Some shows pull you through with a pregnancy or wedding planning or a presidential election. The Walking Dead used a Negan. For 16 episodes, AMC’s never-ending (but maybe it should) serial about rotting humanity in a post-apocalyptic world tub-thumped the coming of a protection-racket psycho who enforces his will with a game of “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe” and a barbed baseball bat named Lucille. The godfather thug showed his stubbled mug in Sunday’s supremely tense and deliberately infuriating finale, played with jocular swagger and cocky smirk by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an actor who’s become a hideous harbinger in the genre of comic-tbook pop. If he’s in it (see: Watchmen, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), you know you’re in for a dark night.
Fans who know Negan from Robert Kirkman’s comics have long wondered to what degree the show would replicate the villain’s memorable and weirdly meta intro, a Big Character Death that was also commentary on the practice of Big Character Death. (I’ll explain in the addendums.) The show embraced the sensationalism but changed — and missed — the winky point. We got the windy speech, the roulette wheel rhyme, and a series of swings accompanied by wet, chunky sounds. In a loaded deviation, the last seconds became a first-person snuff film, with the camera taking the perspective of Negan’s “randomly” chosen victim, in which we were made to suffer Negan’s scourging. Throughout the sequence, I kept waiting for someone to step up and serve as sacrificial lamb and die for his or her people. In a season that cast shade on virtuous heroism on trial and had Jesus on the brain, it would’ve been redemptive and WWJD-fitting. No one did. Instead, the show drafted us to play the role. Now you know what it’s like to killed off The Walking Dead, dear viewer. It’s Hardcore Henry, bro! But the choice also denied us the reveal of the identity of the actual victim. Tune in next season, folks. I took it as a sick, twisted April Fool’s joke. We wanted Negan. We got Negan. And with that POV shot, we paid for it with a blow to head — with a rimshot. Get it? Oh, you whacky Walking Dead! How you slay us!
I liked the finale. I hated the finale. I’m all over the place on the finale, just like season 6 of The Walking Dead was all over the place, spiky with some cold-blooded highs and too many blood-boiling lows. The funny game cliffhanger was one more impish maneuver in a year lousy with them and as exasperating as the current presidential campaign. The advent of Negan was an epic negging — a long, insulting seduction. As the show ruthlessly teased us with the terrible promise of a Big Bad to trump all Big Bads, the franchise yanked our chains with multiple fake death cliffhangers, bizarre characterizations and manipulative pranking. Making it weirder and worse was how many of these choices felt wantonly deliberate, as if showrunner Scott M. Gimple and company believe we enjoy being effed with (they might be right), or as if chasing a point of some sort. It all built to a capper that inflicted a karmic whammy on Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) for morphing into an authoritarian warlord and on the rest of his crew for corrupting into amoral mercenaries. Negan and his minions functioned as adversaries, mirrors, and finally, their judgment. Am I supposed to feel judged, too? The punishing POV shot sure felt like it. For my love of zombie head-splatter? THUNK! For my relish of nihilism? THUNK! For my excited fanboy wonder about who was going to get negated when Negan showed up? THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Maybe I’m not THUNKING straight, but I do wonder if the writers resented a felt obligation to fulfill batty Negan bloodlust.
I don’t mind provocation or a healthy degree of narrative game-playing. Until the cliffhanger, I thought the finale, entitled “Last Day On Earth,” was an effective exercise in screw-tightening dread that brought a season conspicuous with Christian symbolism to a final statement. In telling a story about getting pregnant Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to the Hilltop Colony, The Walking Dead was doing a gloss on Children of Men, an allegory for optimism, future-building and communal weight-bearing in a dystopian, dead world, minus the qualified salvation and the awesome tracking shots. What kills me most about season 6 was how it squandered resonant themes and sabotaged its own come-from-behind creative story. Before I finish burying this season, let’s give this bedeviled thing its due.
After an infuriating set of fall episodes, The Walking Dead rallied in season 6B with a provocative take on Might Makes Right, the latest chapter in Alexandria’s fall from grace under well-meaning strongman Rick. To acquire much-needed supplies from the Hilltop, a resource-rich but defenseless community, the once isolationist, now hardened city-state made a chilling trade deal: they would slaughter a common threat, The Saviors, a mob of fleecing pirates and a cult of personality led by Negan. It was chilling to watch these survivalists resign themselves to the belief that their great gift was savagery and see them elect to commoditize their dehumanization and make it Alexandria’s chief export.
