It was the tacky POV shot seen round the country. It wouldn’t be fair to call the finale of The Walking Dead’s sixth season divisive because I can’t recall hearing anyone have anything good to say about the episode’s now-infamous cliffhanger ending.
In summation of a previous post, last season’s finale squandered what was a disciplined hour of stomach-turning tension, built up slowly and steadily over the course of the episode, on a gimmicky cliffhanger that put the idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” to the test.
The Walking Dead set a high bar for itself on the occasion of its most recent season premiere as it didn’t only have to resolve the aforementioned gimmick of a cliffhanger, it also had to convince viewers that cliffhanger wasn’t a gimmick in the first place.
They certainly managed to resolve the cliffhanger.
Rather than try to compensate for the harsh reaction to the previous episode, last night’s premiere leaned in to the same kind of stunt storytelling, drawing out the big reveal for as many commercial breaks as possible (though if I’m being totally fair I do have to wonder if the delayed reveal was at all influenced by just how much violence they could get away with at 9:30 rather than 9:00). But not only was the reveal delayed, it was delayed by a combination of on-the-nose sentimentality and an unabashed retreading of the final minutes of last season’s finale (and here’s what it looked like from here, and here’s what it looked like from over there, and here’s what it looked like from in a tree…). That retreading is particularly infuriating given that the rationale the show’s shepherds gave for the big cliffhanger in question was that it was a clear point of demarcation that ended one story and began another.
The second by second recap that takes up the first chunk of Season Seven’s premiere muddies up that line of demarcation between Season Six’s ending and Season Seven’s beginning until it is a near-perfect-circular of a Venn diagram.
Holding off on the reveal did manage to regain an infinitesimal bit of the tension from the previous episode that was so recklessly squandered at the altar of the Dukes of Hazard, but it’s a stunt that only works (to whatever extent it worked) once. Rewatching huge swaths of the episode will likely prove a thankless, tedious undertaking as with the reveal having been, you know, revealed, you’re essentially just going to be watching the same sequence over and over again.
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of all of this cliffhanger blues is that the story being told across the two episodes in question is pretty compelling stuff. The tried and true cast fully commits to the nauseating hopelessness of their situation and newcomer Jeffrey Dean Morgan displays perfect balance walking (dead, amiright?) the tightrope between deplorable and charismatic. To “fix” the last two episodes of The Walking Dead you wouldn’t have to shoot so much as an additional second of film. Somewhere out there in the infinite multiverse there’s a seamless cut of these past two episodes that goes in chronological order and never looks back and damnit it just might be the best episode of The Walking Dead yet. Seriously. But due almost exclusively to the manner in which the material was presented, the two episodes we got in this universe were something less. Such is the power of post-production.
Long story short, the Season Seven premiere of The Walking Dead isn’t going to do jack shit to retcon how irritating the end of the Season Six premiere was.
If nothing else, the questionable handling of Negan’s introduction proves just how impactful a sequence writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard originally crafted four years ago in the pages of The Walking Dead #100. Even the most infuriating editorial shenanigans couldn’t entirely offset how affecting a cocktail of controlled, sadistic brutality and utter impotent helplessness the main event is. It’s easily the scariest The Walking Dead has ever been and it’s a piece of work that lends credence to the idea that true horror stems from a loss of control. It isn’t just the wonton cruelty on display that is so chilling, it’s our hero’s utter lack of recourse in the face of it that makes it so hard to watch.
The Walking Dead television show may have fumbled in its unveiling of the story beats at hand but it also failed to dilute one of the most upsetting, monumental sequences ever to come out of the source material, which I guess is some kind of victory.