Spoilers ahoy! If’ you’re not caught up through the current TWD episode (April 3, 2016), back on out now.
A few days ago, AMC aired The Walking Dead’s season finale and from a quick look around the interwebs it seems like a lot of folks are still seriously disappointed or downright pissed. After spending the entire back half of a wildly uneven sixth series waiting for a psychopath named Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), we finally got a good look at the Saviors’ oddly charismatic leader. Barbed wire-wrapped Lucille in hand, calmly recapping recent events and smiling throughout his introductory This-Is-the-Way-It’s-Going-to-Be speech, Negan’s ever-present threat was finally made good, only we’ll have to wait until next October to find out which of Rick’s Alexandria group had his or her head bashed in. And, therein lies the problem — at least, going by viewer and critic reactions — the writers “tricked” their audience by not revealing who Negan killed, though according to Robert Kirkman and Greg Nicotero (who appeared on Talking Dead), this particular cliffhanger has more to do with one story ending and another beginning. Whatever your take, I’d like to step away from that controversy a moment, and instead of focusing on the character arcs, let’s point the lens in our own direction — pose for a quick selfie, if you will.
When we gathered back in 2010 to watch this new world order unfold, one where many of us (non-readers) first experienced an awakening alongside Rick Grimes, we discovered the madness of a spreading pathogen that turns people into flesh-eating zombies. Survival of the people he cared about — and in turn, we cared about — was all that mattered. With no true hope for a cure or vaccine protection, and only a vague understanding about how the “disease” worked, keeping safe from walkers was the living folks’ primary goal. As time went on and Rick’s group grew and morphed into a constantly changing, often on-the-move community, finding a protected area to carry on in some sort of societal microcosm was a necessity. There was a farm that served as home for a while, then a prison, and the core group had to continually evaluate what they were willing to do to other living people to keep themselves safe. That’s a fairly understandable behavioral evolution in the situations the group find themselves, and with certain less than upstanding people they encounter, and it was natural for us — the viewers — to wonder how far that evolution (devolution) would go. Meeting up with good guys became less frequent, Grimes’ group encountered demented leaders like the Governor and Terminus’ Gareth and slightly lesser crazies like Dawn; how long could it be until Rick or one of his own lost a rational sense of right and wrong? Carol went from frightened abuse victim to stone-cold killer and (inexplicably) back again, and both Rick and Carol (among others) have experienced psychotic breaks. Why did we think, how could we believe, that journeying alongside these people we were somehow immune?
We are not immune. From the moment the series’ sixth season promos began beating that Negan’s coming drum (much around the time Glenn escaped his dumpster death), we found ourselves caught up in an impossible-to-escape devolution of our own. Didn’t matter whether we were comic readers or not, the speculation was inescapable; who was this guy, why did he carry a bat, who was he supposed to kill — who should he kill? Writers and the showrunner made media statements, and we analyzed Scott Gimple’s “hard left turn from the comic” up, down and sideways. We made lists of sacrificed characters we’d find acceptable or not; we screamed that this favorite or that was probably going to die. Heck, one major death couldn’t possibly be enough for our ravenous deathwatch; we debated whether the show kill off a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and if so, would that be a bridge too far…how many people will die in the 90-minute finale, and exactly how much gore would we see? We prepared ourselves. We gathered our tissues and libations, ahead of time we commiserated over the tears we’d cry, and we threatened — some continue to say — “I’ll stop watching if so and so dies,” because if this beloved character is gone it would be unacceptable; if that less important one is killed, that would be a “copout”. This co-created alternate reality found us pushing ourselves into a strange existence. The reflection I tried but couldn’t avoid haunted me.
In other fictional stories about humanity’s future (Running Man, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The Hunger Games), we see people depicted as returned to our bloodthirsty savage roots, somehow forced by circumstance or events beyond individual control to fight to the death, crowds of onlookers cheering as one after the other are killed off in horrific ways. Snug and smug in our current existence, we’re believe ourselves better. I’ve always been horrified at the thought we could ever really find our way to those places, but as I watched the final minutes of “Last Day on Earth,” and every small movement Negan (and Lucille) made as he went through his monologue, I had the ugly realization we were — I was — already there. The adrenaline surged through my body, the hairs on my arms stood on high alert, my heart pounded in anticipation. The moment was finally here. We would see that bat connect with someone’s head; something inside me and my fellow viewers was broken enough to plant us all in front of screens waiting to see. And, then we didn’t.
First, it was confusing; my brain wasn’t certain they’d really done it. What just happened? My next fleeting feeling was a sense of relief, and then — as I watched the live ranting and *screaming* (or furiously typed equivalent) play out — I felt admiration. The writers were brilliant, the ending was perfect; look what they’d done! No, I’m not talking about giving TWD fans the finger, or coming up with the perfect cliffhanger to guarantee our return for Season 7; I’m talking about shoving a mirror in our faces. Whether or not it was Gimple’s intention, there’s no way you can read around the internet, even three days later, and ignore that people are still furiously trying to work out who was “taking it like a champ”. It’s impossible to miss the bloodlust on Facebook and Twitter, in speculation pieces, and in the angry “Fuck you, TWD” and “That’s it, I’m done” declarations. As we’re arguing over what was heard at the end of the episode, what clues we can find and again, who should, must, can’t and will see die, we can’t possibly see the rantings over not finding out, or waiting to find out or see whose head(s) Negan bashed in without wondering, What is happening to us? Who we are becoming?