Spoilers for the Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead ahead!
You won’t find a show out there that generates the amount of controversy and debate the way The Walking Dead does. Now having just wrapped up its sixth season, the series has become the most-watched show on all of television. With that popularity though comes intense scrutiny. Most recently, the Season 6 finale put it on the hot seat in a big way, wrapping up with an infuriating (and unnecessary) cliffhanger that has many fans questioning their loyalty to the show. The thing is no one should be in the least bit surprised: For better or worse, this is what The Walking Dead is designed to make you feel.
The Walking Dead is about a lot of things. It’s about humanity’s battle with itself when a civilized society is no longer there to hold it accountable. It shows us the lengths we’ll go as a species to survive, no matter the cost. It’s a fascinating parable of the many different shapes survival takes in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Oh and there’s the whole zombie thing, but that hasn’t been a major part of the story since the end of the second season. More than any of this, The Walking Dead is about perpetuating its own existence by making each and every one of its characters as miserable as possible.
It’s not a series alone in this method. Game of Thrones has narrowed despair down to an art form. The 100 takes a similar tact, albeit with a slightly more optimistic vision. “Misery TV” is a sub-genre that’s been behind some of the most popular shows on the air today, and with the finales this and last year respectively for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, it’s reached a breaking point. An audience can only take so much death and despair without a promise of resolution before it starts to feel excessive rather than realistic.
We can see the most glaring weaknesses of Misery TV in The Walking Dead‘s latest finale. Spanning an interminable hour-and-a-half, our “heroes” (we use that term loosely since they’ve been surprisingly murder-y this season) spend the whole episode running into literal roadblocks as they try to get Maggie to a doctor. This all culminates in the long-promised appearance of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who closes out the episode by beating the brains out of an unidentified member of the group. It’s a violent, depressing affair that revels in the failure of our main characters, and in the end, we’re not even given the courtesy of knowing who died.
To clarify, the argument here isn’t mean to completely dispel death and violence as a viable plot device. Real life doesn’t always have a happy ending, and these are things that constantly remind us that anything can happen at any given moment. But at some point, we have to be able to form a vague outline of an endpoint in our own minds. We have a general idea of where Game of Thrones is heading in its next two seasons (hint: White Walkers, White Walkers everywhere). The Walking Dead doesn’t have an endgame. Instead, we get finales like this last one that were unnecessarily bloated out to a 90 minute runtime, ending with a cliffhanger that desperately begs you to keep tuning in.
The promise that something exciting and interesting is coming is what drives every great show. A finale should make us want to tune in next season, not make us glad that we don’t have to watch any new episodes for awhile. The Walking Dead is already treading in some precarious territory as it is, dragging its seasons out over seven months with a season premiere, midseason finale, midseason premiere, and finally a full season finale. And incidentally, that’s exactly what all the extended misery and despair is starting to feel like: a drag.
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