As has been teased all season, this week finally featured the introduction of Negan, a villain that fans of the "Walking Dead" comics know well – and apparently love, for some reason, even though he steals from and murders lots of people? Sure. Unfortunately, I have never read those comics, and thus came upon my limited knowledge of Negan thanks to some unfortunate internet spoilers and the few clues that were sprinkled throughout this season. Was I excited for his arrival? No. Was I surprised by anything he did or said tonight? No. Did I find him "charming," a word that's been inexplicably tossed around to describe him? Nope. Not even close.
I suppose this is where my ignorance of the source material puts me at a disadvantage, but I'd argue that that's more the fault of the show than it is mine. The series has distinguished itself from the comics since its inception, dramatically altering the trajectories of several major characters, and condensing and cutting people and events to fit the showrunners' vision. I had believed up until now that my unfamiliarity with the comics didn't matter, that I could enjoy the show on its own merits and as its own entity without that background knowledge. But after this snoozefest of a season finale, and what I found to be a wholly stupid introduction of an allegedly awesome character, I think it's safe to say that my needs as an independent viewer matter less than those of the existing readership.
Outside of the television critics I follow on Twitter (here's a sample reaction that sums up the critical consensus), I realize that mine will probably be an unpopular opinion. From what I've gathered so far based on the (limited) online reaction I've seen from fans, Negan was a hit, despite the fact that we never did get to see exactly who he hit. Problems with that specific cliffhanger aside (and make no mistake, it was a laughably awful and unnecessary one – as if diehard "Walking Dead" viewers needed incentive to tune in for another season), reaction has been kind to Jeffrey Dean Morgan's performance. He lost me, however, as soon as he uttered the phrase "pee-pee pants city."
Yes, the so-called greatest villain in "Walking Dead" history used those exact words to attempt to strike fear into our survivors' (and viewers') hearts, and all I could think was, "Are you sure you're a grown man?" That line comes straight from the comics, so, okay, points for accuracy, I guess? But again, as I said above, the show has deviated from those works before. I think it would have been wise to do so here.
Because no matter who wound up on the other end of that bat – and again, to remind you, producers decided to call cut before revealing anything, a monumentally stupid decision to cap a season teeming with them – I just can't bring myself to find the Saviors' behavior threatening at all. The shot of them standing in a circle, dozens strong, surrounding our survivors and menacingly wielding weapons, was initially chilling; then Big Forehead Guy opened his mouth, and I lost all interest. You can tell these characters are based on those found on the pages of a comic, because they're so two-dimensionall they're cartoonish to the point of being hilarious, and most definitely not in a good way. I'm not sure why or how Negan choosing his first victim via the "eeny meeny miny moe" system was supposed to be threatening (perhaps on an ironic level?), but that cringe-inducing juxtaposition failed spectacularly on every level.
But, okay, I told myself. We're finally going to find out who winds up on the other end of that bat, right? That devastating reveal is going to make all of this worth it. Silly me. I actually believed, in my heart of hearts, that after a season of fakeouts and foreshadowing and frustration, that surely there would at least be some resolution to this specific plot point. And then, naturally, we faded to black. Again.
So that's where we leave this season, with a bloated mess of an episode with no momentum (thanks, endless commercial breaks!), no real stakes (oh, there's an outside threat trying to take down our core group? Shocking!), and no real answers (but hey, tune in next week to "Fear The Walking Dead"!). The only thing about that cliffhanger that was surprising was that its employment was surprising at all, but then again, there was really no other way for this mess of a season to end. The writers have enjoyed jerking viewers around for the past 15 episodes; what's another six months?
- So yeah, trying to figure out that cliffhanger is impossible, because it could literally be anyone. But let's try anyway, shall we?
* If you'll allow me a quick SPOILER from the comics (and if you'd prefer to remain in the dark, please proceed to the next bullet point), I'd guess that we can write off Glenn – the person who gets Lucille'd on the page – as the target, after the aforementioned dumpster dive fakeout. (Then again, the showrunners may try to claim that that whole debacle was a big bit of foreshadowing, so what do I know?)
* Killing Maggie would just be cruel, since she's pregnant and also suffering from some sort of serious medical emergency (the details of which we may never know, since the group's efforts to get her to the Hilltop OBGYN were thwarted at every turn).
* Daryl would be a logical pick, since he could stand in for Glenn as one of the original Atlanta survivors to take the fall. But we all know that fans would riot if he goes, and Daryl has some unfinished business with Dwight, too, that would be greatly undermined if he were the victim here. (Plus, Norman Reedus has already shot his motorcycle adventure series – coming soon to AMC, in case you missed that specific commercial break – so it's not like he would need to leave for that.)
* If anyone may get killed off to accommodate the actor's other projects, it's Michonne, since Danai Gurira has been extremely busy lately with a burgeoning stage and film career. (And Michonne's death would drive Rick mad, propelling his quest for revenge.)
* If we're going with what the show has deliberately set up, then either Abe or Eugene would be next in line, since both have had some big character moments this season, thus pegging them for doom. Abe declared his love for Sasha, and tonight told her he wanted to have kids with her. And Eugene has been slowly asserting himself as a capable survivor, learning how to fight off zombies and coming up with the plan to manufacture more bullets. He and Abe have also repaired their rocky relationship, sharing a sweet embrace as Eugene bravely volunteered to drive off in the RV as a distraction to draw away the Saviors. They're both marked men as far as I'm concerned, so naturally, I'll be proven totally wrong.
