What the eff did I just watch?
Usually this is a great response to a season finale. Television producers around the world hope and pray and make sacrifices on altars for this kind of reaction. Unfortunately for the television show The Walking Dead, the crickets chirping in everyone’s TV room at the end of the episode were not the backdrop to speechless amazement. They were covering a very loud, very dismayed “Oh, HELL no.”
Many fans are… well, let’s be diplomatic about it and call them ‘unhappy.’ Let’s say they felt much more manipulated than usual. Loyalty of the ilk TWD celebrates is hard enough to come by; the merest misstep can send half the group over the wall toward friendlier pastures. And when the collective screaming gets too loud, the other half might just follow them, in search of a little peace and quiet.
I tell you, there was definitely collective screaming.
That said, and despite the events of April 3, I feel like The Walking Dead is not quite dead yet. The Walking Dead does not deserve to be thrown to the Wolves. The Walking Dead—well, let’s let the show speak for itself. Take a quick trip back with me through the years so I can remind you why you should (still!) watch the show:
(MINOR AND VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD. Read at your own risk.)
Season 1: Yay! Great start. At a total of six episodes, it’s snappy, shocking, and full of disgusting zombies. (My favorite is that half-woman crawling through the park, because slow and steady wins the Rick.) Characters are skillfully introduced and developed... as far as they can be before the show sets its tone by unexpectedly offing a third of them. The season ends in a bad place for the characters but a good place for the rest of us by establishing that this narrative won’t be about curing the new world, it will be about surviving it.
Awesome episodes in Season 1: That would be... huh, all of them. At six episodes, there’s not much room for lazy material. But my favorite is Vatos, because of the sweet high, the painful low, and that bit where Jim Is Digging.
Season 2: Okay, nice. The pace does drop from 100 mph to a shuffling 30, but it’s not actually boring. The character development is off the charts, helped along by painstakingly built emotional tension and a breathtaking mid-season shocker. You don’t necessarily like where everyone is going, but damn it, you understand why they get there. This is the young adulthood of this show, where it’s trying to sort out the moral code it wants to live by. Also, we get the Family Greene: a definite plus.
Awesome episodes in Season 2: What Lies Ahead, which gets things going with a literal bang, Save the Last One, Chupacabra, and my personal favorite, that middle episode Pretty Much Dead Already. Yowzas.
Season 3: Meh. Enter the Governor. This is the season that really dragged for me (like a one-legged water-logged corpse), not because the episodes weren’t good, but because it took so long for everything to happen. Lots of exploration of humanity and ‘life’ after death, but wow, are there some sluggish spots. For the first time, I couldn’t ignore that the filler bits were filler. Thank god for David Morrissey, marvelous as the villain, and for the writers’ commitment to making difficult choices with challenging consequences. Upon further reflection, I feel like this is the season that was awesome to watch the first time as it built beautifully to climax, but it’s also the season I skip whenever reruns come on: Now that I know the destination, I don’t feel motivated to travel the road again.
Awesome episodes in Season 3: My first thought is that I don’t have any outstanding episodes to point out, just a nice handful of outstanding sequences (i.e., Andrea and the Governor’s cat’n’mouse in the warehouse, the Brothers Dixon in the woods, the interrogations at Woodbury, Rick’s war council with the Governor). But it turns out I do have favorites: Clear, where we find out what happened to Morgan, and Killer Within. If that ending doesn’t get you, then don’t bother with the rest—this show’s not for you.
Season 4: BAM, THERE IT IS. My favorite season. This is the one that embraces the show’s full potential for horror, grief, hope, love, and sacrifice. It steps back from the zombies and gives us a chance to observe humans actually trying to live in this landscape. We’ve got an unexpected adversary of the microscopic variety, another wham-bang of a mid-season finale, and tangible dread as our protagonists make their way to their final stop of the story arc: the aptly named Terminus. The plotting of Season 4 is subtle and effective, with hints of things to come flickering in and out of each episode. If you’re not watching carefully, you might miss something, but catching it heaps big rewards by the end. The mini-arcs are tightly woven. The sequence of events takes place organically: there’s no other way things could go. Finally, this is the point where you realize you are feeling so hard for these people that if ANYTHING happens to ANY of them, you’re seriously going to brain someone.
Awesome episodes in Season 4: Since basically all the episodes are gold, let’s talk arc instead. Whatever fever strikes the group, bringing it into the story is genius. It forces characters to play hands they might not have, and preps everyone beautifully for the return of Somebody, whose own character mini-arc is kind of horribly fascinating. Then everyone splinters, and we get to see the deterioration/formation of the family unit in multiple forms. Can I please just bring up how spectacular the Carol-Lizzie arc is? Or maybe just the Carol arc alone? Can I talk about the guys that Daryl unwillingly falls in with? Can I please mention the look on Michonne’s face when she peeks in a certain window, or the night when Rick’s feral side really comes out to play? NO, because that would SPOIL ALL THE THINGS. But please know that this season is the one where I felt everything they felt, where my heart tripped in time with theirs and my back bristled and I Got Mad at the end right along with Rick.
