Broken, defeated, slumped to their knees, our heroes are in mortal peril. Whether they’re in pee-pee pants city or getting real close to it, the situation is out of their hands. They ruled the roost for 6 seasons. Now, the hunters have become the hunted. Eerie whistles from faceless monsters in the forest signifying their doom. Truck lights blinding them from their road to salvation. And the new face of terror showing them the New World Order in a monstrous, bloody fashion. In the words of our new ‘savior’ Negan: ” You can breathe, you can blink, you can cry. Hell, you’re all gonna be doing that”… I imagine that’s how a lot of fans are feeling right now after the shocking season 6 finale: catching their breath, rubbing their eyes, and downright outraged at how the episode ended. While there were faults to this episode, there was an outstanding scene that captured the iconic entrance of a character Walking Dead fans have been waiting for. If you thought The Governor was mean, in the words of the schizophrenic Joker in Batman: “Wait till they get a load of me”.
Let’s set the stage for our new leader. For the last half of season 6, viewers were teased about Negan’s anticipated arrival. Whether it be from a group of saviors on the road threatening Rick’s group, or Jesus explaining how things are run at the Hilltop. Being the Alpha male that he is, Mr. Grimes thought he could deal with this pack of savages the way he dealt with the Governor, the cannibals and many other adversaries that have crossed his path. And that’s killing. Not knowing how much of a wrong move that is, like a bat wrapped in barbed wire shoved in your face wrong.
But before that little escapade, he has to get to his meet and greet with the devil himself. Taking everyone on a road trip to get help for Maggie (why would you take everyone out of Alexandria when you’re preparing for an attack????) they find out there is more to this group than meets the eye. With every corner turned, a new obstacle is in their path. From a truck full of saviors, to a shield of chained walkers, followed by a fire barricade and a hanging corpse, Rick soon realizes he is fighting a losing battle and the control he thought he had, gone.
To try to get one up on the saviors, a distraction is planned. Driving the RV, Eugene would take their opponents on a little cat and mouse chase, while the rest go on foot. Wrong Move again. Carrying Maggie to the Hilltop, they are stopped in their tracks by a flash of light, whistles and a lot of manpower, the likes of which they have never seen. This is the moment Rick understands the gravity of the situation, and for the first time, has no clue what to do next. With everyone on their knees waiting for their new master, it’s time to meet the man. Out comes Negan from the captured RV. Rick should definitely be peeing his pants now.
Set up done. Now to what the episode got right. The arrival of Negan had to be something the makers needed to get pitch perfect. As if the pages were ripped from the comics themselves and transferred onto our screens in glorious HD colour. And that’s exactly what they did. The whole scene was an homage to the events that unfolded in the graphic novels. Apart from the ending… But we’ll get to that later. They also needed an actor who could show Negan’s power, his swagger and his confidence. An actor who could make the character stand out and make everyone take notice of him when he’s in the vicinity. While Jon Hamm would’ve done a great job as the bat swinging maniac, Jeffrey Dean Morgan has got this character spot on. With a grin so sinister it would make Hannibal Lector shudder, fans breathe a sigh of relief as they watch their favourite bad guy take centre stage. Which is what Morgan does in this scene, he plays to his fellow colleagues like an actor commanding the stage reciting his sonnet to a panicked, sweaty audience. The truck’s lights is almost like a spotlight. Walking up and down the aisles, swinging his bat in their tearful faces, letting them know who’s in charge now. The haunting music rattling into our psyche, like a snake wrapping his body round his prey, never letting go.
The beauty of Negan’s character is he is a very calculated and smart individual. Behind his raw strength and his bullying manner, lies a man who knows exactly what he’s doing. Treating every attack and plan like pieces on a chess board. Rick, on the other hand, has one plan at a time, thinking things through as the situation is being played out. With Negan, he has a plan A, plan B, and plan C, with a hidden back up of plan D if he needs it. The point is he will always be one step ahead of his rival. Just when you think you have the upper hand, the smile spreading across his face will let you know you definitely don’t have a hold of the situation.
Taking his time deciding who will get the honor to meet his bat, lovingly named Lucille, face to wood, the tension rises and rises to an almost excruciating level. Morgan’s performance is outstanding. He’s enjoying tormenting these poor souls, and no one is going to stop him having his fun. Credit must go to the other actors aswell. You can feel the despair just by looking in their faces. They’ve never met a menace quite like this. Each one more deflated than the last, hearing how a bashed skull could be their own is terrifying in itself. I would like to give a quick shout out to Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) displaying great acting chops. Every time Lucille is swung in front of her, she sharply looks the other direction as if she’s in the teacher’s office being punished. Totally believable and makes the scene that more gut wrenching.
The stand-out performance i feel, besides Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is Andrew Lincoln. Never have we seen our leader in this position. You can see the guilt in his expressions and the complete sorrow he feels. He has failed his friends in a big way. He has led them right to Negan, like a lamb to the slaughter. Utterly helpless, and we feel helpless for him. The bright light shining on his face making his complexion pale white. Drained of all hope. Twitching to every word Negan is saying. A man out of time, he knows there is no way out.
When you think things couldn’t get any more unbearable, a game of eeny meeny is played out to decide who gets punished. From one shot to the next, showing Lucille smiling at her victims, the nerves become too much for the viewer. As it passes from person to person, we come to the conclusion this is it for one of our beloved characters. As he picks the lucky winner, Negan rises Lucille and brings it crashing down on…. The Camera. Muffled screams and fade to black….. Meh. While some would deem that as a suitable cliffhanger to make you wait for the next season, others would suggest that its just a big, fat cop-out. I am on the latter opinion. To build the tension up for what is a great 11 minutes, promising a death, and then not showing who got the beating is taking away everything that the scene was trying to accomplish. If a magician was explaining his big finale to the audience, building up the excitement of his magic trick, raise his arms, shout abbra caddabra, but then the curtain falls down. The crowd would feel cheated. Same principle with the finale. It feels incomplete, like a jigsaw missing it’s pieces. No matter whose head gets bashed in next season, the scene won’t be as hard-hitting as it could have been when we were first shown.
A filler of an episode led to the most anticipated arrival in the Walking Dead, and Negan/Jeffrey Dean Morgan was worth the wait. What you thought of the ending should not overshadow the power of the performances Morgan and co. gave. But too many times the show has gone for misdirection of their character’s fates. For this episode, many fans feel that it was maybe the wrong time to play that card. But for now, bask in the glory of our new leader, our savior, and one hell of an entrance: Negan.
by George Millard