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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!