The Walking Dead 6×16 ‘Last Day on Earth’: Taking it like a champ

TWD 6x16 Cover

Welp. Looks like it’s about time to talk about cliffhangers. It would be really easy to rant and yell and complain about the ending of “Last Day on Earth” (which I’ll probably end up doing anyway), but let’s take a minute instead to try to figure out just what is going on and why it’s a big deal. Because it is kind of a big deal, not only because it’s bad, awful storytelling, but because it’s such a bizarre choice when there are so, so many better choices to be made. But. The Walking Dead made this one. So here we go.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

There are a couple different kinds of cliffhangers. There are cliffhangers where the story itself just isn’t finished, where they leave a little bit untied so there are questions about where it’s going next. These are cliffhangers like the hatch being blown open at the end of the first season of LOST. It’s not that big of a deal (for multiple reasons, some of which we’ll come back to), and it doesn’t really impede the ending of the season. Then there are the “character death” cliffhangers, the ones where we wonder if somebody is alive or not until the writers have the good graces to let us know. Those cliffhangers, in all honesty, do very little, if nothing to enhance the storytelling. They exist to incite an emotion, to get you fired up so that you’ll pay attention to the show when it comes back.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

Cliffhangers are, in essence, subverting traditional storytelling. At the end of a structured block of storytelling, they get rid of falling action and resolution for the sake of ending right at the climax. This has been a staple of televisual storytelling for a while now, and it’s a reason that some HBO shows tend to structure their main action for the penultimate episode. But this isn’t to say that cliffhangers are all bad. It depends on how the show uses them. The cliffhanger at the end of Breaking Bad’s “Full Measure” wasn’t a big deal, mostly because it was relatively mild, with enough having happened to contain some resolution. Same goes for the hatch reveal in LOST. LOST is a show that thrives on mystery, so introducing another mystery wasn’t really a surprise.

The Walking Dead has a very, very different relationship with cliffhangers. There was the Glenn debacle in Season 6A, where the cliffhanger was so cheap and poorly executed that it became kind of a joke. There was the zombie walk cliffhanger at the end of Season 6A, where the story just kind of cut at the climactic moment and then picked back up at the beginning of Season 6B. You would think that after TWO terrible cliffhangers, after proving to the audience that the writers have no idea how to correctly implement them, that The Walking Dead would try something else.

Well. You would be wrong.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

“Last Day on Earth” has what is probably the worst ending that The Walking Dead has ever done, something that is infinitely compounded by the hype surrounding that ending scene and the way that the entire season builds up to it. You have every major actor and actress from the show talking about how horrific it is, every advertisement building up to Negan and Lucille and somebody getting their head smashed in with a baseball bat. You have the better part of a season staying faithful to the comics and making all sorts of missteps just to get characters out of Alexandria and out in the open, where Negan and The Saviors can get to them. And what do we get? A POV shot going blurry with some red dripping down the lens (though I will say that the crunching noises and the screaming were fairly effective). So yeah, Negan bashes somebody’s head in with a baseball bat. But who is it? Is it Glenn? Abraham? Sasha? Daryl? Does it really matter? I hate getting frustrated about this because this kind of bloodthirsty, gladiatorial attitude is the kind of terrible storytelling that reels people in based on emotion, and it WORKS. It’s the absolute worst.

TWD 6x16-5

Source: AMC

But let’s talk about more than that last scene, which we’ll double back around to. As an episode, “Last Day on Earth” is certainly bloated, extending for an extra twenty minutes of runtime even though it could have accomplished all of it in the normal 43-ish minutes. The Carol and Morgan subplot reminded me of the Season 5 finale subplot with Glenn and Nicholas: interesting enough but still kind of flat. The rest of the episode, with Rick and company trying to get around these roadblocks, definitely goes on longer than it needs to, becoming more and more tedious instead of tense. The real issue here is that so much is riding on this episode, and while it hits the general thematic point that the episode is going for, it does so in a way that dulls it to the point of near-incoherence.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

Because the point of all of this is that Rick is not the leader of the world. He’s not invincible. Acting aggressive and violent will only push that same action back onto you, and Rick going after The Saviors with such confidence made him open to the kind of violence that we see (or don’t see) here in the finale. This thematic point is well made, especially when we see the helpless, terrified look in his eyes as Negan makes his dramatic opening speech. But it’s undercut by SO many different things, not to mention the inherent problem that is Negan’s character. He’s interesting here, but really, is he anything we haven’t seen already? Isn’t he just a more hardcore version of The Governor? He’s mellowed out considerably on the show (if he talked like he did in the comic book, I would have laughed my way through this scene), but he’s still not really anything special. And it doesn’t help that The Saviors went from incompetent drones to carrying out this incredibly organized ambush. Maybe there’s a good reason for that shift. But it really just feels like The Walking Dead trying to get to the crazy Negan scene that we’ve been waiting for, only for that scene to really fall flat on its face.

