It took 40 minutes for “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life” to get tense. That’s not great. There were interesting moments before that, mostly whatever the hell was going on with Sasha (sometimes she was listening to music in darkness, sometimes she was talking with Abraham, sometimes she and Maggie were sitting together, sometimes she was at the Sanctuary chatting with Negan; it all became clear eventually, but it was a decent mystery before until it did), but there wasn’t much in the way of tension. Which was odd. As tedious as the season finale was last year, it at least started off suspenseful. Bad shit was going to go down, and Negan was going to show up, and, until we realized we were all being had, that felt like it mattered.

It’s clear from the outset that bad shit is going to happen in this season finale as well, and yet, for the first half of its running time, there wasn’t much in the way of suspense. Curiosity, yes, but suspense? Eh. Partly it’s the generally flaccid pacing of the episode, which puts a lot of effort into trying to make sure we appreciate Sasha’s sacrifice, and partly it’s just that the season has done a terrible job of building to the sort of final confrontation this finale so clearly wants to be about.

We’ve seen Rick spending time trying to build his forces, arm everyone, and work out a plan for what’s next. In theory, that’s exactly right. Negan and the Saviors are the new threat, and if the first half of the season was spent establishing just how dangerous that threat is, the back half needed to be about the good guys pulling themselves together and preparing to fight back. What we got instead was… well, sort of that. I mean, that’s clearly what they were trying to do. But instead of feeling like relationships were being built and plans laid, we got some gun running, we had that weird adventure in Garbage World, and then, all of a sudden, it was the end of the season, so something had to happen and someone had to die.

I liked some of those side trips (Garbage World was at least unexpected), but none of it added up to much beyond itself, which means we went into “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life” without any of the momentum necessary to make the episode work. All that time Rick spent getting ready, and his big plan was a bomb in a truck? Negan finding out that the Alexandrians were gathering guns should’ve been a horrifying development, given what we know about him and how harshly he punishes anyone who goes against him, but the structure is too much of a mess for any of this to feel anything more than academic. Things just sort of happened, and then there was a betrayal, and then they kept happening, and then there was another betrayal, and so on and so forth.

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Give them this much credit: the Scavengers turning on Rick and other others was a good twist, at least in terms of generating a sudden “Oh fuck” moment. Sure, it makes Rick look like an absolute moron yet again, but it at least puts our heroes at such an immediate disadvantage that everything seemed dangerous for the next few minutes. However briefly, Negan looked like an impossible threat again, and I wondered if we were going to return to the empty brutality of the season opener. God help me, I almost wish they had.

But then Negan started spouting off and he had this whole plan, and everything went to hell. And once again, the main problem here is that Rick can’t die. There is no defensible reason that a bad guy who’s repeatedly shown a willingness to resort to brutal violence to get what he wants would waste all this time trying to negotiate. Oh sure, he acted like he was giving orders, but why on earth did he need to bother? Why use Sasha as some kind of bargaining chip at all? Negan literally had the whole town at gunpoint, and while, sure, the Kingdom and the Hilltop folks eventually arrived to save the day, until they did, there was nothing stopping Negan from telling Jadis to shoot Rick in the head, and then taking whatever he damn well pleased.

He didn’t do that, though, because in the end, for all his supposed nastiness and cruelty, Negan is just another clichéd bad guy who can’t catch a break when someone hands it to him gift-wrapped. I’d be willing to cut some slack here—plenty of fun pulp stories have villains who fail to follow through when they should have—if it wasn’t for the fact that Negan’s entire character is based on his supposedly ruthless pragmatism. For all his joking around, Negan was designed to be the ultimate bastard, a guy who ruled over his people without mercy, who beat you down if you so much looked at him funny.

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To be fair, there have been cracks in this from the start (remember how long it took him to show up after Rick and the others started murdering Saviors?), but for all its many, many flaws, at least the premiere managed to mostly sell the character as a new kind of evil. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s been more or less interesting since then, but Negan’s softened over time; and while that’s understandable, having him act like a complete moron means the show may have finally given up on ever having tension again. He gets his ass kicked despite having the drop on Rick and the others twice, and the fact that Rick is so bad at his job only makes Negan look that much dumber by comparison.

As for the efforts to eulogize Sasha while she was still breathing… Look, this stuff is well-made. Even the montage at the end with Maggie giving a speech had a certain charm, provided you didn’t think about it for more than a minute. It’s just, so much time was spent on Sasha having flashbacks, and nothing we saw here was a particularly fresh or new take on anything. It was nice seeing Abraham for a few minutes, and this was as good a way as any to justify Sasha’s decision (although honestly, given what she’d been ready to do earlier, I don’t think we needed more justification), but it ran on too long, and it was built on a relationship that was never all that well developed.

The show used to lean into gore when it needed to distract us from the fact that it didn’t have enough story to fill an hour. Now it leans into these sentimental, elegiac moments, and while those can be quite striking (the craft is impressive, even if the content is not), the fact that they’re riffing on the same basic handful of ideas over and over and over again means they’re getting less and less effective as a manipulative device.

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Because for all of Maggie’s big words, what exactly happened here? Rick fucked up big time, trusted a bunch of bizarre cultists without bothering to make a backup plan, and got saved by a tiger. I guess, if we’re going to be charitable, we can say that Rick’s inspiring leadership paid off in unexpected ways by bringing him the help he needed, but that requires him to have actually been inspiring, which he was not. (No, that stupid damn anecdote doesn’t count.) Instead we get a sloppy, sluggish overlong episode with a few clever moments (Sasha’s plan was a good one, undermined only by the fact that it required Negan to be stupid, and also that it was basically unnecessary) and some really badly put-together action scenes. It’s a relief that Negan no longer has to be the boogeyman, and maybe next season will focus more time on the smaller stories the show is occasionally great at telling. But as epic closers go, this needed more tiger.

Stray observations

  • I sincerely do not understand why Negan thought it would be necessary to show off Sasha as a hostage when he had the entire town hostage.
  • I guess Gregory’s betrayal is kind of a moot point now?
  • It took Michonne an awful long time to kill that character we barely knew.
  • Another reason Negan sucks: his assumption that he can turn the bravest enemies over to his side kind of falls apart when we’ve never seen him manage to do this. Sure, he turned Eugene, but Eugene had no guts to speak of. (Although given the last thing Sasha says to him, maybe there’s hope yet.)
  • Look, if it’s a choice between “dumb and mean” and “dumb and optimistic and occasionally a dude gets his face eaten by a tiger,” I’m going with the latter every time. But while I appreciate the show is stepping back from the cliff edge when it comes to Negan and dead people, that doesn’t excuse sloppy plotting and bad character work. At its best, the show’s ruthlessness was something I could respect even when I was repelled at it. Even that’s gone now, and all that’s left is an empty headed mess shambling onward to no good end. There are few things more pathetic than a toothless zombie.

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