The Walking Dead and the Cliffhanger Heard Round the World


Managing Editor

Spoilers for last night’s Walking Dead. Spoilers also for the comic canon scene in question.

So last night The Walking Dead reached a milestone moment. A “Red Wedding”-level anticipated event, if you will. After spending 80 minutes watching Rick and the gang hit roadblock after roadblock of Saviors, they were caught. Rick, Maggie, Abraham, Sasha, Carl, Eugene, and Aaron were forced to their knees in submission. To make matters worse, a van door opened and Daryl, Glenn, Michonne, and Rosita, who had not been seen all episode, were forced to join them in the lineup. 11 of our gang knelt in fear as one of the most anticipated scenes of the comics began to play out with the introduction of the oft-mentioned Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Negan prowled menacingly up and down the row of our survivors swinging his favored weapon, a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire named Lucille. His speech consisted primarily of “I want your shit. Oh and also maybe you shouldn’t have slaughtered so many of my guys the other week.” And just like his comic counterpart, he explained that he had no choice but to kill one of them. At random. Using Eeny Meeny Miny Mo. As he recited the children’s rhyme and pointed his bat at the gang one by one, the camera began to do something strange. And I, along with I’m sure a good amount of the viewing audience, realized what was about to happen. We weren’t seeing the survivors in the order the were kneeling. We were jumping around. We were purposely being confused. And in a final POV shot, Negan landed on the camera. And he beat a mystery survivor to death. And the screen went black. And all of the adrenaline coursing through my veins turned to rage.

How dare EP Scott Gimple pull such a stunt! We have to wait 6 months before we find out who dies? Madness! Sir this is the age of the Internet. Don’t you know that we expect to know everything immediately? We have 6 months of audio analysis, text interpreting, leaked set photos, casting announcements, and canon research to do – we will figure it out and will make you feel silly for forcing us to wait.

You sense the sarcasm, right?

Because while my initial reaction was anger (I called Gimple and Kirkman not nice names on my Twitter feed), I quickly calmed. Watching Talking Dead helped. While their first explanation for the cliffhanger decision seemed evasive, host Chris Hardwick brought it up again. The fury he was seeing on Twitter during commercial breaks was too much. He needed them to talk directly to the fans once more. And I understood their reasoning the second time, I truly did.

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For one, Gimple espoused the value of the season finale cliffhanger. And to be fair, this is the first time The Walking Dead has done it to us. Seasons have ended in intense moments before, the worst being the group captured at Terminus. But even though we spent the hiatus wondering how they were going to escape, we at least had ideas. And we had Rick’s epic “They’re screwing with the wrong people” to tide us over. This is the first time they’ve ended on a who shot J.R., did Riker destroy the Borg Cube, what’s in the hatch, honest-to-god cliffhanger. And he was correct. Cliffhangers can be fun to talk about. They keep conversations and theories buzzing while we wait, which, I agree, is a much better way to pass the time than watching Fear the Walking Dead.

“But Leah!” you exclaim, “The comic book! We know who died already! Why prolong the inevitable? It’s dumb!”

As I enjoy pointing out to everyone who brings this up, the comic canon has never been a guarantee on this show. Daryl does not exist in the comics. Carol died long ago, and Sophia is still around. Abraham, not Denise, took a crossbow bolt to the eye. And Andrea is still a major player in the books. While often the show lifts words and images directly from the page, it just as often messes around in order to keep the audience on their toes.

So yes, four years ago, in issue 100, Robert Kirkman introduced Negan and killed a favorite character, but he’s never been bound to that.

Robert Kirkman took over from Gimple and explained that the scene with Negan marked the end of this season’s arc for Rick. And that the death that occurs will mark the beginning of a new one. I kind of buy that too. Rick has spent the bulk of this season, and especially the B half, being very sure about what he’s doing. He went from Ricktator to Mass MurdeRick when he had his group go in and slaughter a ton of Saviors in their sleep before they had even approached Alexandria. Rick did that. He was the catalyst for all that’s befallen them. He can’t get Maggie to the Hilltop. And he can’t protect the group from the Saviors. He’s gone from proud and feared to shamed and fearful. Negan forces his group, the group that he is effectively in charge of, to their knees and kills one of them. Rick is seeing what comes of his new over-confidence.

Had we seen who dies in the finale, it would have changed our focus. Instead of focusing on the fear and uncertainty of the survivors, on the very real threat of Negan, we would have changed focus to the loss. We would want to spend time not on how we got to this point, but on how the characters deal with the loss. Kirkman wasn’t blowing smoke for once, he was absolutely correct.

Also, can you imagine just how dour and depressing the hiatus would be if we ended knowing who died? Rick and the gang are surrounded by like 50 saviors. They’re on their knees. Two of their number (Daryl and Maggie) are already in need of medical attention. One of their number is brutally murdered. There is no “They’re screwing with the wrong people” moment that can come after. We would have to sit in the awfulness of all of that for 6 months and, honestly, I’m kind of glad we don’t have to. I anticipated the comic canon death and I was not looking forward to grieving for a long period of time.

In all honesty, if this weren’t adapted material, we wouldn’t all be so furious at the cliffhanger. We would accept that the show simply hadn’t decided who to kill and wanted to keep us all on our toes until next season. It’s really only because everyone was aware of Negan’s entrance that we expected it at all. Which kind of isn’t fair. We have to remember to watch The Walking Dead as it’s own show first, as an adaptation second. We take away some of the show’s agency when we decide that it’s only worth our time if comic panels are being recreated perfectly.

Now they could still botch this. Come October the premiere has to be on point. Everyone will be coming back from hiatus knowing that we are opening with a murder. We’ll be coming back 6 months later to see a mutilated corpse. This has to be done properly. But, for all of its missteps over the years, I think that The Walking Dead shines when it has its hardest stories to tell. So I’m going to remain on the cautiously optimistic side that they can pull it off and live up to our expectations. Or at least most of our expectations – people can be so picky. I’ve seen so many articles already about how this episode is the worst the show has ever been. And to that I say “bitch nuts, sir!” For a show with so much wide open space, I spent the 90 minute finale feeling utterly claustrophobic and trapped and scared. Which was what the survivors were feeling. Which is what the showrunners wanted us to feel. So technically they did a great job.

Now, for the fun guessing portion of the post, who do I think is getting the axe? I’m torn between two characters for two completely different reasons. One of which is the comic canon death, so if you don’t want to know move along.

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1. Glenn

3 years ago I finally made it to issue 100 via the graphic novel versions of the books. I remembered how insane all the news surrounding the issue had been and knew I was in for some pain. I also recalled reading the carnage of issue 50 (that would be the Prison murder fest) and knew that Kirkman would not be pulling punches and that Charlie Adlard’s art would be brutal. So I was on the subway as I read and I turned a page and Negan pointed his bat at Glenn. And with everyone around him screaming, Negan took his first swing. And I slammed the book shut. I was completely horrified and couldn’t move on for a few hours after. Negan had taken out one of the first characters we ever meet in The Walking Dead world. He ended the longest running relationship in the book (Glenn and Maggie). And it was so hard to get through. However, Glenn’s death also sets up Maggie’s rising. Her character goes through a massive change after his death in the books and the show seems to be pointing her in that direction – it has been since Deanna singled her out as her second. But other than it happening in the comics and the potential for Maggie? There’s no other reason I have to support this. Which is weak but it’s what I got.

2. Abraham

The show’s context is making me lean towards everyone’s favorite mustachioed ginger. Abraham’s emotional conversation with Sasha about having a baby, and his sweet reconciliation and hug with Eugene, are pretty much markers for death on this show. Anytime a side character gets more than 3 sentences in a row they already have one foot in the grave. See also Beth. Tyrese. Noah. Denise. Bob. In the comics, Abraham dies before Negan’s arrival, so for some fans, he’s already living on borrowed time. And it would follow that poor Sasha just can’t catch a break. All of her closest friends or love interests just keep getting taken out. Abraham’s death could set Sasha up for another meltdown. Or at the very least a 3rd love interest. Maybe those camo-wearing dudes with Morgan and Carol know someone who might be her type…

So who do you think is gone? Are you still angry about the cliffhanger or have you already come to accept it?