"You want to make today your last day on Earth?"
Early on in The Walking Dead season 6 finale, Rick poses this question to his mustachioed adversary — the sadistic right-hand of a man called Negan, who we've been hearing about all season. At the time, Rick is carrying himself with the arrogance of a man who thinks he has the upper hand, and isn't afraid to exploit it. But by the time he reaches his destination, where it becomes clear that the entire group is at the mercy of Negan's vicious band of Saviors, Rick's swagger has disappeared.
Unfortunately, the same might be said of The Walking Dead, which spent much of the season teasing this finale as a reckoning of Biblical proportions, only to botch the execution. Marred by poor pacing, maudlin music, and a climax that can only be described as high camp, the dreadful "Last Day on Earth" leaves the series in a position much like its characters: roadblocked.
On the strengths of the tight, focused episodes leading up to the finale, I'd almost forgotten that The Walking Dead is weakest when it takes a broad, bird's-eye view — and despite cramming half the cast into a run-down RV, "Last Day on Earth" is strangely aloof from its humans. With the exception of Carl, mustering the courage (and the arrogance) to act like his father, and Rick, face frozen in an awful grimace, the Alexandrians barely make an impression in this episode. Even Maggie, her medical condition worsening by the minute, receives short shrift.
In the heat of the moment, our heroes are almost as anonymous as the masses of Saviors in their path, and as a consequence there's not much to chew on until the Saviors gain the upper hand. (Based on the constant commercial breaks, it feels like the decision to extend the finale to 90 minutes was merely a way to sell more advertising.) By holding back on the action, "Last Day on Earth" first tests the viewer's patience and then, by the time the fourth roadblock bursts into flames, crosses into the absurd. A better version of this episode might have played up how much the Saviors are screwing with Rick and Co. — as seen in the Red Rover-style chain of captured walkers, dressed up to resemble Michonne and Daryl — but Rick just acknowledges it and moves on, pushing toward that big finish.
And that leaves The Walking Dead with one last rabbit in the hat: Negan, who finally arrives, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, to deliver that “shocking” ending we all knew was coming.
After all that hype, Negan turns out to be a leather-clad lesson in overplaying your hand, delivering a risible monologue sprinkled with phrases like "pee-pee pants city." It's at once disappointing and unsurprising; it's rare for an episode this atrocious to pull off the necessary Hail Mary. Still, for Negan to fail so spectacularly to live up to the hype is like rubbing salt in the wound — and, I'd venture, to undercut the successes of this season's latter episodes in order to set the table for the next one. The recent Walking Dead episodes have been so strong because they're imbued with the sense that the Alexandrians, in accruing power over other factions, were facing a genuine ethical and moral dilemma — between idealism and realpolitik, utopia and dystopia, kindness and killing. This made the characters' choices compelling even — or maybe especially — when those choices seemed indefensible.
But all the moral nuance has gone out the window with this caricature of a comic-book villain, clutching a barbed, blunt weapon he's named "Lucille" and reciting "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" to select the victim of his vengeance — a decision that The Walking Dead ultimately withholds from the audience, leaving the question of which cast member was killed as an unsatisfying cliffhanger to be resolved next fall.
Sure, the Alexandrians are back to being "the good guys," which is satisfying only in the childlike way of Negan's patois. His interminable monologue suggests a far more simplistic future for the series — a "next world" of bright lines and dark days that betrays the viewer's investment in the dense, complex, deeply human one that preceded it in recent weeks. With the introduction of Negan, we are, as Abraham says, "neck-deep up sh-t creek with our mouths wide open." It's hard to imagine how The Walking Dead's seventh season will wash out the taste.