Making Sense of the Death-Teasing 'Walking Dead' Cliffhanger

This article contains spoilers -- and spoiler-ish theories -- about the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, "Last Day on Earth."

Few words induce a groan as reliably as “to be continued.” But that’s how The Walking Dead concluded Season 6 -- a hair-clutching, armpit-fanning, remote-throwing cliffhanger. 

Negan, the much-discussed and much-feared leader of the Saviors, made his long-awaited debut, courtesy of actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He brought our heroes to their knees. He introduced Lucille, his wire-wrapped baseball bat. And after the world’s most harrowing game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe, he took a two-handed swing into the tender head of... someone. We don’t know. We won’t know until the Season 7 premiere. 

walking dead finale recap spoilers

Readers of the comic knew that the notorious Negan was en route to this series and that he would arrive in a spectacularly deadly fashion. But who would be his victim? We’ve guessed and speculated. We’ve weighed the odds. And this season, we were denied the answer. Months of anticipation culminated in a cop-out. We could suppose that it’s Glenn. We have reason to believe it might be Daryl. It could even be Rick -- unlikely as that seems right now. The fact of the matter is we have no idea who Negan just murdered. And despite the evidence -- internet sleuths are already scrutinizing Negan’s every look and glance for clues -- this isn’t a lingering question we’ll solve soon.

One thing we can say with certainty: this cliffhanger was infuriating. The Walking Dead has never been particularly generous with its audience, true. (Most of us are just beginning to forgive the show for its mismanagement of Glenn’s faux-death late last year -- a pretty quintessential case of dramatic dishonesty.) But even by the standards of the series, this strikes me as colossally unfair. For eight weeks now, the writers have been making Negan out to be the boogeyman to end all boogeymen, terrifically scary and indomitable but also apparently too busy or secretive to be seen. That they’ve spent so much time building up the menace of a prospective Big Bad is reasonable, even if it did mean some glacial plotting and Gabbo-like promotion. But after eight weeks, surely we deserve a reward. We’ve been patient. It’s time to show us what we’ve been waiting for.

Of course, the disappointment was only momentary, the final beat of a 90-minute finale. Until that point, we’d been enjoying an exciting season finale. "Last Day on Earth" did an excellent job of expanding the scope of the Saviors. A threat Rick and the others long assumed would be easily handled -- some macho threat they could kill on a whim -- has turned out to be much, much more intimidating, a fact it would have helped our heroes to know before starting an ill-advised war.

the walking dead negan finale spoilers

How many Saviors have the Alexandrians killed over the last several weeks? Dozens. “They’ve got numbers,” somebody pointed out last night. No kidding: they’ve got numbers enough to block multiple routes to the Hilltop, numbers enough to pull off elaborate plans, numbers enough to withstand (and hardly mind) any incurred losses. And the Saviors are smart. They’re organized. They’re able to strategize and set traps, as they did with the lumber fire and red-rover line of walkers. Not only can they outwit Rick, they tease him and make him a fool, like a cat and its prey. In a way, it doesn’t matter who Negan killed in the end. The bigger point has already been made: the Saviors are major players. And the Alexandrians are out of their league.

Negan himself is a new kind of villain for this series. Check out that leather jacket. That sonorous voice. That smile. “This is Lucille and she is awesome,” Negan brags, in terrifyingly high spirits. He’s like a pro wrestler turning heel. You get the sense that all of this -- the mystique, the showy entrance, the threatening larger-than-life charm -- is for the benefit of intimidation. Negan is a stage-managed ruler. He understands that if you want instill fear and wield authority, you have to demand it of the people beneath you. And the demands are a whole lot more effective if the style is theatrical.

You could say that none of this would have happened if our heroes hadn’t blundered. In a sense that’s true: a siege by the Saviors on Alexandria wouldn’t have been quite so successful, you have to imagine, even with the staggering numbers, so maybe the gang should have stayed at home.

But keep in mind Rick’s perspective on the situation. He’s vanquished a lot of pretty nasty enemies in his time -- some of them so bad that he probably doesn’t think it can get much worse. And up until the finale, his run-ins with the Saviors have ended in easy victory. He has no reason to believe they’re worth fearing. But if "Last Day on Earth" had a message, it’s just that: our survivors need to fear the Saviors. It’s clear that Rick hasn’t been taking Negan seriously. He’s figured it’s under control. It’s not, we now know. And going forward, it looks like Rick will know it, too.

The Walking Dead, how you torture us.

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Calum Marsh is a freelance writer with a love of the undead and an eye toward the future. Follow him for more prognostication: @calummarsh.

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