rick’s crew leaving Alexandria to seek help for an ailed Maggie at The Hilltop, stupidly leaving the community borderline defenseless by taking away the rest of its best fighters. Gabriel has been improving as a line of defense, but there’s no way that he’s ready to guard the safety of all of Alexandria, especially given his trangressions during Season Five! Putting that aside though, the sequence of scenes, whereupon The Saviors set increasingly more intimidating traps and obstacles for Rick’s party, were pretty cool, and effectively built up the menace of Negan as the episode went on, especially when the Saviors lay a line of Walkers with Daryl’s, Michonne’s, Glenn’s and Rosita’s personal effects on them.
Oh, and speaking of Daryl, were you worried about him? Well, he’s fine, beyond being a bit pale. So much for that cliffhanger from last week. While it’s predictable that Daryl wouldn’t die so unceremoniously, it begs the question of why the network even bothered with that tease of him getting shot with a big comical blood splatter at the end of last week’s episode. It’s yet another instance of pointless suspense and a story going nowhere, seemingly for the sake of baiting Talking Dead.
Whether Daryl keeps surviving though is another story, since this is where the climax of the episode unfolds, and we meet the big man himself. After Eugene volunteers to take the RV as a diversion while the rest of the crew sneaks Maggie through the woods as it grows dark, in one of the episode’s other strong moments, it ends up being for naught, as everyone is surrounded and captured, including Eugene, with everyone forced onto their knees as Negan steps out, complete with his barbed wire-laden bat, Lucille, ready to deal some justice to Rick’s crew for their recent killings of a good chunk of Negan’s people over the past few episodes.
I cannot stress enough how fantastic Jeffrey Dean Morgan is as the live-action version of Negan. His flippant, charismatic and almost darkly playful attitude makes him a very logical fit for a cult-like band of psychopaths, and his unpredictable, yet coldly comical disposition already seems to position him as the best baddie in the history of this show, even compared to the other big standout antagonist, The Governor. The scene that introduces Negan is also exceptionally intense, as Negan paces around, chatting up Rick’s company, and, rather than simply kill them all, Negan essentially forces them to work for him… But not without punishment. In response to Rick killing so many Saviors, one of Rick’s people has to be savagely beaten to death, and Negan starts toying with our heroes, and the audience, in what is arguably Season Six’s best scene of all, deciding who should take the punishment.
This was such an excellent scene, and that’s why it’s so infuriating that the way it ends is such a middle finger to the audience. Negan eventually decides who will take the beating, and gets to it, with a first-person angle showing Negan unloading on one of the unlucky survivors… And that’s it. Season over. No, really. We have no idea who Negan chooses, which seems like an interesting cliffhanger on paper, but in reality, it’s an enormous cop-out, and a very unsatisfying way to end the season. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the writers haven’t even decided who dies yet, and are making like the Season Five finale again, where they just blatantly procrastinated on having actual fallout for the leads, because they weren’t sure where the following season should go yet.
That said, there are a few clues, if you feel like guessing. It’s Glenn who suffers the fateful beating and ultimately dies from it in the Walking Dead comics, but after an outburst, Negan looks at him, points the bat at him, and says, “No”, seemingly suggesting that the showrunners are indeed going to mix things up from the comics here, and Glenn will live in the case of the show. The grunts from the bat do suggest that the victim is a male though, which makes sense, since AMC probably doesn’t have the stones to portray Negan beating a woman to a brutal death with a barbed bat, even from a POV shot, so Michonne, Rosita, Sasha and Maggie are all likely safe. Given Negan’s comment about feeding Carl’s other eye to Rick if anyone steps out of line, this also seems to indicate that the victim isn’t Rick or Carl, or else that statement would be nonsense.
This leaves Daryl, Eugene, Aaron and Abraham, and among them, Aaron isn’t terribly likely, as he hasn’t been around long enough for the proper emotional impact, even considering this show’s severe allergy to killing fan-favourite characters, plus Negan’s comment about, “Taking it like a man” doesn’t seem to suggest Aaron, who is weaker than the other three men. Abraham or Eugene has the proper emotional buildup to make them a victim, unless the show actually has the spine to kill Daryl here, which would have the desired effect of cementing Negan as a big bad, but that’s assuming that AMC is willing to risk those oft-threatened fan riots. Eugene and Abraham share a pretty emotional moment beforehand, suggesting that either one of them is about to die, which was at least cleverly masked, even if it was Eugene that ultimately stepped up to take the RV.
Like so many other dangling plot threads, we just need to wait until Season Seven for answers. Everything in this season finale just served to highlight that really amazing scene right at the end, awful cliffhanger aside, which is where all of the eggs in this episode’s basket went. Unfortunately, that means almost everything beyond Negan’s big entrance ranges from filler to procrastination, which still leads to a season finale that isn’t truly bad, but is definitely weak and disappointing. Again, laying the groundwork for next season is well and good, especially since AMC already renewed The Walking Dead for Season Seven several months ago, but this just goes to show that Season Six seemed to throw in the towel a few weeks ago, and write off the rest of its story threads in favour of setting up for next season. I have every ounce of faith that Season Seven of The Walking Dead will be a standout, if this Negan introduction is any indication, but in order to maximize the chances of that, this show should really consider quitting it with the cheap tricks, and just letting great characters lend themselves to naturally fantastic storylines, as Negan surely will.
Negan's introduction is well worth it, but the rest of this week's season finale of The Walking Dead is a big disappointment, with far too little accomplished beyond more annoying cliffhangers.