In the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead, we were introduced to both Negan and Lucille, one of whom became extremely intimidate with one of our heroes. But which one? That's the question The Walking Dead wants us to ask for the next six months and many a fan have responded with “Who cares?”
The arrival of Jeffry Dean Morgan's Negan has been in the workings for a while now. Any fans of the comic will know the huge presence he has on the series, taking up the role of the story's central villain after the demise of the Governor (portrayed by David Morrissey in the AMC adaptation). His entry in Issue 100 led to the dramatic if controversial death of a central character, so comic fans already know what to expect. But the manner of Negan's arrival leads to what I can only describe as 'audience blue balls'. We first heard Negan's name during the final scene of the mid-season finale and since then it has been a slow-burn, as we meet more and more of his loyal and dangerous followers. The show has taken its time to build up this villain and the finale itself spends its run-time showcasing the effectiveness of his people, the Saviors, as they reveal just how out of their depth Rick's group are. Every move Rick makes, the Saviors are a step ahead.
The incredible sense of dread is tangible by the time the group are finally captured, surrounded in a truly terrifying setting. The visual design of this episode is fantastic, becoming bleaker and more claustrophobic as our protagonists are increasingly cornered. By the time they are forced to their knees, the centre of Negan's literal spotlight, the tension is insane. The consequences of Rick's confidence and arrogance have finally caught them, making this defeat all the more powerful. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is terrific as Negan, an example of pitch-perfect casting. He simply owns the screen, taking his time as he builds the tension higher and higher until you can no longer take it. After roughly nine episodes of build up, we're finally here, about to watch something terrible happen. We can't look away.... but then it turns out we don't have to.
From a narrative stand-point, this is the equivalent of a commercial popping up mid-way through a scene that has you gripped by the collar, except this commercial lasts six months and is only advertising itself. Maybe if this was a single episode and we only had to wait a week, it would be different. But half a year is far too long to keep that same level of intensity. By the time we see the resolution of this scene, the impact will most likely have vanished. The audience has had more than enough time to process the potential death of each character, robbing them of the shock. Yes, we'll still have the moment itself and the reactions of the survivors to draw us in, but it would have been far more powerful to actually end the scene at the time.
The show held off on Negan's physical arrival for a long while, which made sense narratively for the evolution of Rick's questionable moral direction for the group. When he and Maggie arrange to eliminate the Saviors in exchange for supplies, the characters and audience alike are relying on the word of the Hilltop. Are the Saviors as bad as we are told? Are Rick's group actually the villains here? After all, they slaughtered sleeping Saviors on the word of strangers. The Walking Dead is at its most interesting when it poses these questions and if we had met Negan already, there would be no question in who the villain is here. Lucille only hangs out with real bad guys.
But after the airing of the finale, this move fails on a different level, ignoring the narrative implication and transforming the shocking event into an unnecessary marketing gimmick. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular series on television right now, with consistently high ratings and heavily embedded in pop culture. If any show needs extra marketing, The Walking Dead isn't it. This death, whoever it may belong to, doesn't serve the story as much as it serves the marketing team. Marketing should never damage the product itself, otherwise what are the consumers coming for?
The producers and several of the cast have been building up this moment for several months now, making it very clear that Negan's arrival was going to mean the death of a major character. Even the narrative itself promises this, as Negan warns his prisoners and the viewer both of what's coming. Now, I'm not saying creators should always pander to fans and not tell the story they wish to tell. But at the same time, it doesn't take a genius to see the negative impact of promising 'A' and then delivering 'B'. It shows a serious lack of audience awareness, which can be just as potentially damaging as audience pandering. And of course, the Glenn fake-out earlier in the season has to be mentioned. As controversial as that move was, it's so strange to see them pull a similar stunt so soon again.
Don't get me wrong. I love The Walking Dead for all its fault and am heavily invested in its characters and world. I can't wait to watch Jeffrey Dean Morgan chew enough scenery to stock a hotel buffet and hopefully return some life to the show. But the season finale is the last impression a viewer has for many months and if it leaves a sour taste, it risks a diminishing return in the future.
Also, it's definitely Glenn, right?