I’ve read some of the outrage about the season 6 finale of The Walking Dead—and I have to confess that I don’t feel it. I haven’t loved every episode of the series, but I loved the season finale.
I was prepared to hate it. I heard the rumors about the impending death of a major character (who didn’t?), as well as spoilers suggesting that the episode was going to end in a cliffhanger. Someone would die, and everyone was furiously wondering who it would be.
I was ready to feel angry, to feel manipulated. But instead, I watched the episode in an increasing state of captivation—and dread. And during the last thirty minutes or so, with the entrance of Negan, I was not only captivated but I felt physically sick, dread pushing on my stomach, my chest.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t, upon calmer reflection, have some problems with the episode. It was a little contrived, to say the least, that all the major characters, one after the other, departed Alexandria in the last couple of episodes. And the little speeches before Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) got on the bus in the finale teetered on the squirm-inducing.
I also remain bemused about what’s going on with Carol (Melissa McBride). She seems to have done no less (in the way of violence) than many of the other characters, and yet she seems uniquely singled out. While the others were all rounded up by Negan, she had her own individual confrontation with a different Savior; she had her moment of reckoning alone, at least until Morgan (Lennie James) came and saved the day (also a bit contrived). But maybe this development is actually true to Carol’s character. After all, while everyone else is gathered to be punished by Negan (and don’t they deserve it?), Carol has come to recognize on her own that she’s gone too far, that she needs to save herself (her soul) before she’s gone so far she can’t be saved. In some ways, Carol’s confrontation with the Savior, who shoots her twice—making her suffer, is testament to Carol’s self-awareness. She’s no further gone than the others. She just know it, feels it, needs death or redemption. They don’t.
What happened to the group in the RV, though, I found utterly and viscerally chilling. The constant driving, trying to get to Hilltop, to a doctor for Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and the repeated roadblocks was absolutely the stuff of nightmares. The group kept driving and kept arriving at the same place. Except every time they drove and yet returned to the thing they just left, it was worse—more terrifying, more grotesque. They were in some sort of hell, and the flames of the fifth roadblock, with the body hanging from the nearby bridge, just intensified the sense that they had entered some surreal and sadistic landscape, one they were never going to be able to escape.
That Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his Saviors always seemed to know exactly what the group would do next, even when they abandoned the RV at a seemingly random location and set out on foot, also made it clear that they (and we along with them) were not in the sane, rational world anymore. None of them were in this nightmare by accident, moreover. Step by step, they chose this path—by leaping in with such alacrity, before they knew who and what they were dealing with, to dispense with the Saviors in return for Hilltop’s goods and, most of all, for preemptively killing Negan’s men, for stabbing them in their sleep and burning them alive before they did anything wrong (that the group knew of). They chose this road (the road that, whichever way they went, led to Negan) by being arrogant. And everyone know hubris comes before a fall. As Negan eloquently says to Rick (Andrew Lincoln): “Sucks, don’t it, moment you realize you don’t know shit.”
It’s obviously the ending scene with Negan—the death—that has stirred up most of the rage viewers feel. We see death coming and then come, as do the characters, but none of us knows to whom. I thought I’d be angry at this evasion. But I wasn’t. Because the entire point of that last scene, it turns out, is that they all deserve this; they have all earned this punishment. The group skirted the line and then crossed it. It wasn’t just Rick, or Michonne, or Glenn, or Abraham, or Sasha, or Daryl; it was all of them. The nightmare was a collective nightmare, and their punishment was thus a collective punishment.
If we had found out who was killed that terrible night, then that single person would have borne the burden of the entire group’s mistakes, of its pride and its brutality. That’s not right. For now, they’re all bearing it, as they should. When the camera stopped panning from one to the other, picking each of them out in turn, and we were suddenly sunk in the point of view of Negan’s arbitrarily-chosen victim, it was exactly as it should be. The perspective was anonymous—looking not looked at. It could have been any one of them and in many ways it was.
On The Talking Dead afterwards, much was made by Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan) and Scott Gimple of how all the actors chose to stay in character during the shooting of the last scene, kneeling on the ground in the freezing cold night—even though they were off camera most of the time. Morgan said that on any other TV show, he would have been acting to props. I wonder if the actors, too, like their characters, knew that the scene demanded all of them, was about all of them, even when they were off camera.
In a bit of (I think) intentional irony, Rick says earlier in the episode, to Maggie, that they’ve always made it because they’ve always been “together”—“all of us together.” Because “as long as it’s all of us, we can do anything.” This is exactly part of the hubris that leads them to Negan—and their reckoning had to be “all of them together.”