Everything The Walking Dead needed to cap off what could have arguably been one of the best season finales in recent memory was at its fingertips. It had been written four years ago, and the only thing that Scott Gimple needed to do was find the perfect actor to play the series’ greatest villain and execute exactly what Robert Kirkman had written.
The Walking Dead producers found their man in Jeffrey Dean Morgan. After only 10 minutes, it’s apparent that he was the perfect Negan. He owns that role, and Negan has quickly risen to the top of the list of the most hate-fuckable characters on television. He is evil and he should die a brutal, violent death, but maybe let him stick around for three or four seasons first. He’s exactly what this show needs: A huge, identifiable threat with which everyone else can rally around. After the series is done with him, maybe they can even replace Fear the Walking Dead with a Negan prequel because I want that guy on our televisions as much as possible.
What’s more is that the scene in question from last night’s season finale basically played out exactly as it was written in the comics. It had its “pee pee” moment, the “eenie meenie miney moe,” and the crack to the skull we’ve all been waiting on for the last six months. It was so good, in fact, that we could forgive the 40 minutes of commercials that preceded it, and the annoying way in which the series dragged out the introduction with pointless roadblock after pointless roadblock.
Everything about that scene was near perfect television.
Then they ruined it.
They didn’t do it by changing the storyline, but by changing the point of view. We didn’t get to see Glenn get his head bashed in by Lucille. Instead, we got blackness and grunts and screams and ambiguity (although, I think most agree that it was probably still Glenn who got his head bashed in).
Everything was dashed by that one decision to change the point of view and prolong the identity of the victim for another six months. Why? If you ask Scott Gimple or Robert Kirkman, it was because this season wasn’t about who Negan was going to kill. It was about shaking Rick’s confidence. The beginning of the next story, they argue, begins with the identity of the victim. That may have been true in their minds, but in the minds of the 18 million people watching last night, this story was about who Negan was going to kill.
It’s bullshit because the next story could still easily begin with the death of (probably) Glenn, and absolutely nothing is lost in the seventh season by knowing now who it is before we embark upon that storyline. They’ve gained nothing by making us wait and lost so much. Maybe the next six months will be dominated by questions about who died, but more than likely, the conversation is going to be about how badly The Walking Dead fucked up. That will be the headline, and the subhead will be, “Identity of Negan’s First Victim Unknown.”
I wouldn’t call it bad writing, either. Or even an attempt to extract more money out of AMC’s cash cow, because whether we know who dies or not, everyone is still going to tune in for the seventh season finale. The only difference now is that some will tune in only to find out who died before they write the show off for good if Gimple doesn’t quickly give us the episode that he claims will justify the cliffhanger (that’s assuming, of course, that we don’t find out who died months before it airs, because the Internet ruins everything, even things that have already been ruined).
I still don’t think it was bad writing: It was a miscalculation. I honestly don’t think there was a cynical attempt to manipulate the audience. I think that Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman wanted to create a “hatch” moment, or a “Who Shot J.R.?” moment, and they badly misjudged how the audience would react. They thought the audience would exclaim, “You bastards!” and then punch them on the shoulder kiddingly and sit in front of their televisions for six months waiting for the next episode.
Instead, they reacted with a giant fuck you.
Ultimately, it’s going to cost The Walking Dead a number of viewers, because while the initial death scare involving Glenn and even last week’s death scare with Daryl (an afterthought in the finale) created some short-term excitement, it also cost the series some trust and good will. We’ll give a series some leeway to jerk us around, but not this much leeway, and the cliffhanger last night was a bridge too far. This is how the backlash begins, and you can’t put that back in the bottle.
This will be a turning point for the highest rated series on television, and probably the beginning of the end for the series. People who have read the comics know that there are still some intriguing plotlines ahead, but nothing on the level of Negan’s introduction and nothing that will ultimately justify the cliffhanger in the season finale.