TV Review: The Walking Dead Season 6 Finale “Last Day on Earth” (USA, 2016)

“Last Day on Earth” capped off a strong season for The Walking Dead in a fairly weak way. Negan’s eventual introduction has been telegraphed for a long time – in fact, there’s baseball bat imagery, which is emblematic of his character, dating all the way back to the first season. Comic Book readers have been waiting for, discussing, and trying to predict, this episode’s final scene for years now, as it’s one of the most – if not the most – important moments of the show, a point of no return for almost everybody that’s alive on the series right now as it’s the moment Negan officially becomes embedded into the consciousness of The Walking Dead. The format of television and the need for ratings, for trending, and to “break the internet” kind of stuffed it all up.

As I mentioned in my review of last week’s episode, the potential to go viral with big cliffhanger deaths have seen an unfortunate resurgence ever since the is-he-or-isn’t-he talk surrounding Jon Snow on Game of Thrones sparked a huge amount of discussion over the show. TWD even had it’s own Jon Snow moment with Glenn earlier this season with “Thank You”, a fake-out that worked as far as generating interest goes. We again saw this last week with Daryl having his own cliffhanger moment, and now we’ve seen it once again which may prove to be TWD’d worst decision to date.

As comic readers would have known for a long time, Negan’s introduction is bad news for Alexandria, and spells the death of a majorly loved character. That’s recreated here, and one of the main cast – supposedly one of the remaining Atlanta survivors – ends up meeting Negan’s barbed-wire baseball bat Lucille, having their skull crushed in with sickening sound effects to drown out the desperate screams of a captive Rick and his group. How we got there was good enough, and the finale was great up until that point, but the cliffhanger ending ruined the impact, designed to keep us guessing at the identity of the deceased until the show returns in October, something which will obviously be spoiled before then (filming pictures, word of mouth, etc). For example, I refer back to Game of Thrones and the whole Jon Snow situation – the outcome of that cliffhanger has well and truly been outed numerous times by cast members, haircuts, and more, thereby ruining any impact the writers could have hoped to achieve.

First, let’s deal with Morgan and Carol. As I’ve written before, the relationship between them has been the strongest and most consistent part of Season 6, even if the dialogue hasn’t been too kind to Morgan’s character. Carol’s one-woman-army expression was continued in the excellent “JSS” (the shockingly violent second episode of this season) and since then it’s been diluted with shades of Morgan, leading up to her running away from Alexandria because she can’t keep killing to protect. Morgan going after her was a good choice from the writing team, and having him kill to save her life adds another layer to the dynamic between the two, while in a way ‘redeeming’ Morgan’s character to the wider fanbase that may have shunned him as an overly preachy burden. Both Melissa McBride and Lennie James have made this arc work, and it wouldn’t have had the same effect without their portrayal of inner-conflict, regret, remorse, and anger.

As it turns out, Morgan stopping Rick from shooting a man donned in custom-made armor in last week’s episode led to people from – I assume – to same group coming to the rescue when Carol needs it the most. If it’s a new colony similar to Hilltop, The Sanctuary (where The Saviours live), and Alexandria, then we can expect Season 7 to reveal an even bigger world, which will provide a richer landscape for The Walking Dead as a whole. However, if the writers continue to dabble in these unnecessary, formulaic cliffhangers, then that expansion may be marred.

The mind games The Saviours played with Rick and the RV group to block their way to the Hilltop Colony, to which they were taking Maggie for medical attention, were effectively creepy. It made for a masterclass in dread, building up tension with each of these mad-made roadblocks and edging the RV group – Rick, Maggie, Abe, Sasha, Eugene, Carl, and Aaron – into a smaller and smaller corner. Eugene’s heroic plan to put an end to all of this was very well done, as was his emotional goodbyes to the group, and then having that plan fizzle out within minutes just added to the nihilism that was thread through this finale.

The episode’s heart-pounding atmosphere was helped along by composer Bear McCreary, who provided a scratchy horror score to illustrate the darkness of this episode, accentuating the brutality of The Saviours as they looked to make an example out of a helpless stranger, using his beaten and eventually dead body to taunt the RV crew as they were carefully circumscribed away from Hilltop and towards the final showdown, in a way mirroring how The Terminus folk used gunfire to herd Rick and co. into train cart “A”.

With Father Gabriel in charge of Alexandria for the time being (lol), all the major characters – bar Carol and Morgan – were lined up on their knees in the centre of an entire mob of Saviours, whistling through the ominous air until the man of the hour (and a bit) finally stepped out with his barbed-wire covered baseball bat, Lucille. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (JDM) does proved to be a good choice for Negan, a big and commanding presence to taunt a group that has been forced to kneel before The Saviours and pay for their over-confident kills.

The speech – faithful to the comics – from Negan to Rick was handled well, fractured to add to the tension with JDM coming across as the perfect balance between menacing villain and reasonable, vengeful leader. Meanwhile all the Alexandrians were brilliant at portraying a mix of anger and fear, particularly Rick who went from “do you want this to be your last day on Earth” (a cheesy bit of dialogue that felt wedged in to include the title) to a man desperately backtracking and trying to convince The Saviours that they can make a deal without anyone getting hurt. Taking Rick down a notch was necessary for his character to remain interesting, and JDM seems exactly the right actor to do that.

But then there’s the cop-out. The ill-advised cliffhanger that robs the scene – and entire season for that matter – of it’s power, doing something a show this popular really doesn’t need to, not revealing who is on the receiving end of Negan’s brutality. We know someone has just had their entire head caved in with a few blows from Lucille, but we don’t know who and we won’t until some clever on-set lurker reveals it before the Season 7 premiere. This is a smart narrative tactic to increase ratings amongst the masses, but it’s also a big “fuck you” to fans who have been waiting for this game-changing moment to unfold.

Yes, it’s going to be interesting to see how all of this affects the characters moving forward, and watching Morgan and Carol bring another colony into the fold has some great potential, but this error in judgement by the showrunners reveals that The Walking Dead still has a long way to go before it can stop resting on cheap, cliche tricks to drum up interest.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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Highlights:

  • Creepy atmosphere and score
  • Morgan kills for Carol
  • Jeffrey Dean Morgan does Negan justice
  • Eugene’s brief heroic plan

Lowlights:

  • “Do you want this to be your last day on Earth” dialogue
  • Cliffhanger ending a cheap trick
  • Some of Negan’s comic dialogue just felt awkward on TV (“pee pee pants city”)

Stray Observations:

  • So…who died? I’m going with either Glenn or Daryl, with a narrative preference towards Daryl. In the comics, Glenn is much more a ‘right-hand man’ to Rick, but in the TV shows it’s really Daryl who takes that spot. If you’ve read the comics you can put together the rest. Other possibilities are Michonne (doubt it) and Abraham (likely, especially since he has been more developed as of late).
  • Father Gabriel and Spencer are protecting Alexandria. If The Saviours were really that smart they’d send Dwight with half the crew to attack. Having so many Saviours at the final scene really wasn’t necessary. I guess both sides aren’t too bright.

Episode MVP:  Definitely not whoever made the final call on it being a cliffhanger. Negan, but as far as heroes  goes, it would be Eugene for at least making that incredibly brave offer. And Morgan for finally killing out of necessity.