If, as Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “The Sopranos'” final smash cut to black effectively whacked the show’s audience, the ending of “The Walking Dead’s” sixth season was the equivalent of a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat to the head, bludgeoning the viewer with one sickening blow after another. Virtually every fan of the show knew the moment to which the season was building: the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, and, just as critically, his death-dealing Louisville Slugger of choice, but rather than finally sate their curiosity over just who would be on the receiving end of Lucille’s skull-crushing might, showrunner Scott M. Gimple and co. chose to string us along until the fall.
It was, by common and immediate consent, the worst decision in a half-season that has featured a number of bad ones, chief among them the bad-faith ruse of Glenn’s supposed death. That development, which completely broke the show’s underlying rule that anyone can die, cast a long shadow over its cheeseball cliffhanger: If Glenn is off-limits by virtue of being a long-running fan favorite character, then doesn’t that apply to Rick, Daryl, Maggie, Michonne, and Carl as well (not to mention Carol, although she was excused from this particular game of eenie-meenie-miney-mo). That cuts the number of Negan’s potential victims in half, leaving us with a bunch of second-tier character no one would be especially sad to see go, and turns what was meant to be a tantalizing tease into a ho-hum roll of the dice.
Robert Kirkman’s comic was at least clever enough to turn Negan’s monologue into a commentary on the mechanics of character deaths: “I can’t kill you before your story ends, too fucking interesting,” he says to Carl, and to Glenn, he quips, “Not you… I’m alot [sic] of things, but I’d never want to be called a racist. Off limits.” The show kept its decisions behind the scenes, but they seem clear enough: Keep those viewer numbers up, and make sure no one jumps ship during the off-season.
Keeping the identity of Negan’s victim a secret was both weak and manipulative, turning on the least involving form of audience engagement: As decisions to ponder over the break go, “Who got killed?” is a far less rich and involving one than “Negan killed X — what are they going to do?” One can’t help but suspect Gimple and co. were motivated at least in part by the knowledge that revealing who died would leave them dealing with months of fan anger with no new episodes to assuage it, but that’s better than leaving their loyal-to-a-fault audience with a collective ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
On social media, the reaction to the cliffhanger was immediate and violent:
And tempers didn’t cool as critics wrote their reviews. Several pledged that this was the last straw, the moment they stopped watching the show for good. We’ll see in the fall whether they can stick to that promise, or they get pulled back in like so many of “The Walking Dead’s” abused viewers.
Reviews of “The Walking Dead,” Season 6, Episode 16, “Last Day on Earth”
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
The finale left a sour taste, not only because it was so incredibly lifeless and so transparently manipulative, but because it found the show getting away with murder, killing its better self. To see the writers and producers milking the audience for all it’s worth is less disheartening than predictable. That’s what “The Walking Dead” is now — a series that can fritter away 78 of its 90 minutes with dumbass storytelling and realize, with a smile on its face, that most of the viewers will come back next season regardless. It’s that kind of creative failure with a smirk that is so audacious and galling about “The Walking Dead.” You can’t kill “The Walking Dead.” It’s a machine. A money-making machine. Even shaming it will have no impact.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
“Last Day on Earth” was just about the opposite of a creative miracle. It was every bad decision the show has made over the last few years, all included in a dumb, lifeless, repetitive 90-minute episode that couldn’t even be bothered to give the comic book fans the one moment they’d been waiting for — and that the show had been desperately teasing since the fall, in hopes that news that this sociopath with the anthropomorphised bat would forgive every dumb decision involving the herd, Glenn crawling under the dumpster, Carol’s abrupt personality transplant, etc. — by instead going with a cliffhanger ending that will leave the victim’s identity a secret up until fall. (Or, at least, until that actor signs on to do another show.) At times, there seems to be a schism between fans who have read the comics and those who haven’t: the finale impressively found a way to alienate everyone equally, whether they knew what was coming (and were curious to see how or if the show might deviate from it) or didn’t.
Jeff Stone, Indiewire
It’s a cheap tactic to sustain interest between seasons, not to mention a morbid one. “Who died?” isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s a death pool. It’s a gimmick, and if that’s what “The Walking Dead” is going to rely on in its storytelling going forward, it doesn’t make me hopeful for the future.
Noel Murray, Rolling Stone
Who died? Who knows? Readers of the comic book can tell you who got conked in the pen-and-ink version of that scene; but the show has always made its own choices as to who gets offed. That makes this big mystery especially cruel. It’s almost like The Walking Dead itself hasn’t decided yet if it wants to get rid of the character in question.
David Sims, The Atlantic
This finale is certainly the end of my relationship with this show, a decision that was solidified by me catching the first few minutes of “Talking Dead” (the after-show debriefing that airs every week on AMC) and seeing the comic-book creator Roger Kirkman promise that Negan would drive “The Walking Dead’s” story for “several seasons” to come. This is no hit on Negan himself, who was quite an agreeable psychopath in his 10 minutes of screen time, and quite well played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It has more to do with the miserable bunch he had at his mercy in the final act of “Last Day on Earth,” who spent 90 minutes (yes, this was an extra-long episode) stumbling toward the trap he had set for them in the most predictable way possible.
Jeremy Egner, New York Times
I realize there’s a rich history of season-ending cliffhangers on TV. But as with the Glenn thing, I think the story and in this case, Negan’s otherwise enjoyably malicious debut, is overshadowed by the trickery. Which is a shame and also oddly self-defeating, when you consider that Negan’s arrival has been the development everyone associated with the show has been dangling since last fall.
Zack Handlen, A.V. Club
This is lousy, manipulative storytelling, a cliffhanger that robs a powerful moment (because good or bad, watching Negan beat someone we kind of like to death would’ve been powerful) of its effect for the mercenary purpose of dragging this nonsense out just a little bit further. When you’re telling a story, you want your audience to keep watching, so sometimes you use tricks to keep them watching, but the promise between you and your viewers is that those tricks will never get in the way of the story itself. The tricks will never become the point. But for The Walking Dead, the tricks are all that’s left. The show can only dangle poisoned treats in front of us, dropping them month by month, year by year, until we finally choke on them.
Todd VanDerWerff, Vox
It’s a hilariously bad cliffhanger for a bunch of reasons — not least of which is that it gives us absolutely no indication of what’s happening and delays what should be the resolution of an emotionally powerful moment for several months; by the time season seven begins in the fall, that moment will have little to no power left. If this is how we’re supposed to realize that Negan is just the worst, it’s only giving us half the answer.
Look, this may come off as laziness or bitterness on our parts. So be it, but if the writers of The Walking Dead can’t even be bothered to write a decent season finale then we see no reason why we should waste time and words trying to critique or explain it. Ninety minutes of literal and figurative road blocks capped off by a silly monologue from a character who didn’t even come close to living up to the ridiculous buildup of his introduction, ending with a cliffhanger that completely lacked titillation or suspense. Someone got beat to death, you guys. Tune in six months from now to find out who. In the meantime, please watch our exciting spinoff show “Water Zombies.”