So this is where we’re at. The Walking Dead has so many highs to speak of (“Clear”, “The Grove”, “Self Help”, “Here’s Not Here”), but this episode, “Last Day on Earth”, might just be the show’s nadir. It’s not necessarily because it’s the absolute worst episode the show has had to offer, as I’m sure there’s an episode in the second season that fits that role perfectly. But it represents all of The Walking Dead’s absolute worst impulses. It’s the show taking spectacle and cheap tricks and holding them higher than quality storytelling. If this is an indication of how Season 7 is going to operate, then I’m seriously worried about where the show is going. Or maybe Gimple can use this as a wake up call to notice what works and what doesn’t in order to make a new season that emphasizes storytelling over cheap tricks. Let’s hope so.

So what did you think of “Last Day on Earth”? How do you feel about the cliffhanger? Who do you think died? Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • George Liapes

    id You catch that AMC is actually doing a show on Norman Reedus? Jeez…

    Also also also also: What do you think are the chances of production photos from the show spoiling who died before the new season premieres?

  • George Liapes

    Welp. Looks like you’re fears of a cliffhanger came true my friend.

    I have mixed-to-negative feelings about the finale. The cliffhanger was definitely bullshit, especially after all the hype this finale got and the two aforementioned cliffhangers before. But to be honest, the scenes before were fairly good. They definitely weren’t perfect (Carl suddenly being overprotective of Enid didn’t really feel earned because the last time that we saw them together was the tenth episode) but they were definitely good at ratcheting up the tension (which was sadly ruined thanks to the cliffhanger) and the Saviors were also shown to be a competent threat for once, despite how incompetent they were before. I also liked the scene with Eugene leaving the group, with the music and all, even though it reeked of “We’re killing this guy off by the end of the episode” (even though there’s always the possibility he didn’t get hit by Negan.)

    Similarly, Carol and Morgan, like you said wasn’t really necessary, but I thought it was interesting to see them interact (bar their stupidity in the mid season finale, their contrasting opinions were a high point of the season for me). I also liked that Morgan finally had to get his hands dirty, though I kinda wished we had an extra scene to confirm they were safe instead of Morgan just telling Carol she could come back from this. I think the scenes were actually necessary in a way, at least to not leave Carol’s status MIA for the rest of the season (if one thing this storyline did was at least provide closure). Also, the possibility of Them coming back to rescue Rick and his group when Season 7 finally hits is always a reason for the scenes.

    But yeah, the cliffhanger totally botched what could’ve been a traumatic and game-changing twist for both those who read and don’t read the comics. Like you said, this show has had its highs (All four episodes that you mentioned are definitely my favorites, except for “Self Help”, which is still a great episode), but I’m massively disappointed that six seasons in, it is still suffering problems that keep it from rising to the heights of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. If I had any hopes that it could one day do that, this finale and season as a whole extinguished most of those hopes, if not entirely.

    As for who died, I don’t really know. They’ll probably do a different character from in the comics, like they did with Tyreese during the final prison battle, but I’m too burned out by the ending to guess who died at this point. If there’s anything this season has proven, it DEFINITELY needs to stop following the comics and do its own thing to really rise to new heights, but it’s probably too late at this point in the show’s run.

    So, some strong moments and episodes, but one of the weakest seasons overall (though not as bad as Season 2). Where would you rank this season?

    Also: Negan may not have been as silly as he was in the comics, but his “pee-pee pants city” line was definitely one of the show’s worst lines of dialogue.

    Also also: are You reviewing Fear the Walking Dead again when it comes back next week?

    Also also also: did You catch that AMC is actually doing a show on Norman Reedus? Jeez…

    Also also also also: What do you think are the chances of production photos from the show spoiling who died before the new season premieres?

    • Michael St. Charles

      Haha, I’m still kind of awestruck by what happened in this episode. I was probably being harsher than I needed to on Carol’s story, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan is actually pretty good, but I’m just shocked that The Walking Dead could produce an episode THIS bad and make such a dumb mistake again. It’s just insane, haha.

      I guess the cliffhanger could make sense (to the writers) in a couple of ways, but really only if it was Daryl they killed. If they kill Daryl, it’s a huge deal, not only because the shows fans would lose it, but because Daryl is an integral part of the show’s branding. Choosing a cliffhanger allows them to use Daryl and the momentum from the cliffhanger in its promotion and branding, while also allowing them to show the violence and gore and kill Daryl in the Season 7 premiere. I mean, that’s the only way I can at least rationalize it. Otherwise it’s just absolutely stupid. Instead of just kind of stupid. Really, if The Walking Dead was actually concerned with solid storytelling, the Negan scene would have happened 2/3 of the way in, leaving 10 minutes for a debrief of sorts and some falling action that focused on Rick being legitimately afraid.

