Sometimes it's been hard to make sense of Rick Grimes' survival strategy, but when it comes to dealing with the greedy bullies known as "The Saviors," his plan's been pretty plain. Every other little enclave of humanity in Zombieworld has been letting Negan's bunch push them around, because The Saviors are brutish, fearless, and well-armed. But Rick's gang has guns too — lots of them — and they aren't skittish about killing. So why should they roll over for anybody?
In the Season Six finale — ominously titled "Last Day on Earth" — our heroes get to ask themselves that question repeatedly, but they find it harder and harder to answer, thanks to a series of escalating standoffs. Rick, Abe, Sasha, Eugene, Carl, and Aaron pile into the RV to get a fevered, cramping Maggie up to the Hilltop before she loses her baby. They drive down one road, and run into half-dozen Saviors. They try another road, and meet a dozen. They go down a third, and see two dozen. It's as though Negan's letting them know: They can take a sip of poison, or they take a gulp … but damnit, they're not going thirsty.
This was an unusual season-ender for The Walking Dead. Aside from a thin subplot involving Morgan and Carol — who had another of their circular conversations about the necessity of killing, and then rode off on horseback with what looks to be yet another group of survivors, wearing makeshift body-armor — the entire episode stuck with our road-trippers. Newcomers to this series could've tuned in this week and they wouldn't have had too much trouble following the action.
In fact, longtime Dead fans might've had more beef with "Last Day on Earth," if only because of how awkwardly it lurched ahead from the show's most recent chapters. Some of the padded 90-minute length was dedicated to tying up ends that weren't really loose. Was anyone waiting for Carol to have to face the one random Savior that she failed to kill on the road last week? Are we really so invested in the relationship between Carl and Enid that we needed to see him say goodbye to her, by locking her in a closet (and calling back to her dead family's motto with one last, "Just survive somehow")?
And then there's the matter of how show-runner Scott M. Gimple resolves last week's bloody cliffhanger, and how he leaves us with another one to stew over for the next six months. The previous episode ended with a gun pointed at Daryl's head, and a splatter of gore that could've come from him, Glen, Michonne, Rosita, or somebody else. This episode waited until the almost the very end to reveal that all those folks were okay, just in time for Negan to line them up and beat one of them to death with his barbed-wire bat, "Lucille." Who died? Who knows? Readers of the comic book can tell you who got conked in the pen-and-ink version of that scene; but the show has always made its own choices as to who gets offed. That makes this big mystery especially cruel. It's almost like The Walking Dead itself hasn't decided yet if it wants to get rid of the character in question.
But y'know what? While all of the above complaints matter in a larger "Do the writers really know what they're doing?" sense, none of them kept the finale from being a pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, queasy-making hour and a half of television. The simple story-structure, following Rick and company as their path kept getting more and more congested, brilliantly illustrated what his arrogance and slipshod schemes have led to. He and his friends left Alexandria in such a cocky mood, almost hopeful of meeting the Saviors, if only so that they could stop waiting to see what Negan was planning to do to them. But when he finally did show up? The big moment was darker than they ever could've imagined.
The show has been teasing the villain for a year now, both by dropping his name throughout the story, and via cast and crew interviews that have talked up the performance of scruffy character actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And the Watchmen actor definitely didn't disappoint. This week's climax ran about 10 minutes, almost all of which consisted of Negan ranting about how Rick's people now have no choice but to work for him or die. It's one of the best scenes in the entire run of the series, from the big bad's creepy introductory whistle to him demanding a sacrifice to pay Alexandria back for all their damage they've done to his organization. The tension just kept ramping up, as he went down the line, chanting "eeny meeny miney moe," deciding who to club to a pulp.
The problem with watching serialized TV dramas once a week — as opposed to powering through a whole season at a time — is that sometimes it's hard to make sense of the bigger picture when we can only see fragments. And it doesn't help that on The Walking Dead, often the payoffs don't match the build-ups. In fact, it's entirely possible that the next 16 episodes of this series may be end up being a wearying slog, not worth all the faith that viewers have put into a decidedly uneven season.
But this remains, first and foremost, a horror show; and man, this finale was terrifying. Every plan Rick tried failed. Every hope was snuffed out. The future looks bleaker than ever. Both the heroes and their audience may have gotten numbed by the hordes of zombies who fill the screen every week, but we've just learned about something even scarier. Now, with the arrival of Negan, we may know a new kind of fear.
Previously: No Direction Home