NO, REALLY, SPOILER ALERT!!!!
IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN THE SEASON SIX FINALE OF THE WALKING DEAD AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF IT, PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE BLOG.
Good. I’m among friends. The man with his back to us in the screengrab above is Negan. He is a bad man. One of the worst men. All through Season 6 of The Walking Dead (AMC; Fox), we’ve scented him. Negan, a name top-loaded with negativity and carefully chosen to rhyme with “Reagan”, has struck fear into us since Episode 8, when Daryl, Abraham and Sasha are held up by some organised bandits called the Saviours who explain, “Your property now belongs to Negan.” From hereon in, Negan took on mythic status, and when he finally stepped out of his trailer, inscousiant and grinning, like Jeffery Dean Morgan’s investigator Jason Crouse over on network TV in The Good Wife except with menaces and a sporting implement, it was almost a relief.
If you’re reading the source comics (which I’m not, although I occasionally dip in to see what a character looks like on the page for comparison to the televisual incarnation), you’re ahead of the series. You know what Negan is capable of, and what he actually does (“KRAKK!”); more crucially, you’ll know which of our heroes gets beaten to probable death at the end of Episode 16, Last Day on Earth. We, the hapless viewer, can only guess. Then wait six months to find out. And there’s the rub.
I have read that “fans” are displeased by this cliffhanger. I don’t really know who these “fans” are, as I don’t frequent TWD forums, or search social media for consensus. I can’t think of anything worse than having my phone to hand while watching a TV show, all the better to scroll through Twitter and find out what people I’ve never met think of the TV show I’m in the process of watching. I find watching stimulus enough, with perhaps occasional real-time comment with a close family member. In this regard, perhaps I am not a “fan”, although having watching TWD from Episode 1, and only dipped out during Season 2, I feel like one. You have to mean it, man. It’s an arduous watch sometimes, and intended to be. It can be existentially dispiriting and doomy. It is, after all, a metaphor for the world we live in, always on the edge of collapse and feral survivalism. There but for the grace of God etc.
Dread, recoil, tension, disgust, these are its tag words. Smiles are rare. Laughs rarer. Relief from the grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia comes only fleetingly, a portent of further grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his ever-evolving band of bedraggled brothers and sisters have moved home a number of times, but it’s never a wise idea to put out too many framed photos on the bedside table. The Walking Dead is uniquely horrible, and that’s why I love it. We tend to tape it and watch it early in the evening, rather than last thing at night. Because who would want to submit to sleep with nightmares already sloshing around?
Like any “fan”, I have my ups and downs with the show. But what “fans” seem pissed off about after Season 6 is the manipulative nature of the cliffhanger. Which of our assembled 11 goodies – Rick, Glenn, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Rosita, Aaron, Sasha, Abraham, Carl, Eugene – has been beaten to death by Lucille, Negan’s pet name for his barbed-wired-wrapped baseball bat? This is cable TV, after all, and Game of Thrones, another gory fantasy based on a literary property, has helped establish the unsettling lottery of principal-character mortality in the line of narrative duty. Nothing is sacred. No-one is immune. That said, it won’t be Rick. (Or Aaron – who would care if Aaron died?) Lest we forget, the mid-season cliffhanger showed Glenn (Steven Yeun), another seemingly “safe” character, having his guts pulled decisively out by a scrum of walkers. But he survived. (They weren’t his guts; he was trapped beneath Nicholas, whose viscera they were.) Was this a cheek? Cheap fanbait? Was it manipulative? (Of course it was, it’s fiction, it manipulates.)
Ever since Dallas left us hanging over the small matter of who shot J.R., long-running drama has used a big question mark to keep us on the hook. The “death” or otherwise of Jon Snow on GoT in the show’s Season 5 cliffhanger is another recent case in point. In an over-connected world of chatter, such trifles get talked about to death. Jon Snow may or may not be dead, but the discussion is. (The Walking Dead’s companion show is called The Talking Dead. I have never watched it. I don’t want to see the actors out of costume, mucking about in a chat show setting as it breaks the spell.) I will find a way to survive for the next six months in what is necessarily a break from the show. “Fans” can discuss it until they’re left with nothing but a husk. Me, I have wondered who might have had their skull caved in by Negan, but I’m not losing sleep over it. I’m fairly sure it’s not Maggie, a pregnant woman, although that would be the brave choice for Scott M. Gimple and his 100 producers.
One thing I have learned re: the Negan Cliffhanger is that there are two distinct kinds of Walking Dead SPOILER: the TV SPOILER, and the comic-book SPOILER. A moany Guardian blog (“Fans had to wait almost a month to find out if Glenn made it out alive”) warned at the top of a TV spoiler, but gaily gave away who Negan caved in by way of a comic-book SPOILER. (This, by the way, is a SPOILER I won’t repeat. This is Telly Addict, not Comics Addict.)
As a GoT “fan” who tried to read the first page of George RR Martin’s first Ice and Fire novel (“Now a major TV series!”) and couldn’t get further than halfway down it, I am a very content TV-only consumer. If you can stomach fantasy literature, and millions can, then you’re going to be watching GoT in a totally different way: largely unshockable, and a bit superior, knowing that the Red Wedding is coming and all that. The comic-book early adopters of TWD will be the equivalent. How much sleep they must lose over the fact that Negan doesn’t look like Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the comics? (I understand he’s supposed to look like Henry Rollins.)
It’s possible to be a “fan” and not continually rail against the makers of the show you’re a fan of when things don’t pan out precisely how you want them to. It’s a commercial product on a commercial television channel, designed to sell advertising space, merchandise and DVDs, not a charity. Call it “Negan-omics.” If Season 6 ended in the middle of an innocuous sentence about growing sorghum wheat, rather than the showstoppingly violent death of one of 11 beloved-ish regulars, complaints would still be lodged at the highest level (ie. on a forum or Twitter). I look forward to finding out who is dead when the time comes. And then we’ll move on to the next cliffhanger.