      Also: And you know that Kirkman was gunning so hard to include the “pee-pee-pants” line.

      Also also: Yup! I’m reviewing Fear The Walking Dead starting next week! Hearing good things so far.

      Also also also: Yeah…Norman Reedus is essentially AMC’s brand. Probably not a good idea for the sake of sustainability, but they’re milking it hard.

      Also also also also: No question, this will be spoiled in a matter of months. Game of Thrones tried HARD to keep it quiet and, really, we all know where that cliffhanger is going.

      • George Liapes

        Also, also, also, also, also: the chatty savior that confronted the group is Trevor Phillips from GTA V.

        And what did you think of the season as a whole and where would you rank it?

        • Michael St. Charles

          You know, I didn’t realize that was Trevor until you pointed it out, haha. That’s so bizarre.

          I don’t know…Season 6 had some of my favorite episodes of the series, and it wasn’t a complete mess, but some of it was SO messy. Hmmm…if I had to rank seasons, it would go something like 5, 3, 1, 6, 4, 2. Maybe. That’s a very very loose ranking. But Season 6 is definitely in the bottom half.

          • Gui

            This might sound silly of me, but boy does it seem there’s an even-numbered season curse. Every odd-numbered season seems to take the best of the prior even-numbered season and goes on to become one of the better once. Happened twice already, if S7 manages to somehow surpass S5, I’ll be convinced.

          • Michael St. Charles

            The Walking Dead is one of those shows that can go in a couple directions, so I can totally see where you’re coming from. The ending of Season 6 wasn’t great, but I can see them coming back in Season 7 and doing something really interesting anyway. The one thing that gives me hope is that there is a lot of source material to pull from, so at the very least they won’t have a lack of material to draw from (which is what plagues most shows of this age). So yeah, I’m going to stay hopeful, haha.

  • George Liapes

    Also, also, also, also, also: the chatty savior that confronted the group is Trevor Phillips from GTA V.

  • Gui

    Well, my feelings for that cliffhanger are… Complicated, I think is the best word to put it. Not truly positive, but not entirely negative either. To be fair, I’m far more intrigued on how they’re gonna deal with the S7 marketing logistical puzzle they’ve gotten themselves into and how will they hide the victim. While it’s easy to think that the victim will be spoiled early on, I actually have my doubts about it, and I have the feeling we’ll be seeing a group of people disappear for quite a while during filming and they’ll be the main suspects. It’s different from Jon Snow, as so long as we don’t know who it was, if the main suspects of the cast show up all together or not at all, it’s pretty much impossible to tell. And I’ve been wondering about the whys and I’ll talk about it later, but first, I wanna talk about the episode.

    Cliffhanger ending notwithstanding, I actually genuinely enjoyed the episode. The Morgan/Carol moments, while they could’ve used some extra focus, worked well for me. Thematically it works, as Carol wants punishment for her actions but it’s unearned; Morgan effectively gets put in a position he needs to kill someone, yet his restraint in the past brings him help in Carol’s moment of need with the people from the Kingdom showing up. And so, both worldviews were justified, and all life is precious takes on a clearer meaning: It should never be easy to kill with no restraint, there needs to be a limit. Morgan killing the savior ensured Carol would survive the moment, but sparing the man from the Kingdom ensured she’d survive in the long run.
    And then we have the RV group. Besides their interactions being pretty good and the acting being top notch throughout (seriously, Andrew Lincoln killed it), thematically it made sense. All of their recklessness came back to them, and it’s a lesson the group needed to learn. The slow but certain realization of their powerlessness was actually pretty well done. At first they were still confident, thinking they could handle things, and slowly but surely things got so far out of their control that we saw the group afraid like never before. The entire scene when you start hearing whistling all over the woods was pure, unbridled horror. It’s the moment they realize nothing they try will work, and it’s over. And then Jeffrey Dean Morgan showed up, and other than a few ridiculous lines (pee-pee pants city, really Kirkman? That needed to be kept in?), he left one hell of an impression. You could tell he was in control of the situation entirely. No matter how many risky sacrificial moments the group did, he was always one step ahead. The finale did take away from it, but I still enjoyed the whole. My feelings towards this episode are pretty much the same towards Internment back in Season 4, actually. An otherwise pretty good episode damaged by a pretty bad decision with the ending.

