No show likes to troll its audience quite like The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones may kill off people you love, and Homeland may test your patience, but there’s something unique about The Walking Dead’s ability to get you invested, hold your hand through long stretches of dialogue-heavy character building, and then blow it all to hell. It’s enough to make you wonder why you’re watching in the first place, so during this season of The Walking Dead, we’re tracking our reaction to each and every episode, to see whether the show is giving us enough to keep going, or whether it’s time to leave the zombie apocalypse behind altogether.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
The metric we’re using is Quitting Likelihood. The QL score starts at zero — that’s when we’re all-in and there’s no way we’d give up — and scales all the way up to 100. At that point it’s just time to go watch some old episodes of Scandal.
Our Quitting Likelihood after last week:
The mystery open
Bryan: I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with this season’s cold opens, and this week we’re definitely off. Random shots of blood dripping on asphalt, blood dripping from a scary metal spike, all ending with a shot of Carol’s rosary… we get it, TWD. You’re teasing something bad. But almost as if showrunner Scott Gimple and the gang thought the audience was too simple to understand, there are some faint voices heard in the background. We hear Carol warning somebody to come out slowly. An unknown character says "yeah, I think I’m gonna pass on that."
I’m inclined to think that whatever cold open they actually shot for this week got cut in the editing room, because this one feels like an 11th-hour fix. It’s not such a big deal that it warrants a full 5-percent increase in my QL, but it’s enough for a bump.
QL Score: +2
The apple of arrogance
Bryan: Rick and Michonne are hanging out in bed, sharing an apple, when Rick comments that what the group has going — new battle-hardened Alexandrians, new relationships, and plenty of supplies — is a new highpoint. Maggie’s worried about the remaining Saviors mounting a revenge attack, Michonne tells him, but despite the fact that Rick has been bloody, brutal, and merciless in the name of making sure his people are always as safe as possible, for some reason he strangely doesn't seem vigilant anymore.
The ugly fingerprints of hacky storytelling are all over this one
"The world’s ours, and we know how to take it," he says, leaning back half-naked in his bed and eating his apple. It’s a bizarre shift, somewhere between arrogance and recklessness, and it has the ugly fingerprints of hacky storytelling all over it. Have you guys noticed that Rick is letting his guard down, now?, the show’s saying. I wonder if that’s going to be bad? While The Walking Dead’s never been subtle, it’s rarely this clunky.
QL Score: +5
Nick: Watching Maggie’s despondent expression in the side-view mirror of a vehicle carrying her husband away from Alexandria was about as subtle as a barbed wire baseball bat upside the head. The two characters have each just endured a harrowing and life-threatening struggle while separated from the other. So I find it strange that Glenn’s first impulse here is not to stay with his pregnant wife, but leave the safe confines of the community in search for someone who’s actively trying to avoid being found.
The Carol search party, which sees five integral fighters leave in two separate parties, is also a shameless exercise in conflict building. The writers clearly needed to orchestrate a Negan arrival in which the Saviors' leader has the upper hand. Instead of thinking hard about how to do that, they just decided to force everyone into making a dumb, impulse decision. Glenn’s death next episode feels all but certain, and the show could have done a little more work putting him in a sticky situation.
QL Score: +5
Carol Peletier: Beyond Thunderdome
Bryan: Carol’s just cruising down the highway in her Mad Max-ified hatchback when a group of Saviors have to get in her way. We get another standoff where it’s not clear if Carol is hyperventilating out of theatrics. or because she’s really freaked out (I think we’re supposed to think the latter, but Melissa McBride is playing these moments so big it’s hard to tell). Then she kills a ton of guys with some sort of magical automatic weapon she has hidden in her shirt sleeve, and ends up spiking another one, explaining that dripping blood in the opening.
From a sheer action movie perspective it’s great, but it's a mess for her character. Is Carol horrified at killing, or is she a cold-blooded killer? Because when somebody has a panic attack about firing the first rounds, and then becomes The Terminator moments thereafter, it’s not entirely clear — and I found myself, for the very first time in the history of the show, getting a little tired of Carol. A complex character struggling with her own moral failings is fascinating; an inconsistent one that changes from scene to scene as needed is not. And to top it all off, the episode then re-uses the dripping blood tease it tried to get away with in the cold open. You can do so much better, TWD.
QL Score: +5
Rick spares a life (sort of)
Nick: Rick and Morgan’s Carol-tracking expedition provides perhaps the only worthwhile plot building in all of "East." The two characters, who represent polar philosophies on using violence in the post-apocalypse, have a tense and fascinating relationship that often goes unexplored in TWD. Morgan is the only character to have known Rick as he was when the zombie outbreak began without seeing what he went through in his transformation into a cold-blooded leader.
