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‘The Walking Dead’ season finale redefines series

(‘The Walking Dead’ Official Facebook Page)

Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for the sixth season of “The Walking Dead.”

In “East,” the penultimate episode of season six of “The Walking Dead,” Rick (Andrew Lincoln) lies in bed with Michonne (Danai Gurira) and confidently tells her, “The world’s ours…and we know how to take it.”

Michonne was echoing Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) concerns over a retaliatory attack from the Saviors, but Rick was not in the least bit concerned. They have dealt with people like the Saviors before and have the upper hand. Or do they?

The latter half of season six of “The Walking Dead” has shown Rick making decisions under the impression that he and the rest of his group are ahead of the curve in this conflict, and the season finale, “Last Day on Earth,” is 90 minutes dedicated to showing Rick just how horribly wrong he was in making that assumption.

When Rick’s RV is met with a roadblock set up by a small group of Saviors, the only option is to take an alternate route, but with every new path the group attempts to navigate comes another roadblock accompanied by more and more Saviors, and Rick’s descent into fear and denial begins as it slowly dawns on him that there may be no way out this time.

Comparing this episode to its comic book equivalent, the same situation is handled much more masterfully by the TV series and is executed through an exceedingly impressive and engaging sequence of events that bests how it is approached in the comics. The comic book arc introduced the Saviors by significantly underplaying their numbers initially and then showing their drastic enormity as an army in a surprise reveal.

The previous episodes of the series have continually seen group after group of Saviors killed by Rick and company, creating a smart buildup to give viewers and Rick the illusion that he is winning. This technique makes the realization that Rick is not winning all the more effectively shattering in the context of the finale.

In each past season of this show, we have seen the underestimation of Rick and his band of survivors by every threat that has come their way. Now that tables have turned and Rick’s group has gained a sense of comfort in the Alexandria Safe-Zone, we are seeing Rick take on the role of the aggressor for the first time, proceeding to make those very same mistakes as the numerous antagonists that have died by his hand.

What was weak about the ultimate capture of Rick’s crew by the Saviors in the comic series was that the Saviors snuck up on Rick in his sleep and surprised him with his guard down just like in every other instance where Rick’s team suffered a loss.

In “Last Day on Earth,” what works so well about Rick running into an increasing number of Saviors in seemingly every direction before being forced into a trap, is how strikingly different it is to see that even with Rick and the other survivors being fully alert and putting forth their best efforts, the Saviors are still 20 steps ahead of them.

The effects of the gradual and slow-burn pace with which this reveal is accomplished is on display in Rick’s disintegrating emotional state throughout the episode. Before they run into the first Savior roadblock, Rick is shown comforting Maggie with full confidence.

After they run into their third roadblock or so, the shot of Rick comforting Maggie is recreated, but this time Rick is sweating and visibly panicked, with aching nervousness in his eyes. He speaks in a tone so worried that it sounds more like he is trying to convince himself rather than Maggie that what he is saying is true.

“Last Day on Earth” is a refreshing departure from the regularly explosive and adrenaline-pumping action of past season and mid-season finales, tapping instead into the show’s psychological aspects.

The standout finale of “The Walking Dead” takes viewers along a deliberate and nerve-wracking downward spiral with our heroes where, for the first time in the show’s run, they all find themselves in a situation where there is no escape.

Alexander Beebe can be reached at asbeebe@umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “‘The Walking Dead’ season finale redefines series”
  1. Max says:

    I will say that I am impressed to see a review of the season 6 finale go without mentioning the unnecessarily taunting ending, however it deserves at least a mention. TV shows and comic books are different mediums with different advantages in storytelling, and what may have worked well in the TV show may not have worked so well in the comic book. Criticizing the comic book for the way Rick was captured is unfair because what made the capture powerful in the TV show was Andrew Lincoln’s decent into panic. His acting was palpable in a way that couldn’t be done in a comic book medium. Comics rely on drawings and dialogue to tell a story, which in my opinion was used better in The Walking Dead #100 than the acting and suspense of The Walking Dead S06E16.

    You also managed to go through an entire review of the season 6 finale without mentioning the most important part: NEGAN. This was the moment Walking Dead comic fans have been looking forward to for years, and the reason why was because it was so shocking. The readers, like Rick, felt helpless as they watched what unfolded in front of them. Here we watch this prophecized Negan, swearing up a storm while on top of the world, put our beloved leader Rick down to his knees and promise him that “I will slide my dick down your throat and you will thank me for it.” He seems so silly, so comfortable in his presence that it seems like the whole thing is a joke – until he pulls over fan favorite Glenn and savagely smashes his head to a bloody pulp smoothie with an eyeball on top, while his wife, daughter, and friends watch motionless. It worked so well on paper. We instantly hated Negan because it’s like he doesn’t even understand what he’s done, how powerful his own message is. He wasn’t an enemy, because having an enemy implies that that person thinks of you as their enemy. Negan doesn’t believe that he has enemies, only employees. That’s what’s so frustrating about him. He doesn’t want to fight Rick, he wants to employ him. It makes us feel helpless because he’s unfightable. If you try and fight them, he just metaphorically puts you on probation (bashes your friend’s skull in, irons your face, infect a few people with zombie blood) until you’re back in your place. The only reason Rick ever defeats Negan is that eventually he became too rowdy of an employee, and metaphorically speaking, unionized. Negan’s defeat came when he began to treat Rick like a threat. That is why the comic book story worked so well.

    So where did the show fall flat? Well, obviously because we’re not talking about Negan right now, aren’t we? Imagine if the show didn’t leave on that cliffhanger. Imagine if we got to see this big, bad man chuckle and guffaw as we see Glenn’s brains meet the bat. Better yet imagine if it was invincible bad boy biker redneck Daryl. Imagine as the whole fanbase spends years obsessively chanting “IF DARYL DIES WE RIOT” and AMC returning with “Oh yeah? Do it, I dare you.” We’d be spending these interseason six months hating the ABSOLUTE FUCKING SHIT out of NEGAN. Holy crap, the hype that would have started. We’d be talking nonstop about NEGAN! Instead, what are we talking about? A stupid, unnecessary betrayal of a murder mystery that takes Negan out of the spotlight that he deserves and loves, and instead focuses it on the line of kneeling characters in front of him, leaving us speculating which of them died, because we know someone had to die, instead of “holy shit, now what? How do you fight that?” It’s a waste. It’s not good hype, it’s angry hype. The finale may have left us with frustration, but it’s not the kind of frustration we should be feeling. We should be frustrated with Negan and what to do with him. Instead, we’re frustrated with who died. It didn’t leave us in tears of grief, it lefts us in fits of rage. So I agree with the article, in that Rick’s descent into panic was well-done. But what the show did with that panic wasn’t shocking. It will leave for an underwhelming chore of a season 7 premiere, all of which could have been done so much better.

  2. Alex says:

    Max, I agree with the points you’ve raised, and I did want to talk about Negan and the cliffhanger ending in this review, but I had an 800 word limit to the length of this article, and the version I submitted for editing was at 799 words. All I saw around the web were reviews talking about Negan and the cliffhanger, and I didn’t want to make this just another review that discusses the same exact things, so I decided to use the length I was allowed to concentrate on the positives of the episode that I felt were largely being ignored and going unmentioned by critics and fans alike.

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