    As for the whys of the cliffhanger? I see a few. #1, if Daryl was the victim. We know how fervent his fanbase is and all the “if Daryl dies we riot” and whatnot, so if they’re going for him and they want good ratings in the S7 premiere, that’s avoiding that problem. #2 is Kirkman himself. Listening to him in Talking Dead, with the way he talked about the cliffhanger it makes me wonder if he wasn’t at least partially responsible for the idea. And to be honest, I wouldn’t put it past him. And then, the biggest one, I think, is spoiler sites, and boy have I wanted to talk about these for a while. They’ve been a thorn on AMC’s side ever since the second half of S5, but now, during S6, they’ve become a problem like never before. Entire episode summaries come out days, sometimes weeks, ahead of the episode airing, and by this point its just ridiculous. I mean, the audio for the last 11 minutes was leaked 4 days before the finale aired and there already was a summary for the episode online before episode 15 aired, and I saw people discussing the fact those spoilers existed all over the place like it was common knowledge, so that is a bigger risk than I thought at first. Even if it’s a vocal minority who knows about the spoilers, it’s still a hell of a lot of people who spread it all over the place and soon enough it becomes common knowledge. So holding out on the Lucille victim, sorting out where the leaks are and keeping spoiler sites locked down might’ve been part of the motivation for this. After the episode I went to one of the biggest spoiling sites and guess what, entire summaries for pretty much every episode of the season, except maybe the premiere (maybe I just missed it). So part of me feels like it might’ve been a bad call based on wanting to prevent that risk as well. But hey, no one but the team know exactly why they did it.
    I do have hope for Season 7, though. I’m mostly intrigued by how they’ll handle things logistically, and they do have a lot of interesting stuff they can do. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for them and they’ll deal with all the main issues they have. For now, I’m excited for Fear The Walking Dead, I’ve felt from S1 it has a lot of potential the main series doesn’t have thanks to no Kirkman guidelines and no knowing what comes next.

    • Michael St. Charles

      You know, I really did like the way that Negan was characterized. He’s an imperfect character in the comics, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a great job with what he was given. I’m sure that most critics (myself included) are a bit harsher on this episode than what is necessary because of how absolutely disappointing the ending was. Because, to be honest, “Last Day on Earth”, aside from the ending, felt a lot like “Conquer”, the season finale from last season: it was kind of bloated, kind of meandering, but nothing TOO egregious.

      I can see where you’re coming from with how spoiling sites are damaging the surprises that The Walking Dead have to offer. The show has a weird relationship with those sites, where it tries to subvert those sites but can never really be successful enough to shake them entirely. I think a lot of it has to do with the way that it’s pulling from source material. Really, I’d be curious to know how many of the show’s viewers are comic readers and how many are just watching the show. Because if you’re not a comic reader, Negan really doesn’t have the punch that he would have otherwise. With this episode, the show felt like it was playing right into the comic reader audience, which was kind of strange considering how previous seasons always seemed to try something different.

      I don’t know. I could write a thesis on all of this. It’s endlessly fascinating to think about, even if watching it is incredibly frustrating.

      And I’ll be reviewing Fear the Walking Dead next week! Check it out if you get the chance. I’ve heard good things about the first couple episodes of the season.

      • Gui

        I have to add now, I’ve since read tumblr user Dynamicsymmetry’s postmortem on the episode and they put another idea on it that makes sense to me now as well besides the prior ones. Quoting here, a bit long so sorry for that, but I think it’s worth reading.

        “The problem with the Lucille Scene is that if you’re going to be even
        slightly faithful to it, it doesn’t leave you a lot of room to maneuver.
        Everyone is expecting Glenn to die. But this show likes to surprise
        people (I think it places too much emphasis on trying to do that, and
        with how bad it is at keeping shit under wraps it doesn’t even succeed
        very well). So if you go with someone else at that moment, you’re
        walking a tightrope of emotional impact (phrasing) and it’s frankly hard
        to judge exactly what the effect will be. If you eliminate Glenn from
        the field, and you also eliminate Daryl (you kinda have to, I don’t
        think there’s any way they kill him), and Rick and Carl (we know it
        wasn’t him) and Michonne (again, no way), that leaves you with a bunch
        of characters people care about, but… do they care enough? Is someone getting killed enough to generate buzz over the hiatus? Because buzz does matter, like it or not.

        How do you make that scene work, when so much has been built up around it?
        I’m not saying it’s impossible, or that a skilled writing team shouldn’t be able to. They should. I’m not making any excuses for anyone. I’m just saying I see why it was a problem. So they chickened out. Not good. Not horrendous, I don’t want to Lucille anyone myself and in fact as I said earlier I’m frankly somewhat grateful for the emotional reprieve, but not good. And not excusable, not from where I’m sitting.”

        I can see this possibility being it too, but regardless of why they did that, it wasn’t a good choice, but it definitely gives a lot to think about. I just hope they learned for S7.

        • Michael St. Charles

          It makes a lot of sense. After all of the build-up, all of the buzz, all of the options narrowing, there really isn’t a good way to play that scene. A lot of it comes down to The Walking Dead being ballsy, but not ballsy enough to really dig in and subvert expectations. There are ways to make it shocking and great, but I just don’t see the talent on the show being stellar enough to write something that can walk all of those lines. That’s a great perspective for sure. Very interesting.