Morgan is one of the only characters capable of changing Rick's mind
That unique bond makes Morgan one of the only characters on the show capable of changing Rick’s mind. He so does successfully at the abandoned farm when he prevents Rick from executing a fleeing man for no other reason than to question him for information he probably didn’t have. We’re so used to expecting Rick to use force ruthlessly and without restraint — I mean, moments earlier he does stab a dying man in the face without blinking an eye. But hey, at least he didn’t add one more number to his kill count. As if Rick’s even keeping track anymore.
QL Score: -5
The Mystery Shot
Bryan: You may have gotten the sense that this episode of The Walking Dead was more about cheap tricks than meaningful storytelling, but wait — it’s not over yet! Daryl and Rosita come across Glenn and Michonne at Dwight’s camp — it’s played as if Daryl was out intentionally searching for them, even though he didn’t actually know they’d been captured — and the duo get ready for rescue. Only Dwight gets the drop on them by just walking out of some bushes. Dwight is basically Daryl’s kryptonite at this point, able to evade any sort of detection, ever, even though Daryl’s been a fairly expert tracker during the course of the show.
And then Dwight shoots him at near point-blank range. CG blood splatters the camera lens, and we quickly fade to black, with Dwight saying sarcastically, "You’ll be alright." Where did he shoot Daryl? Is Daryl alive? Isn’t it strange that Daryl didn’t try to fight back, even though he could have swung his crossbow around and knocked Dwight’s gun out of his hand? These are all questions you may be asking, but they’re ones TWD is not interested in answering. Because this episode ends like it began: on a cheap, transparent gimmick intend to shock the show’s loyal audience, and nothing more.
QL Score: +5
The Scoring Dead
Bryan: I’m writing this almost immediately after finishing the episode, and this is the most annoyed this show has made me all season. Characters acting incredibly stupid to suit the machinations of the plot, teasing gimmicks from the very beginning, and then the audacity of the Daryl gunshot at the end. There were some solid character moments between Rick and Morgan, but it’s hard to see the bulk of this episode as anything other than Scott Gimple and his team manipulating viewers simply because they can.
As lazy as TWD gets
Nick: I couldn’t agree more. This was The Walking Dead at its more transparently lazy. The show has taught us to believe the Alexandria residents are now hardened survivors who, as Rick put it, "don’t take chances anymore." Yet at each turn we see characters doing just that — and for almost no reason. It was a series of silly narrative gymnastics used to set up what is obviously the Negan appearance this entire half-season has been building toward.
You can see it clear as day: Carol or Rick comes back to save the group, but not before Negan shows up and uses his feared baseball bat to clobber the life out of either Glenn, Michonne, or Daryl (probably Glenn). TWD doesn’t often pretend to be more than a fun way to get heartbroken over a character’s demise. But this episode proves that it’s not even trying to be anything more.
Bryan: There almost seemed to be an air of contempt towards the audience this week. Despite the flashes we saw last season (hi, Glenn pseudo-death) the show has largely been very respectful of its fans and played things straight. TWD earns those emotional pay-offs you mention, but "East" was like watching a crappy magician try to pull off some sleight of hand. When the audience sees exactly what you’re doing, it’s not really a trick.
Like watching a crappy magician try to pull off some sleight of hand
That’s not to mention that there’s just a single episode left to go this season. Just one. And I can’t point to a truly meaningful story thread that they can wrap up next week to make it feel like this season has been a cohesive whole. The only thing truly uniting the episodes has been the promise of Negan, and even that seems like it will be rushed at this point. If he shows up, sounds scary, and even kills a beloved character, will that feel like a justified pay-off? I’m hoping I’m wrong, but they’ll have to do quite a lot to stick the landing on this season. It’s probably worth noting as well that AMC isn’t providing episodes available to the press for advance viewing — usually an indicator that something major is on the way.
Nick: "More to come" has always more or less worked on TWD because the revenge payoff is worth it: the Governor showdown at the prison, Carol at Terminus, Rick taking down Gareth at the church. These moments, along with major character deaths, give the show a recognizable rhythm and keep people slogging through the downbeats. But for the first time I don’t feel like this finale, regardless of Negan’s arrival, is going to justify how shamelessly it was constructed these past two episodes.
As it stands, season six appears to be ending on the show’s biggest promise of more to come yet: whatever happens to Rick’s crew in these final 90 minutes will have to be so gruesome that we’ll all stick around for the eventual Alexandria vs. Saviors battle. At this point, however, that’s a risky assumption.
Our Quitting Likelihood after "East":