(While there aren’t direct spoilers for the end of The Walking Dead season 6 here I do talk about it in pretty specific terms. So if you’ve not seen it, venture past the photo of Lucille the bat at your own risk.)
We’re a couple of weeks out from season 6 of The Walking Dead and I’ve been thinking a lot about its structure. It’s been a really interesting year on the show as they start the same transition the comic did, from survival crisis of the week to a story about what happens after the world ends. It’s become a book about rebuilding, both on the personal and societal level, and the costs of both of those things. That’s much more interesting, to me, than the earlier material and the same is true of the TV series. This season, especially the gradually ratcheting catastrophe of the attack on the Saviors, has been arguably the best the show has ever been.
What’s particularly interesting is how both the season cliffhanger and the introduction of iconic villain Negan have been handled. Scott Gimple, the show runner, has been completely open about embracing the showmanship side of his job. This is a show on its sixth year with the highest ratings of any TV drama in the US. It would be so easy for it to trundle along as Misery of the Week, with the same things happening in the same way.
Instead, Gimple has overseen a show that this season in particular has developed a quiet, subversive joy in upending your expectations. The decompressed mini serial that opened the season was a masterclass in the exact sort of storytelling that the finale played with and when the show has collapsed it’s time frame it’s been horrifying in the best way. The attack on the Saviors’ compound, and the subsequent capture of Carol and Maggie in particular aren’t just what this show does best, they’re what’s this show should always have been doing. World building expressed through action, character built through consequence, drama built through character.
That brings us to the finale, the cliffhanger and Andrew Lincoln’s face. It’s a curious thing to describe the lead in a show as the unsung hero but Lincoln is. He’s continually called upon to find humanity in brutality, often acts as the anchor for other people’s plots and is regularly asked to play Rick as a profoundly dislike able, deeply flawed man.
He does, every single time, and the finale finally gives him a chance to show just how good he is at his job.
Multiple cast members have talked about how the whole point of the finale is to break Rick. He starts off as a confident, even belligerent figure who is convinced he has every base covered. As the road trip falls apart, and the barricades get ever more elaborate, we see Rick slowly realize that he’s no longer in control and in fact never was. The final shot we see of him is probably the most disturbing thing in the show; ashen faced, unblinking, terrified and absolutely powerless.
That’s why the finale has to end on a cliffhanger. Because we need to be inside Ricks emotional state for the next few months as he watches one of his closest friends get beaten to death. That’s where his half of season 7 is going to live; that moment before bat hits bone, that awful tipping point from realization of powerlessness to acceptance. That’s Rick’s narrative next year; paying the price for over confidence and rebuilding.
That’s also why so much of the finale was devoted to Carol and Morgan in what amounted to an extended trailer for next year. Because hope still exists in this world, but it doesn’t lie exclusively with Rick.
The Carol and Morgan plot also ties back into the finale through its narrative architecture. Both are textbook examples of comic book plotting. The cliffhanger may as well have had a caption box flash up saying:
WHO DIES?! WHO LIVES?! JOIN US NEXT EPISODE WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGES!
at the bottom of the screen. This isn’t just showmanship, this is adaptation at the most basic level. There are a lot of shows based on comic books on air right now but after this season, I’d argue The Walking Dead is the only one that’s actively written and plotted like one.
In fact, the Carol and Morgan plot is a textbook example of The Levitz Method of plotting. The former editor in chief of DC Comics, Paul Levitz built comic scripts based on an A,B,C method. Plot A would be the focus, plot B would gradually cycle up and C hinted at. As A resolved, B would become the main plot, C the secondary and D would be introduced and so on. Or in this case; Negan and the Saviours as the A plot, saving Maggie’s life as the B and Carl and Morgan as the C.
It’s not a perfect narrative method but there aren’t any of those. It is however a really tight, disciplined way of building stories and that discipline has been present in every frame of season 6. This is a show that knows exactly where it’s going, where it’s coming from and what detours it can take along the way.
And that brings us to Negan.
The baseball bat wielding, verbose psychopath is the single greatest villain the comic has ever introduced. He’s not even the dark reflection of Rick so much as the final destination Rick is in constant danger of arriving at. A man acutely aware that society has to be rebuilt and happy getting his hands dirty to ensure it gets rebuilt with him on top. Negan is a monster not just because of his murderous brutality but because of his intelligence.
He’s also much, much better on TV than in the comics.
Negan’s original appearance was defined by how much he swears. Every second, and at times every first, word was often ‘fuck’ and that’s used to show just how much power he has. Negan is king of the mountain, he can say what he wants when he wants and that gives him a speech pattern that’s as distinctive as his best and only friend, Lucille.
But it also works as a sign of weakness. He can say whatever he wants so he crams his mouth with the worst words he can think of. That shows immaturity not authority. . Likewise, it’s interesting that the comic downplayed his swearing more and more as time went on. This seems like the hook to get into the character and one that Robert Kirkman has sensibly moved past.
The TV Negan is almost the older brother to his print equivalent. There’s the same jacket and scarf, the same baseball bat, the same violence. But this is one of those rare instances where TV profanity legislation works in the text’s favor. Robbed of his f bomb security blanket, this version of Negan is laconic, charming, a man who loves to talk and to perform. When he walks into that clearing he’s not just a monarch, he’s a leading man playing to the ultimate captive audience. Instead of an angry, over excited child he plays far more like Butcher Bill from Gangs of New York; flamboyant, charming and savage. The destination is the same, and his actions are no less horrifying but the journey is very different and far more effective. Even better, the fact Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a well known and respected actor with a hefty genre pedigree gives Negan even more authority. As a friend described it, John Winchester from Supernatural has just gone full dark side. It’s profoundly unsettling even before Negan beats someone to death because of that dissonance. After it, it’s straight up horrifying.
This season of The Walking Dead has been audacious in a very quiet way. The show’s narrative format has changed constantly, it’s been willing to do things on screen it would never have previously dared to try and it’s ended in the darkest possible place using one of the oldest techniques in the book. As if that wasn’t enough it’s managed to seamlessly integrate an iconic character in a way that not only stays true to the spirit of the original but fixes several of it’s problems. The show has constantly balanced the spirit and design of the original book with the needs of a different format. It’s often been amazing and rarely been less than impressive. Season 7 can’t show up soon enough.