Question: How do you fill an hour and a half of television with roughly twenty minutes worth of story?
Answer: Well, first you go this way. And they you realize you can’t go that way anymore, so you try another way. And then that way fizzles out on you, so you think real hard and you come up with way three. But damn, way three is another no go, and you’re getting sort of stressed, and maybe that stress creates the illusion of tension, since—oh, hold on, let’s cut to a different storyline which has nothing to do with the main storyline, so we forget that we were worried about where we were going in the first place. Also, there are occasional suggestive shots of… something. No, I’m sure it will all make sense in the end. Everything will make sense if you just keep watching.
Look, here’s the usual caveat—there are good ideas in this. None of them are in the Morgan and Carol storyline (and the fact that the writers managed to make scenes with my two favorite characters into one of the weakest elements of the show deserves some kind of horrible medal), but Rick’s doomed efforts to get Maggie to the Hilltop doctor could’ve worked. There’s something increasingly creepy about how thoroughly the Saviors have them trapped, and there are enough variations on those traps that it could’ve been nightmarish to watch. The final turn of our heroes walking right into the Saviors trap is a great audio and visual moment; the creepy whistling, the mass of armed men appearing seemingly out of nowhere to rob Rick and the others of every possibility of escape, all works on a basic level of “Oh fuck, they’re screwed.”
The problem is almost everything else. We’ll get to Negan and that so-idiotic-it’s-actually-kind-of-hilarious cliffhanger in a second, but before we do, let’s unpack the many ways “Last Day On Earth” went wrong. Even the title is bad—not on its own, but the repeated efforts to work it into the dialogue (lest we forget that Someone Is Going To Die) were so painfully trite that they ruined what little atmosphere the episode had managed to maintain. There was clumsiness running through nearly every scene as the writers worked over time to hold off the last act we all knew was coming. Nothing was going to matter until Negan showed up, so let’s have a lot of awkward conversations about nothing and stall out the hour.
Oh, I’m sorry, the 90 minutes. Because sure, this is definitely a story that needed extra time to tell. A better edited hour might have made it harder to notice how absurd this all was, or make you wonder how in the fuck the Saviors knew when to pull out the stops on their magic roadblocking plan (I’m sure they have scouts, but that’s a lot of work to pull off in a very short space of time), or how the Saviors have gone from being a jittery, sluggish bunch of incompetents to genius psychic ninjas practically overnight. As it was, there are minutes upon minutes of emptiness to contemplate the foolishness of all of this.
Even worse, the contemplation just puts that much more pressure on the final scene, and that’s not just a problem with this episode. The show has been dicking around for weeks now, ostensibly building to this final reveal, and while foreshadowing and rising action are important storytelling tools, it becomes a problem when they’re the only tools you’ve got. Carol’s awful arc, which somehow gets even worse here, is a prime example of that. Because this season had a set conclusion, because no matter what else happened, Negan was going to arrive at the end of the finale and not a moment sooner, the writers had to stall. And stalling leads to forced character arcs that can’t have any real meaning behind them because they can’t interfere with that set ending.
But hey, it all works out of the ending is effective, right? And this was going to be a big ending, after all that build up. Negan had to be legitimately terrifying to work as a threat, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is… basically fine? He was one of the least objectionable parts of the finale, anyway. We spend an hour and 20 minutes waiting for him to show up, and when he arrives, the first thing he does is talk about “pee-pee pants,” which is not exactly promising. At least it’s unexpected, though, and the man has presence and authority in a way the other smug Savior creeps have aimed for but haven’t quite managed. Now we’re finally seeing the source of all this douchebaggery, and for once, he seems legitimately justified in his self-regard.
Then he keeps talking and talking and talking, and what was at first legitimately scary (because you know someone is going to die) becomes unsettling but also kind of annoying. But Morgan is decent. He manages to find some menace in what’s really just another “I’m kind of goofy and doesn’t that make me that much scarier?” psycho dude.
Then he brings out Lucille, which is a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, and he says he’s going to kill someone. That’s intense enough to make you forget that the supposedly terrifying Negan waited a really long time before getting his revenge. He picks someone to beat to death, the camera cuts to first person, and that’s it. Somebody gets pounded. We don’t see who.
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.
- If you cut out the Morgan and Carol scenes, the episode would’ve at least come in at the usual running time. It’s almost like they padded things out unnecessarily because a longer episode means more ad time and the illusion of importance—nah.
- I wonder who those guys in hockey pads are.
- Father Gabriel is in charge of security back in Alexandria. I’m sure he’s having a relaxing evening.
- Why didn’t the Saviors do all this bullshit—trapping Rick, killing someone in front of him to show they meant business—the minute they knew about Alexandria? Why the wait?
- Carl offers tactical advice at one point. Shut up, Carl.
- Boy, Rick goes from “I’m the master of all I survey” to sweaty, crumbling panic attack mighty fast.
- Eugene got captured again. At least this time they sort of assumed he would.
- “You have no idea how not cool that shit is.” -Negan.
- I wonder who got killed. Carl? (It’s not Carl.) Rick? (Ibid.) Someone else? (Yes.) Maybe the writers will have an ad campaign where we can vote on it.