Instead, it’s one of the biggest gaffes of the modern TV age.
It’s the anthem of a TV watching generation, really. I’ve been saying “WTF?” in the general direction of this series for nearly a decade, seemingly from the moment the show first began. And yet I’ve been watching consistently since, for reasons that become increasingly hard for me to pinpoint. Between inconsistent character development, half-hazard plotting, and of course the occasional bit of dumpster armor, The Walking Dead would never be what I describe as a “great” show.
But even I could never imagine the depths that the show could sink in the one-two combo that was “Last Day on Earth” and “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” These two episodes are truly the show’s definitive nadir, and even worst, there’s no reason they had to be. If the show made a few small changes, it could have created an all-time great moment in the annals of television. Instead? It made for some of the all-time worse.
By this point I’m sure you’ve realized I’m mostly talking about the big bat scene (scenes?) that served as the focal point of the show’s seventh season premiere, and could probably guess that full spoilers would thusly be in effect. But just in case…yeah, FULL SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD TV SERIES coming up.
Going into “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” my expectations were pretty damn low. The Walking Dead lost pretty much all my respect the moment it decided to cop out and give us that horrendous cliffhanger ending back in April, and I thought there was little the show could do to redeem itself after that. But I like to think I’m a pretty fair TV watcher: I would let the show resolve its cliffhanger, and then pass my complete judgement upon it then.
Well, the show has resolved its cliffhanger, and it’s complete and utter dogshit. But like I said above, IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY — the problems surrounding the big Negan kills didn’t lie in concept, but in execution, and that seems to be an overarching problem for the show in general.
The brunt of the execution misfire rests solely on that cliffhanger, one that will forever live in TV infamy alongside “Fonzie jumps the shark” and “Dexter becomes a lumberjack for some reason.” In just one fell swoop, the show undid literally everything it was working for, all the tension and suspense that was planted so surprisingly well throughout “Last Day on Earth.” That episode was all about getting the group to a point in which they felt trapped like animals, going up against literally unstoppable odds and powerless to fight back. That was the core of “Last Day on Earth,” and if it had ended with the ultimate display of powerlessness that was the dual execution of Abraham and Glenn, it would have made for an amazing ten minutes of television (we’re talking “Red Wedding” type stuff here.)
Because on the surface, killing both Abraham AND Glenn would have been a legitimate shock, and a strong distillation of the “game” that the show plays on all of its viewers. The idea of Glenn being the one to face Lucille has been planted in viewers head’s for years now, what with the comic book influencing expectations for even non-readers like myself. By killing Abraham first, it sets up an air of safety — because everyone was expecting Glenn to die, NOT killing him would have come as a relief…and subsequently killing him seconds later would have been more shocking than ever. In a vacuum, it would have made for a bloody, memorable, and yes, iconic scene of television.
But TV is not made in a vacuum. TV is composed of many parts, literally dozens of hours spread out in just the right way to get the most emotional impact from viewers. And it is here where everybody involved in this show has failed us.
Because even taking the cliffhanger element away, continuing to withhold the information of who died until the 15 minute mark of the premiere was a horrible choice. “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” embarrassingly tried to rebuild the tension that it had lost in the six month break since we last saw the show, to slim results. Its opening showed Rick threatening Negan due to how pissed he was about what he just did, which kind of fell on his face because WE HAD NO IDEA WHAT HE JUST DID, and thus didn’t share Rick’s rage quite yet. It would have been an excellent note to kick off the season IF we already saw Glenn and Abraham get murdered, because we would already be hating Negan for it. But taken as a whole, it’s a bizarre way to set things off.
Even more bizarre is what happens later, as Rick and Negan take off in the RV FOR NO FUCKING reason, leaving everybody else to just sit around and let their knees get sore. Adding more fuel to the shit fire is Rick’s mental state, as he envisions EVERYONE getting hit with the back, y’know, just to REALLY make you think about it. I could only imagine that Scott Gimple and the rest of the writers stood quietly offstage doing this:
Meanwhile Negan is speechifying the whole fucking time, a constant throughout the entirety of the premiere. Him doing so at the end of the Season 6 finale made sense, and through the talents of Jeffrey Dean Morgan worked pretty well. But brevity is the soul of wit, and after the 17th time that Negan made the same exact speech about how much of a stupid-ass cuck Rick was and how sick and cool he is, the material started to get stale REALLY fast.
And that’s before we go back to the big “eenie meenie miney moe” scene — you know, the one you’ve already watched before, like six months ago. Don’t you want to watch it again? ISN’T THE TENSION JUST KIIIIIILLLING YOU…AGAIN?! At this point The Walking Dead is basically giving its audience half a handie, then stopping to give a speech about how much they OWN you with a devious smile across their face. Essentially, The Walking Dead is doing this:
And then FINALLY we get to see the big moment in which Negan kills two of Rick’s group, at a random point in the first act of the episode, where it leaves little impact taken on its own. Going back to our hand job metaphor, The Walking Dead’s joy at playing with me has now actively turned me off: I just want them to get off already, so we can stop the whole damn thing. All the excitement is gone, all the pleasure has disappeared. I just want the whole experience to conclude, so I can go and watch Westworld or something.
And that’s really what is so baffling: If the show couldn’t make an impactful season closer out of the sequence, the least they could have done is made a memorable season opening. But instead they did neither, choosing rather to have the big reveal land after the first commercial break. Which seems to be a nice little metaphor for this entire fucking thing: rather than do what was artistically better for the show in the long run, AMC ran with (or in my TV conspiracy nut brain, directly demanded) it just so they could have a strong marketing campaign to lead into the next season. Nothing more, nothing less.
Because, after all, the big mystery of who Negan killed SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN A FUCKING MYSTERY. “Who Killed Mr. Burns?” this is not — this mystery was artificial and unnatural, and I had little fun “guessing” at what might end up happening. And, ultimately, none of the social media impressions or fan interaction to this “controversial ending” was worth the trouble. Cutting away when the show did wasn’t just a cop-out: it literally goes against pretty much everything I’ve learned about how to construct suspense, or how to build up tension. As a viewer, I’m appalled. But as a writer? I’m horrified.
In the ever present war of art vs. commerce, commerce won here, and no one is better off for it. If the mixed-to-negative reaction to the whole thing is anything to go by, being so stupid with this big moment might have turn away more viewers than it added. At the end of the day, I’m not sure the decision to play around with the timeline of this event (and artificially stretch it out so it lasted for two excruciating episodes) proved a worthwhile affair. This is the kind of thing that will cause fans to make their own “fan edits,” to “fix” the chronology and flaws that the creators so pointlessly pushed upon them. When that edit comes, it will probably be pretty great.
But the legacy of How I Met Your Mother wasn’t restored when they released the alternate ending. People don’t remember the Star Wars prequels as masterful just because a fan went in and made them better. Once again, TV is not made in a vacuum, and what’s done has indeed been done. More than ever before, this show’s legacy has been absolutely tarnished. So once again, I must ask:
What the fuck was that, Walking Dead?