* Given Rick's recent penchant for spouting one-liners that wouldn't be out of place in "Chicken Soup for the Soul" (and his romance with Michonne), he'd seem like an easy target, too. But I just don't think the showrunners have the stones to kill off their main character – at least not yet, anyway. Give it time. That'll probably be the season seven finale cliffhanger.
- Morgan continues his search for Carol, and almost immediately finds her, huddled on the stoop of an abandoned library and badly wounded. Morgan patches her up, and wants to take her back to Alexandria for some antibiotics; Carol refuses, repeating her mantra about not wanting to be around people she cares about, because then she'd have to kill for them. She then pulls a gun on Morgan to make him back off, which makes tons of sense based on her just-delivered anti-killing monologue. Morgan, standing in for exasperated viewers, points out that she's already killed after she swore not to, so, c'mon already, just come home. But no, Carol refuses and bolts.
- Carol eventually finds herself staring down the barrel of Black Boot Guy's gun. He metes out his bullets, shooting her several times slowly and relishing in her agony as she writhes in pain. But it's Morgan to the rescue again, wielding a gun of his own and pleading with the Savior to let her go. Just as Black Boot Guy aims to kill Carol, Morgan finally rediscovers his backbone and shoots the hell out of him, emptying his weapon into the Savior. I'm sure season seven will dwell far too long on The Ramifications of This Life-Changing Decision, but it was satisfying to see Morgan finally snap out of his annoying zen trance.
- As Morgan stands over Carol's bleeding body, Mysterious Armored Guy – the one who was looking for his horse last week – approaches, and he's got a friend, also clad in armor and riding a horse. (They're his knights in shining armor, in case you didn't get that metaphor.) Morgan tells them he needs help, and the man immediately reaches out and shakes Morgan's hand, pledging his support. It's refreshing to see the introduction of a non-nefarious stranger, and the fact that this is such an odd occurrence speaks volumes about how bleak this show has become.
- I'm not sure why the Saviors were convinced that the guy they chased down at the beginning of the episode was from Alexandria, and I also don't understand why Negan didn't mention it when he had Rick on his knees. It just seems like an odd mistake for the group to make, and then to completely ignore it later in the episode (surely Negan could have thrown in a reference to "your friend who we dangled off the bridge" in his never-ending monologue?) also seemed off. But then again, the showrunners needed to fill 93 minutes' worth of airtime; why not waste some of it on a pointless mix-up?
- Yet another quibble I have with the Saviors: That freaking whistling. I get that it's a signal, but when they already had Rick's group surrounded, what on earth was the point of letting it echo for so long? As I said last week, it felt very much like a "Hunger Games" rip-off. The ridiculousness of that similarity did not diminish tonight.
- And another thing: So. Many. Roadblocks. I know I joked that these people were the kings of this particular surprise tactic, but seriously. The endless roadblocks, followed immediately by an ill-timed commercial break, became kind of hilarious after a while.
- I will concede, however, that there was one bit of villainy that I did actually find appropriately evil: The moment when Rick and co. realized that the zombies that were chained across the road were dressed like their friends, with one of them sporting Michonne's leather vest (and a couple of her dreads), and another pierced with some of Daryl's arrows. That's a pretty twisted bit of taunting, so well-played on that front, Saviors.
- Rick leaves Father Gabriel in charge in Alexandria, fulfilling my prophecy from a couple weeks ago. He's there with Spencer, who asks Rick if maybe they should just try to strike a deal with the Saviors, should the villains come knocking. Rick gives Spencer his best "bitch, please" face, though he's a lot more diplomatic in his verbal response to that ridiculous suggestion, quickly shooting him down.
- I've avoided it as long as I could, but I guess I should address more of the specifics of what went down with Negan. We discover that he's taken Eugene prisoner, and Negan then forces Rick, Carl, Abe, Sasha, Aaron, and Maggie (who he made get off her stretcher – kind of a d—k move, even for this guy) onto their knees. He proceeds to trot out Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, and Rosita, and places them into a row with everyone else. Then, the endless monologue begins, where he explains the Saviors' raison d'être (take half of everything other communities have, and if they can't supply it, force them to steal it on the Saviors' behalf; kill at least one community member right at the beginning, to prove their menacing mettle). He dubs the Alexandrians' strike on the Savior compound "not cool," declaring, "You don't mess with the new world order." "You thought you were safe," he sneers, directing his comments to Rick. "But the world's not. ... Sucks, don't it – the moment you realize you don't know s—t." Negan repeats the stupid whistling trick, finishes his endless "eeny meeny" rhyme (god, that went on forever), and chooses his victim. We hear the crack of Lucille-on-skull, see blood splash onto the camera lens, and then everything goes dark.
- That final shot may wind up being the very last one I watch on this show. I realize it's clichéd to threaten to quit a TV series after an unfortunate episode, but my antipathy has been brewing all season – and tonight's events may have pushed me over the edge. I don't know if I can bring myself to watch an entire season of Negan's preening, to breathlessly wait for the next brutal baseball bat beating, to watch characters like Carol completely abandon their personalities, and wallow in the despair that the Saviors promise. "The Walking Dead" has made it abundantly clear that it can do without viewers like me; maybe I should finally take the hint.
Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC