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:
Father Gabriel in charge
Bryan Bishop: There’s been a ton of violence during the build-up to the season finale, and things kick off with everyone on high alert. After a brief glimpse of light peeking through the cracks in… something (this week’s stylistic fixation pays off in the final scene), the show picks up with Carl taking extreme measures to keep Enid from joining the Maggie Transportation Brigade. Like, locking-her-in-a-closet extreme. "What if you don’t come back?" she asks him, because The Walking Dead can’t let a moment pass without reminding the audience that somebody’s going to die, when Negan finally shows up.
Gabriel's evolution this season is a reminder of what this show is still capable of
Then a rifle-toting Father Gabriel tells Rick how he’s got everything locked down: security, the rendezvous point, and how if anything goes sideways, saving Judith will be his first priority. "Are you comfortable leaving me in charge of Alexandria’s defense?" Gabriel asks Rick, who can only smile to himself and say "yes." It’s a great moment, and Gabriel’s slow evolution this season is a wonderful reminder of what this show is still capable of doing.
QL Score: -5
90 minutes of driving
Nick Statt: On the way to bring Maggie to the Hilltop Colony for treatment, Rick and the others begin to understand the dire situation they’ve put themselves in by letting multiple people leave Alexandria for no good reason. At every possible route, the Saviors have set up a standoff or public execution forcing their RV to double back until, inevitably, they have to take off on foot.
I understand the point of this series of scenes was to emphasize how imminent and all-powerful the Saviors really are. Rick thought he understood what he was up against, but each roadblock helps cement the chilling revelation that Negan is without a doubt more dangerous than they could have imagined. Still, this could have been better handled without the sweeping RV driving shots and what ultimately felt like an elaborate mechanism to waste an hour and a half of our time. This episode didn’t need to be twice as long as a standard one. In fact, it would have been better off being half as short.
QL Score: +5
Let’s Torture Carol
Bryan: Morgan finds Carol, crumpled on some random porch in plain sight — because, of course, that’s where you would hang out after everything she’s been through. Morgan bandages her up and tries to pep talk her into coming back to Alexandria, to no avail.
Carol deserves better — and so does the audience
Carol ends up leaving on her own, only to be captured by one of the Saviors. At first Carol smiles because she thinks she’s going to die and her struggle will finally be over, but the Savior instead decides to torture her. He shoots her in the arm; the leg. It’s slow, brutal, and most of all, cruel. Not just what the Savior is doing to Carol, but what showrunner Scott Gimple and his writers are doing to the legacy of the character. Carol’s struggle from the very beginning has been about a woman overcoming violence and abuse, becoming a formidable human in the process. And yet here TWD has put her, mewling for death in the street while a character that doesn’t even really have a proper name repeatedly calls her a "bitch" and fills her full of holes.
It’s not subversive. It’s not clever. It’s not upending expectation. It’s taking the enormous goodwill an audience has toward a character — goodwill built by powerful, thoughtful storytelling — and profiteering off of it in the name of mediocre violence. It’s the shape of things to come in this episode, to be sure, but there’s only one word for it: cheap. Carol as a character deserves better — and so does the audience.
QL Score: +10
Nick: One of this episode’s only bright moments arrived just minutes before Negan steps out of the commandeered RV and finally shows his face. Rick and the group, carrying a deathly ill Maggie, wander into the elaborate trap set for them over the course of the entire episode. In every direction, a Savior stands with either a firearm or blunt object at their side. It was a horrific and effective scene, standing out in TWD as one of few times you as a viewer have to grapple with seeing the protagonists in an unfixable situation.
Once Negan does show up, you’re reminded that he will be clubbing someone to death with Lucille, his barbed wire baseball bat. "We pissing our pants yet?" asks actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, delivering his first lines straight from Kirkman’s comic. Even though he ends up not saying much of anything before deciding at random whose head he’ll bash in, the setup is strong enough to make Negan look near omnipotent.
QL Score: -5
Bryan: The moment that everyone’s been waiting for all season finally arrives: Negan attacks somebody with Lucille.
The sound goes dim, as we’re put inside the point of view of the victim. Blood streams down. A main character dies, and after 16 hours of foreplay The Walking Dead has the arrogance to not even show the audience who it was.
QL Score: +20
The Scoring Dead
Bryan: This should be a lively discussion.
First off, this is one of the few episodes this season that Nick and I got to watch in real time together, throwing reactions back and forth as things unfolded (or should I say, as *nothing* unfolded, since the entire episode was a bad road trip with a question mark ending). But now that’s it over, I’d like to kick things off by throwing out an idea: The Walking Dead despises its viewers. I’m sick of it.
Nick: It’s shocking that one of the most-watched shows on television feels comfortable ending a season — especially one like this — on a cliffhanger. It’s not just that the cliffhanger in general is cheap and lazy, but this cliffhanger in particular came after 90 minutes of complete and utter filler and ended up undermining the entire Negan reveal. We’ve waited hours upon hours for this moment, and it came incomplete.
We've waited hours for this moment and it came incomplete
I’m undecided on whether TWD hates its viewers. It definitely feels disdain for them to think this finale would deliver in any of the traditional ways a TV drama can satiate us. And I would love to know what’s going through the heads of showrunner Scott Gimple and the writing team right now. It’s easy to think they’re under the misguided impression that this is quality TV. But it also could be a big joke, that the fanbase will just accept anything at this point.
Bryan: You mentioned that moment when Negan first walks out of the trailer, and utters the line from the comic, and I couldn’t help but feel that was Robert Kirkman (and Gimple) smugly patting themselves on the back. I’ve mentioned before how Kirkman referred to the Glenn switcheroo last year as a "fun experiment," which played to me as a cruel abuse of audience loyalty, and this entire season has felt like the same thing. Dropping Negan’s name in the mid-season finale, planting references to baseball bats and head-bashing in nearly every episode; it’s like the entire season was engineered to abuse comic fans who know that (spoiler alert!!) Glenn is killed by Negan in the comics.
We’re talking about hours and hours of television that didn’t even try to play fair with the audience by earning tension on their own; instead we got this meta-play on expectations. And if Gimple and his team want to do that, well, fine. That’s certainly one way to go. But you have to pay that off. When you’re making a television show, you have a contract with your audience, whether you like it or not. The audience agrees to invest time and passion, and the creators agree to deliver a cohesive story that plays fair within the rules of the universe they’ve established. The Walking Dead has been brutal and hard at times, and while it’s never been kind to its characters, it has never been manipulative or cruel to its audience. Season 6 as a whole changed that.
If The Walking Dead will play these kind of games, it loses credibility as a narrative
If they will play these kind of games, then the show loses credibility as a narrative and becomes a series of cheap stunts. Don’t ever bother investing in the characters, it’s saying, because the show will never play fair with you. What’s next? Rick waking up to find Lori in the shower, and discovering that the zombie apocalypse has just been a dream?
Nick: You make a really good point about the television contract, as it seems Kirkman’s creation hit the limits of its medium and decided to just toss the rulebook out the window. TWD is feeling less and less like a TV show and more like an exploitative comic book come to life. Its structure is reliant on the same issue-by-issue hooks designed to keep people coming back and the writing seems obsessed with these shameless, self-aware experiments rather than telling a meaningful story. It would be great if that were the point — a commentary on modern TV and what keeps us watching — but TWD is carrying on as if it’s gifting something honest instead of doling out cruelties.
It’s all one big ever-changing manipulation scheme, with levers to pull and buttons to press to generate different reactions from the audience. Who’s remaining on the cast, what will make viewers come back, how can they juice their premiere numbers: these are the only issues that matter here anymore because the show has torn out anything that might contribute to its realism or emotional intelligence. It’s a huge red flag when a show becomes concerned only with how it can have maximum impact instead of the nuts and bolts of good narrative, structure, and pacing.
I haven’t felt this way about a show since Lost — and that drama at least had the courage to look like it believed in itself, even if viewers still felt cheated. The only way out here for TWD is to not kill Glenn, because asking people to wait six months to confirm something that was heavily foreshadowed for 16 episodes will prove the cliffhanger to be as shallow as it seems. I don’t think even this show could survive that.
Bryan: I agree 100 percent. But the problem is, even if they don’t kill off Glenn, then the show will still have spent an entire season trolling the audience because everybody thought Glenn would die. There’s no way for TWD to right these wrongs. Which, I suppose, brings things to us.
There's no way for TWD to right these wrongs
How do you feel about watching The Walking Dead moving forward? If the goal of this inaugural Walking Dead Quitter’s Club was to find out whether the show played fair enough to earn devotion, the question’s been answered: it doesn’t. In fact, it’s taking glee in not playing by the rules. And while I haven’t tabulated our final Quitting Likelihood, I know the number’s not going to be pretty.
Nick: My initial gut reaction, and I’m seeing the same sentiment on Twitter and in forums and comment sections, is to stop now and not look back. This show has squandered every opportunity to redeem itself, and it’s now proven it can waste an entire season only to pull the rug out from under us in the last five minutes of a finale. Then again, I can make an argument for staying with TWD just to see what they do with Negan’s character. The show may have fumbled his arrival in spectacular fashion, but the impending Saviors war is arguably the most intense and riveting portion of the comic.
It’s these kind of back-and-forths I wrestle with every time a season wraps. For the sake of watching the car crash until it skids to a final stop, I think you’ll see me complaining about the next premiere six months from now. Of course, that proves the cheap tactics work. I’m hooked, if only because I want to confirm for myself that this show refuses to do better. So maybe TWD deserves viewers who just don’t know when to give in.
Bryan: The ratings of season 7’s premiere are definitely guaranteed, but I find myself looking back at the bigger picture of how this show has changed over the years. The first season, under the leadership of showrunner Frank Darabont, was exceptional in that it actually proved the comic could work as a show. The subsequent two seasons under Glen Mazzara had their high points and low points, but we’ve now seen three full seasons under Scott Gimple, and it’s safe to say there are some real problematic patterns, including a reliance on tricks and gimmicks to give the impression of escalation and growth when people are really just running (or should I say driving?) in circles.
Michonne's death would get Rick nice and fired up
At this point The Walking Dead doesn’t power its own engine. I certainly understand that the introduction of Negan (and the death of a main character) could serve as a mini-reboot and change that, but at this point I’m not expecting much. I suppose we should wrap things up by placing our bets on who ended up getting killed, right? I’m going with Michonne. That would get Rick nice and fired up.
Nick: Michonne does seem like the perfect sacrifice to both subvert our expectations and give Rick something to fight for. I’ll put money down on Maggie though. It seems like an interesting way for TWD to shake up the comic book narrative and squeeze a bit more juice out of Glenn now that he’s evolved into one of the show’s most beloved characters. Then again, if Negan's victim does end up being Glenn, maybe that's the time to quit for good.
Our Quitting Likelihood after Season 6 of The Walking Dead: