Spoilers below for the finale of The Walking Dead season 6. Be warned.
Stories are like missile launches. Somebody, somewhere, gets pushed out of their comfort zone, so they push a button. The symbol of their hurt feelings, anger, frustration or desperation goes sailing through this liminal space, there’s maybe some doubt about whether or not it will actually hit its target, then it either hits the target and blows it to holy hell … or it doesn’t.
That’s a story. Problem, struggle, solution.
Stories play with this simple but fundamental structure all the time, especially in the contemporary age of sequels and sagas and ten-book series and multi-season television dramas. Harry Potter, for example, hasn’t beaten Voldemort by any stretch at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone if you must) — that problem remains to be solved. He has, however, halted Voldemort’s plot in its tracks, found a long-lost magical artifact, and established himself as at least a passable wizard. Book one of Harry Potter sets up a lot of problems (is the stone real? what’s up with that weird professor? who were Harry’s parents and why did they leave him with the most horrible people in the world?). And Book 1 answers something like 90% of those problems (the answers are “yes”, “he’s possessed by Voldemort”, and “they were crackshot wizards themselves who died saving the world”).
To return to the missile metaphor, Rowling aims at the problem of becoming a wizard and finding out what’s up with this stone, fires, and obliterates her targets. Out of the rubble arises a new problem, though. The cliffhanger here is: Voldemort is not actually killed in the encounter with Quirrell, and he escapes to fight another day.
This is an acceptable cliffhanger. The critical moment has passed. Answers have been provided, and the cliffhanger establishes a new question that doesn’t need an answer right now, but rather gives us something to think about in the space between the book and its sequel (how will Voldemort strike next?)
Then, you have the unacceptable cliffhanger, like the one we saw at the end of The Walking Dead earlier this week. (You have seen it, haven’t you? This is the part where I cry SPOILERS and wave my hands frantically as you read on into the abyss.)
The entire season has revolved around a couple of questions: namely, can Rick’s group survive in their new community, and who the balls is Negan? Well, here comes our missile metaphor again: the writers take aim at these problems and push the button to deliver annihilation. Midway through the season, it seems the missiles have found their mark: a man claims to be Negan and the group kills him, and life seems to be stable (if not entirely safe) in the compound.
But then more threats are discovered, and we learn that the compound isn’t safe at all, and that Negan is probably still out there. This is well and good — we don’t mind that our missiles missed the mark, as we can always adjust mid-stream and launch again.
Which brings us to the finale. It answers our two questions, and thanks, at least, are due for that. Is Rick’s group safe in Alexandria? No, not even almost. Who the balls is Negan? He’s a leather-jacket-wearing, barbed-wire-wrapped-bat-wielding, ruthless but cultured sonofabitch. Okay, great, awesome. Targets fired at, and we have the answers to our questions, yay!
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Negan beats the everloving hell from somebody, and presumably that somebody dies from his or her wounds (hard to argue otherwise from the camera angle that showed blood flowing into the victim’s eyes, not to mention that a blow to the top of the head like that — and I’m not a doctor or anything — seems like it would almost certainly shatter some vertebrae, if it didn’t simply split the skull like a vat of cottage cheese dropped from a tall building).
And we don’t get to see or know who it is. The show works really hard to establish that it could in fact be anybody who’s present at the encounter, except for Rick himself, who must bear witness.
That’s not a cliffhanger. It’s a cheap shot at the end of a boxing match. The critical moment is interrupted.
With the introduction of Negan, and the dire predicament that Rick and co. find themselves in, we have both the answers to the questions that got us here, and a question that will drive us forward into next season (now that they are so clearly outclassed, outmanned, and out-ruthlessnessed, how will Rick’s gang survive this?).
But then, the attack.
It pretends to be one of those questions that carries over to next season, but it isn’t. Because it’ll be answered in the opening minutes of episode 1 (or episode 2, the way this show goes — they’ll join some new ancillary character derping around in the woods for 90% of episode 1 then cut back to Rick and co. for two minutes before the credits). It isn’t a driving question, it’s a sucker punch to frustrate us and keep discussion alive through the off-season.
And I guess, at that, it’s functioning as intended.
Still, for a show that really handles itself well when it comes to surprising its audiences, this cheap shot feels especially cheap. Because you don’t need it. In fact, cut the episode either thirty seconds longer — showing us who dies to end the season rather than start the new — or thirty seconds shorter — leaving the attack as a shocker to open the new season — would be immeasurably more powerful, narratively speaking.
It feels like a flub, or worse, it feels like a calculated measure to frustrate the audience and get them trading enraged tweets on the net. It follows the Donald Trump election strategy — just get people talking about you, who cares if they’re saying good things or bad?
It sucks. It’s exploitative.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. They did the same thing earlier in the season, showing the apparent death of a beloved character and then cutting to alternate storylines for two episodes only to reveal that what we thought was that one guy getting devoured by zombies? Yeah, no, that was just sneaky camera angles exploiting our viewpoint, and it was the guy that our guy was hiding underneath that had his intestines ripped out, not our guy.
Shameful. Cheap. It insults the intelligence of the audience. I remember watching that moment and thinking, “I see intestines, and I see our character, but I don’t see the actual intestines coming out of his actual body. The show doesn’t shy away from stuff like that. What are they trying to pull?”
Audiences expect things from their stories. You play with those things at your own peril. And a cheap cliffhanger like this … that’s one you use before a commercial break to make sure folks sit through all the DiGiorno ads so they don’t miss the reveal. It’s not something you leave sitting on our stomachs for six months while we wait for the new season.
That’s long enough for audiences to decide they’re tired of your crap and move on to stories that don’t suck.
Like Star Wars VII. It’s out this week, did you know? I bought it twice, once for home and once for the office.
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