In a gut-wrenching hour, Rick led a black op into a Savior stronghold and murdered a cadre of Negan-ites in their sleep. The scenes with Glenn (Steven Yuen) in particular were shattering. Watching him stake these slumbering vamps was watching him flay his soul. The Grimes Doctrine of Preemptive Police Action failed once again (also see: The Great Herding Fail that started the season) and positioned Alexandria as a terrorist threat to Savior society that had to be checked. This idea transformed the conflict into quagmire where “heroes” and “villains” were relative if not irrelevant. Rick presented as idealistic and paternalistic in the finale. His high-risk Maggie mission aspired to selfless heroic sacrifice. His we-can-do-anything-if-we-stick-together speechifying was all very “All for one and one for all!” (Or “Live together or die alone” for those of us who see Lost written all over The Walking Dead.)
But you know what? Cult leaders talk like that, too. The whole season was about Rick’s survival strategies backfiring on his community, from trying to herd the zombie horde out of the quarry at the beginning of the season to trying to cannonball-run his people to the Hilltop at the end. I wanted this band of brothers to succeed in their mission in the finale. So why I am not too broken up by their defeat? Yeah, they were victims of a relentless, rapacious predator, but victims with plenty of blood on their hands, suffering the consequences of their terrible actions.
Now that we’ve met Negan and heard his “new world order” spiel, those who give him some thought might find him an interesting, queasily familiar debate. He sees himself as an enforcer of laws and a regulator of trade, and a walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick kind of guy. He sees the citizens of Alexandria and the other Southern city states in Walking Dead U.S.A. as his employees. All he asks in return for his protection is a very a high flat tax – 50 percent of our stuff. Is he cutthroat mob boss or cutthroat CEO president? Federalist or totalitarian communist? Negan’s climactic violence: jackboot oppression or justified self-defense and capital punishment? The future of The Walking Dead seems to be less about killing zombies and more about … arguing about government?
Shading Alexandria’s damnable, reap-the-whirlwind spiral: a strew of ironic Christian allusions. Season 6 was as spiritually ponderous as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and seemed to use its symbols to make the same general points: Real super-saviors don’t kill and the way of The Bat is, you know, batty. A shifty character named Jesus (Tom Payne) brought Alexandria to the Hilltop and brokered the devilish deal that would cost them their souls. (“We’ll keep Jesus in the shadows,” said Rick, explaining their new ally’s role in his master plan, and summing up his whole worldview, too.) Carol (Melissa McBride) turned a cross into a life-saving shiv — a metaphor for her sudden turn toward Thou Shalt Not Murder purity that nearly got her killed. Left for dead on the road, she was rescued — twice — by the episode’s other walk-quietly-and-carry-a-big-stick character, Morgan, the Good Samaritan to Negan’s very bad one. Their reward: admittance into a new community, presumably The Kingdom, issued by a pair a veritable angels in body armor, a duce of deus ex machina.
“Last Day On Earth” had Christian maxims and parables written all over it. Where the Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol story was “The Parable of the Lost Sheep,” Rick and Negan fulfilled Christ’s teaching on the end times in Matthew Chapter 24 — how judgment day will arrive unexpectedly, like a master returning home after a long time away to reclaim his possessions (his “stuff,” in Negan’s parlance), and woe to those who work for him who’ve been wicked, who’ve abused his other people and that aforementioned stuff. The punishment? Lucille and a hellish place far away from the Hilltop. “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In that same chapter, Jesus also compares the coming of The Lord to a homeowner suffering to “a thief in the night.” We might want to frame robber-baron Negan for that that role, but it was Team Rick who played the part most literally — and demonically — when they broke into a Savior stronghold and stole so many lives. Jesus had a colorful phrase for those he considered hypocrites: “whitewashed tombs.” Put another way: The Walking Dead. He usually levied the charge against the high priests — the teachers of the law. Now consider the episode’s title, taken from an exchange between two tough-talking lawgivers, Rick and Negan’s chief agent this episode, Trevor (Steven Ogg). Rick used the phrase as part of a threat, a bullying bluff. Trevor turned it around on Rick: Maybe he should be the one living like it was his the end times, he said, and perhaps he should be spending it by investing time in the lives of those around him. He was telling Rick to get his house in order by living out the great commandment, the one Rick failed when he executed that butchering home invasion: Love thy neighbor. As Rick and the Savior huffed and self-righteously puffed, a dying man was lying in the road between them, a Good Samaritan parable crying out to them. Rick wrote him off. The Saviors later hanged him. In this religious war, both sides were enemies of grace – which is to say, anti-Christ.
