‘The Walking Dead’ Season 6 Finale Review: Cliffhanger Ending Ruins Impact of ‘Last Day On Earth’
Recap and review of The Walking Dead – Season 6 Finale – Last Day On Earth:
Well, that was cheap. Sure, The Walking Dead is a show that builds tension through unease. And a big chunk of unease is born from uncertainty. “Last Day On Earth” keeps us on our toes throughout the 90-minute runtime. We know disaster is right around the corner, but we just don’t know who’s going to be on the receiving end of it. It’s a strong hook to carry us through an episode that, for much of its runtime, isn’t exactly all that engaging. It builds up to one of the best, most intense climaxes in the history of the show, a moment so strong that it would have been the high water mark of the entire series…if not for an ending that pretty much amounts to a slap in the face.
The episode’s story, such as it is, involves Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the others venturing beyond the walls of Alexandria to get help for Maggie (Lauren Cohan), only to find themselves accosted by Saviors at every corner. Every road Rick and co. tries to travel down, they find either Saviors or Savior-deployed walker traps blocking their path. At one such stop, they find walkers with Daryl’s arrows in their chest, and Michonne’s hair on their head, a clear warning sign from the Saviors: we have your people. That ominous sense of dread builds, with the group coming across a man who’s been turned into an example for Rick’s group, as the Saviors string him up with a chain and hang him over the side of a bridge. It’s terrifying stuff, and it only gets more unsettling once night falls and the whistling starts. It’s a thoroughly unsettling scene that sets the stage for what’s to come, as Rick and his group find themselves surrounded by the Saviors, with nowhere left to turn. The Saviors introduce our survivors to the comrades they’ve captured, including Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who separated from the group to try and create a diversion, after sharing a surprisingly emotional goodbye with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). After a pulse-pounding tease, we’re finally introduced to Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his arrival signals the end for one of the core survivors. Or, at the very least, it should.
One of the things I loved about the finale was Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s take on Negan, as he embodies the menace and arrogance of the comic book version. It’s a portrayal that feels three-dimensional right out the gate, whereas I’m not sure I could say the same about many other villains the group has come across, like The Governor or the Terminus weirdos. With that said, the biggest shame of the finale is that Jeffrey Dean Morgan doesn’t get to perform the entirety of the iconic “Something to Fear” comic book scene. In short, Negan decides he doesn’t want to kill Rick’s group, since he’d rather have them working for him, which they can’t do if they’re dead. But they still need to be taught a lesson, so he decided to pick one person at random to be bashed to death by Lucille, Negan’s barbed wire-covered baseball bat. It’s a wonderfully jittery scene, building fear and panic in equal measure, as Negan goes down the line and taunts each and every member of Rick’s crew, prompting Rick to get fed up and ask him to stop. This is among the few times I can remember seeing Rick genuinely fearful, and it’s effective largely due to its contrast with how Rick was earlier in the episode, and how he’s been throughout the season. There’s a certain amount of hubris in how Rick has been running the Alexandria community. He feels his group is so effective and infallible that it’s inconceivable to him that this ever would have happened. Early in the episode, Rick warns a group of Saviors that today might be their last day on Earth, to which the Savior responds that he should consider the same possibility. Yet Rick never does, even knowing the threats that loom out there. This tragedy is likely to mark a change in how Rick handles things from here on out (I mean, really now, they’re not going to have Rick be the one getting Lucille’d, after all). That could be good for his character, even while it’s not particularly great for the remaining members of his group, since one of them does have to die. And, lo and behold, we don’t find out which person gets bludgeoned to death. As Negan picks someone, the camera shifts to the point-of-view of the person getting beaten. True to the comic, Negan beats the person senseless while exclaiming how they’re taking the beating like a champ. Unlike the comics, however, the screen goes black before we can find out who actually dies.
Cliffhangers can be effective if they’re well-done, but this one just wasn’t. And when you factor in that the impact is going to be lessened considerably by the fact that we’ll know who died as soon as set reports leak (or whenever the San Diego Comic Con trailer debuts), then it makes even less sense to have done it this way. There’s also the larger issue that this is an iconic moment from the comic books that people have been waiting to see onscreen for a long time. Of course, I can live with the scene not being faithful to the comics. That’s not really what’s sticking in my craw. The bigger issue with the ending as a whole is just how disrespectful it is to the audience, especially considering 1) they already pulled this ending last week with Daryl and waited until the last few minutes of this finale to resolve it, and 2) it leaves the episode feeling woefully incomplete. The theme of the episode, and the season at large, has been how Rick’s hubris leads to this moment, right here, with Negan. For the consequences to have resonance, and for the season to come full circle to its logical conclusion, we needed to see someone lose their life. It’s not as effective to be held in suspense, because people have lives. They move on. And hey, maybe the Season 7 premiere will be great, but it’s going to be virtually impossible not to get the name of the person who died spoiled at some point over the next six months, whether they change the person from the one who dies in the comics, or whether they go in an entirely different direction. The impact is now, not six months from now. Robert Kirkman and Scott Gimple have essentially damaged the viewers’ trust in their show, because there’s no way of knowing that our emotional investment will be worth the payoff. In the fall, many assumed Glenn had died, only to spend the better part of a month waiting for the show to get around to revealing that, well, no. He didn’t die. It smacks of bad writing, and cheap ratings stunts, all for a show that’s in absolutely no danger of getting canceled any time soon. You’re better than this, The Walking Dead.
And yes, we do get some measure of closure in the side story with Carol (Melissa McBride) and Morgan (Lennie James), as Morgan breaks his “no killing” rule in order to save Carol from a vengeful Savior. But it still feels like empty consolation. Morgan and Carol receive medical aid from the man whose horse Morgan finds this week, but beyond the reveal that, thankfully, they seem like genuinely good people, we don’t get much of an indication that anything is going to change. Is Carol still done with killing? Will she return to Alexandria? Will she actually stay there this time? They’re questions I wish I cared more about, but Carol’s entire premise — that the only way to keep from killing is to separate herself from the people she’d kill to protect — is flawed, particularly since she murdered a bunch of Saviors last week to save her own life. She wasn’t protecting anyone but herself, yet she still feels this compulsive need to set herself apart from everyone else. It’s a strange road to take the character down, and I’m not entirely sure it works right now. Granted, this is the one storyline that I think could potentially be salvaged in Season 7, as Carol and Morgan’s bond develops.
But a solid Morgan/Carol storyline or some creepy moments aren’t really enough to salvage a season finale that had all the potential in the world, but which, ultimately, dropped the ball. “Last Day On Earth” really ought to have been an all-time great episode for The Walking Dead, but as it stands now, it’s really just “okay,” and not a whole lot more. And whatever positives are to be found come largely in those final ten minutes. And those positives are quickly overshadowed by the overwhelming negative of that cliffhanger ending.
But what did you think of the season finale of The Walking Dead, “Last Day On Earth”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on The Walking Dead, have some lighthearted fun watching Lauren Cohan on Lip Sync Battle!