Season 5: Oh, Bejeebus, I can’t even, why. This season was a little different for me. I wasn’t in a good head space when the first episode aired, and that particular fuckery took me down for the count. I ended up mainlining the season later in preparation for the finale. Turns out that first episode is the most dangerous of the bunch, but I didn’t know that at the time. It’s also one of the best. This season is Rick at his most impressive, Carol at her most frightening, and Daryl at his most vulnerable. The intro to Alexandria really works because Rick & Co are just coming off of the worst assault on their humanity yet. The viewer is just as paranoid, just as distrustful as they are, and watching Rick flirt with becoming the monster this time around is awesome. In this season, I was most frightened of the group itself.
Awesome episodes in Season 5: Like I said, the opener No Sanctuary is riveting, with an incredibly moving ending. Other notable episodes are Them, Remember, and my favorite (possibly in the entire series) What Happened and What’s Going On.
Season 6: OMG THIS IS AMAZ—Blah. Dear show runners: Broke my heart, you did, because hot damn, that first episode was killing it. And then the second episode killed it again. And then the third episode racked the tension further. And then... I don’t even know. This season has been described by others as “uneven”, and I have to say, that’s the perfect word for it: From there, things went a little bonkers.
Awesome episodes in Season 6: Since I already talked about the three episodes that hit it out of the ballpark (First Time Again, JSS, Thank You, and hell, let’s add Start to Finish to the list because TWD is so good at the mid-season finales), let’s discuss where things went so seriously sideways. And I don’t mean plot-wise because by the end, life for the group has most definitely gone sideways. That’s not the issue.
I am a writer, and (you may have noticed) I tend to concentrate on this series from a plot development and characterization perspective. Both suffer noticeably during this season. I found myself questioning again and again the intelligence of various decisions by both writers and characters: WHY must they keep sending their entire warrior class out of the compound at the same time? WHY are they constantly stopping to have heart-to-hearts in the woods? WHY are they not doing more recon before attacking other groups of people? WHAT HAPPENED TO STRATEGY??? Then there are the writing misdials: WHY drag out To Glenn or Not To Glenn for weeks? WHY are you letting characters with rare skill sets out on walkabout where they can be stabbed, shot, bitten, run over, or just plain deserted in potential munitions factories? WHY are these zombies standing around allowing people to have heart-to-hearts? Are they a different subspecies? WHY did you inject a diabetic character with insulin when she’s most likely suffering from rock-bottom blood sugar? WHY did every single person manage to forget about the grenade launchers at the same time? WHAT HAPPENED TO MY BELOVED CHARACTERS???
By the end of the season, my beloved characters are absolutely up shit creek with their mouths wide open. And that would have had more of an impact if they hadn’t got there by making Poor Life Choices. Which they don’t usually make.
(Incidentally, is part of the Saviors’ attack strategy to spike the water supply with Idiot Pills? If so, it’s genius, because it worked.)
What I Think Happened: The show runners were excited to introduce Negan. And who wouldn’t be? Already I can tell he’s a force of nature. But Season 6’s biggest Achilles’ heel is actually a surplus of amazing characters. This season alone, we get the joyous Jesus, the delightful Denise, and the nasty as hell Negan. This only becomes a problem when there are so many people that there’s no longer time to develop Carol believably, or to make not one, not two, but three new romantic pairings work effectively. And speaking of, it becomes a problem when the necessary twists and turns in the plot are sidelined because there’s just too much side stuff going on. I fully believe that we could have reached Negan organically, but instead the issue was forced through a series of senseless choices that don’t reflect the characters I have come to know.
Ergo, the end arrives, Lucille starts winning friends and influencing people, and I am not invested. Just resigned.
As I said at the beginning, A LOT of fans are expressing their disappointment. Whether it’s over the cliffhanger of doom, the Monologue With No End In Sight, the Carol doppelganger, or just the season in general, people are upset. People are actually filing for divorce from Daryl. Daryl. People are wrapping their tweets in barbed wire and swinging away.
But let’s step back for a second. Is this really grounds for knocking the show over the head and feeding it to Gareth?
We’ve had five good seasons, and at least three of those were great seasons. There are numerous members of the Awesome Episodes Club, and Season 6 was not excluded from that number. The show runners tried something new. They took some risks and unfortunately those risks did not pay off. But they also took risks with characterization and plotting in Season 4, and again in Season 5, and those were slam dunks. They messed up this time around, don’t get me wrong. The manipulation became too obvious. They played with their audience too often, all in search of a few thrills.
I am not ready to sign off on this entire show because of it. If the entire season had been a bust, I would reconsider, but it wasn’t. It started off very well indeed. I have faith that these writers can step it up again, and I think that they will.
Don’t abandon the compound just yet. The walls haven’t fallen.