Gimple and his writers have great imagination for expanding the world. The ideas they keep churning up keep drawing me back after so many times I’ve vowed to quit. But as I reflect on the horror of the final minutes and the cliffhanger, I have zero interest in playing the “who’s gonna die?” deadpool game everyone else is playing. My job requires me to give you a theory. It’s Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). The clue: when he defiantly stiffened up during Negan’s picking process, an action that the camera, simulating the victim, replicated during the beating itself. But I also just don’t care. Isn’t that awful? I should be “pissing my pants” for these people, to borrow from Negan. Instead, my eyes are as dry as that “future serial killer” Carl (Chandler Riggs). I blame the mismanagement of characters and stakes in season 6. The moral ambiguity in the conflict between Alexandria and The Saviors was compelling on a conceptual level, but it was undermined on a performance level. The Saviors were played as sadistic bullies, while Negan was played as a charismatic, enlightened psychopath. The Team Rick-Team Negan moral equivalency is a rigged game, just like the leading trap that Negan crafted in the finale. AMC clearly wants us to keep ‘shipping our “heroes,” no matter how “anti-hero” they become. I liked the idea of someone rejecting Rick’s course of action on moral, spiritual and personal grounds. I even understand why you’d choose Badass Carol to be the vessel for that turn. But it was so sudden, so poorly developed, it came off like the show was just trying to give something for Carol to do. I felt that way about almost all the characters this season. Season 6 really was Batman v. Superman, a no-fun franchise clock-puncher beholden to a tired, cynical tone and glitchy with buggy strategies for how to entertain. Maybe the writers are tapped out. Maybe these characters are burned out. (Which is a shame: these actors work damn hard for this show.) Or maybe this is what happens when a creative enterprise gets held hostage by adaptation, fan-service, and a force of antagonism whose alleged power was superficially affirmed by the finale but largely negated by everything that came before it. In the comics, the issue after Negan’s battering debut begins with him asking the survivors (and us) a question: “What? Was the joke not funny?” Not really. Certainly not here. But we were asking for it, I guess.
On Negan’s comic-book introduction as commentary on Big Character Death. When Negan entered the picture in issue 100 of Robert Kirkman’s comic book, he made quite a show of picking someone to kill, just as he did in “Last Day On Earth.” But he was more meta about it, narrating his deliberations with a theatrical knowingness not unlike another self-aware “merc with a mouth,” Deadpool. His rambling made no sense to Rick and company, but it made perfect sense to the reader, because it was really the writer, Kirkman, voicing his rationale (and anxieties) to his readers. Negan explained that he couldn’t kill the mom. That would be too heartbreaking. He couldn’t kill the people of color. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but I’d never want to be called a racist.” He couldn’t kill Carl. “I can’t kill you before your story ends. Too f—ing interesting.” Rick? No: he’s the hero, and killing would have too many undesirable and potentially destabilizing consequences. Still, someone had to die. Negan’s reputation demanded it, just as The Walking Dead’s pitiless anyone-can-die rep demanded it. Stumped (or pretending to be), Negan smiled and made a disingenuous declaration: “I simply cannot f—ing decide!” And so he played “Eeny Meenie Miny Moe” and chose his victim at random. But there’s nothing random about this at all: it’s all Kirkman.
Deleted ‘graph/Micro-Essay: 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year for the anti-hero takeover of comic-book pop. Like Rick and company, our superheroes are becoming inglorious bastards for whom V is mostly for vendetta, not virtue. The only variable is a sense of humor. Deadpool, a trauma-spawned perpetual-motion war machine of violence, vengeance, and glib irreverence, set the tone. The Punisher of Daredevil season 2 and the Batman (and, for many, the Superman) of Batman v. Superman continued it, grimly and glumly and with God on the brain. The moral of both stories, again like The Walking Dead and many others, was an eschewing of anti-hero nihilism, even as they entertained us by wallowing in it, and left unanswered the burning question: what does it mean to be a hero — a good one — in modern times? Soon, AMC’s Preacher — adapted from the outrageously sacrilegious Vertigo comic – will further the murky mingling of spiritual complaint and vigilante chic with a furious, chain-smoking reverend with superpowers who vengefully hunts for a God who has seemingly abandoned his creation. This year’s comic book heroes are sour Jobs unhinged by catastrophe or pissed at God or country and impatient for justice and restoration and glory. They’re at war with themselves and with each other, or so Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War seems to suggest, and in their grief and confusion are susceptible to the promises of dark power and once-and-for-all score settling, or so the trailers X-Men: Apocalypse tell me. Or maybe it’s just that desperate times call for desperate measures. Suicide Squad will give us a crew of villains recruited to meet the need of a moment that apparently requires a down and dirty kind of law enforcement. Even Greg Berlanti, a standard bearer for joy and goodness and optimism in superhero pop, participates in this trend with a new show that sums up the current disorientation: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is about a motley crew of heroes and villains bouncing around time, hunting Vandal Savage, an eternal, pernicious devil responsible for all kinds of historical misery. They aim to murder him. You wonder if perhaps their anti-heroic journey is about learning a better way to respond to the problem of evil.