Critic's Notebook: 'The Walking Dead' Finale Passes Up the Opportunity to Be Better

The 90-minute season finale featured maybe 12 good minutes. And it won't matter a bit to the show's fans.
Courtesy of AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season six finale of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

The Walking Dead runs on overkill these days and perpetually writing about its fall from higher creative heights, its remorseless lack of creativity after six seasons, its transparent manipulation of its devoted audience — that, too, is overkill. So hopefully this will be my last critical take on the series until it decides to become something other than a cartoon.

And that’s really where we are — and have been — with AMC's The Walking Dead. For many seasons it was achieving something it wasn’t getting enough credit for, a greatness that went along with its eye-popping popularity. The series, even in patches where it seemed temporarily lost or in need of a creative turn, was still more often than not reaching heights that were easy to dismiss under the “genre” label.

The Walking Dead had managed, for an impressive length of time, to transcend the horror genre, to be more than “a zombie show.” It remained in play when critics compiled their best-of year-end lists because it had managed to make a show about zombies more about the living than the dead. It had an understanding that to take a concept better suited to a two-hour movie (or a graphic novel) and make 16 hours a season out of it, something had to give in the construction of old tropes. People had to matter more than zombies.

By inverting that older working notion and doing, for the most part, an admirable job of fleshing out a number of characters in a high-volume cast (with many supporting players), the producers were able to make it matter. But eventually, when The Walking Dead became an unstoppable force, a ratings hit, a show that would succeed no matter what you gave the viewers, decisions apparently became a little bit easier in regard to cutting corners. In the last two seasons, looking the other way on plausibility and repeating a series of mistakes that an ongoing story with characters who learn should never make — that became the norm.

The Walking Dead tripped over itself and realized it could stomach the embarrassment.

Which is essentially why season six was the final straw in trying to judge it critically. Make no mistake:The Walking Dead can be very entertaining week to week. And despite the bloated, misguided 90-minute finale on Sunday, it still managed to turn the overly long introduction of the Negan character (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) into a few better-late-than-never minutes of intrigue. Anyone who watched Morgan as Negan and thought, “Hmmm, I like that dude — I’ll watch more next season” can’t really be faulted.

Hell, even I’ll watch more next season. Maybe.

Yet 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 moneymaking machine. Even shaming it will have no impact.

And at this point, as a critic, so long as The Walking Dead fuels AMC to keep trying to make other, more creative non-zombie shows (Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, Humans, etc.), I don’t have any real issue with it. Financial trade-offs for creativity work for me. It’s hell in this business.

But that doesn’t make the implosion of a once excellent series enjoyable. When The Walking Dead understood the existential breadth it could embrace and nurtured various storylines and themes — hope, desperation, struggling on vs. giving up, what misery does to the soul, how the tearing of the moral fabric changes people in different ways, and so many other dramatic detours — it was at its zenith.

Then it stopped developing characters. It rushed changes. It made characters act in ways they never would. It brought characters together romantically who seemed, just a few episodes prior, to loathe each other. In this season of The Walking Dead, it often felt like you’d missed three or four episodes that explained these sudden and shocking changes — except you hadn’t. Carol changed for no believable reason. Abraham dumped Rosita for Sasha when neither action made any sense or had any pre-history. Characters did dumb things — running off alone — like it was the first season (of course, that has been a damning trend on the show — same as the group meeting up with other groups, trusting them and getting killed for it). It was a season of clearing a low bar with no side effect to the ratings.

When you can’t trust the storytelling, a show is over. At least from a critical perspective. Not killing Glenn was the last straw for me. I stopped caring at that point (and, arguably, I had cut the show too much slack even before that point).

But I watched along every week for entertainment value; the show can still deliver that, even though, for me, it’s just harder to watch through the wincing of what happened to a series I once advocated for strongly.

And then to witness this boring finale, where the roadblocks Rick's group encountered seemed metaphorical rather than real, all leading up to the introduction of Negan (a character comic book fans know but regular viewers do not, so catering an entire season to his arrival was the ultimate in anticlimactic storytelling). And, sure, thanks to Morgan, a likeable, fine actor who has done lots of great work, Negan’s arrival added some much-needed pop to the final 10 minutes or so.

Only to have the season — who will Negan kill as revenge against Rick and the gang? — end in a cliffhanger.

Of course. More manipulation. Fans of The Walking Dead are just cows to be milked. To assume this crass puppeteering will stop in favor of better storytelling is, at this point, just sad, wishful thinking.

The Walking Dead might be the most popular show on television. But at one point, it was something better than that.