*SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A LONE VERY SURPRISING ZOMBIE*
Step right folks, step right up!
It’s finale time for The Walking Dead season 7 which if you had listened to the unceasing torrent hype emanating from showrunner Scott Gimple, actors like Andrew Lincoln (Rick) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) and even the on-set cleaning lady (OK no clear evidence of that but c’mon, who didn’t have an opinion on this episode’s epicness) was going to be bigger and more violent than Ben Hur, more action-y than the finale of Star Wars A New Hope and and more emotionally devastating than Steel Magnolias.
Big, huge, ginrormous and amazing; honestly the hyperbole seems to be increasing in direct correlation to the substance of a show that once had a solid beating heart, a yearning to explore deep issues of humanity, grief and loss and a willingness to balance edge of your action action with more meditative moments.
Now though you too often feel like The Walking Dead is play acting at all those things, dressing up the show in all the worthy substance of introspection and thoughtfulness, of philosophising and wondering, of the decline, and partial rise of humanity while leaving very little of any actual truth or authenticity in actual evidence.
The finale, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” (as cliched as you could ask for; its dreary predictability reflecting a season and an episode all out of original or meaningful ideas) embodied everything that has been wrong with the season.
After a few reasonably OK episodes leading to it, the final season episode was more of undead whimper than a bang, and honestly not even that, with the only walker in evidence being a coffin-encased Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) who took a poison pill en route to Alexandria with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the better to chew his face off upon release.
The big, bad battle? It amounted to a whole lot of double crossing by Jadis (Pollyanne McIntosh), leader of the Scavengers aka filthy garbage people – who in just 5 years have inexplicably lost the ability to speak proper English which on just about every level makes no sense at all – who turned their guns on Rick and the gang (a better offer; in this case, 10 people to add to the ranks), a half-arsed gun battle that somehow none of the Alexandrians died in (not that I want them to die but seriously?!) and a melting away of the enemy at the end.
In other words, a whole lot of sound and fury signifying not much of anything.
Emotionally, the show tried to be really affecting by giving us some sweet, deep flashback moments between Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Sasha who woke up from a dream thinking he’d died – not at Negan’s hand but dead anyway – and a weird scene where Maggie (Lauren Cohan), still very much alive and the leader of the Hilltop cavalry, was sitting with Sasha watching a sunset.
You know it was supposed to be meaningful, particularly the flashbacks which were preceded by iPod lit shots of Sasha’s face from within the coffin listening to “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway – those visual shots were actually kind of impressive although disorienting at first as you initially had no idea where Sasha was – but in the end it kind of got lost in a muddled narrative that never really found its rhythm.
There was never any sense of events leading anywhere and every time there was some sort of progression or uptick in action, a lull followed and things went pretty much nowhere.
I have no problem at all with lulls and action sequences cohabiting in an episode but they should lead organically one to the other, feel like part of some cohesive whole that means something.
Instead what we ended up with a series of disconnected scenes, some of them quite resonant, others not so much that never really connected the dots in a way that made sense, or that made you care.
You therefore essentially reached the end of the episode with much the same feeling you had at the end of any of the episodes in season 9 of Doctor Who – you knew something had just happened and it was supposed to be big, epic and important but even when you thought back carefully you weren’t exactly sure what had transpired and whether any of it really mattered.
It was, in short, a triumph of style over substance, the suggestion of things only partially realised, all smoke and mirrors with no narrative momentum of any import.
That would be fine in some ways if the build up hadn’t suggested time and again that the finale would be big but while there were shots fired and Things Happened, you finished up at the end of it with Negan still in one piece and threatening all out war – three cheers from his crowd of bullies, thugs and ne’er-do-wells – the Scavengers escaping largely scot-free with all the guns (sans the garbage trucks they arrived in though; big win for Alexadria! Woohoo) and everyone in Rick’s camp, which now includes the Kingdom and Hilltop, rallying in inspirational fashion during a lovely montage.
So pretty much where we started out then.
Rather ludicrously, while everyone in Alexandria got all back-slappy and congratulatory, they left everyone in The Kingdom and Hilltop all exposed and vulnerable but everyone seem too happy in the afterglow of half-arsed battle to care much about that.
What is most concerning about The Walking Dead in the light of its lacklustre season 7 finale is that it’s not really going anywhere at all.
It seems content to replay the same Meet a Big Bad, Get Angry with Big Bad and Fight and Destroy (or not) a Big Bad over and over, rinse and repeat until the zombie cows come home, eschewing a recent marked trend in recent dystopian storytelling that celebrates the fact that humanity could well return from all manner of apocalyptic events, a realistic prospect given our tenacity to survive catastrophic calamities in the past.
Sure the show has played with that this season, showing us successful communities rising from the ashes but the message over and over seems to be that this can’t last, it won’t last and the only option going forward is a thuggish, orgiastic festival of violence.
I get it – civilisation has ended and everything royally sucks and we’ve collectively regressed to Dark Ages violence and survival of the fittest bastardy; but surely that doesn’t preclude the fact that good things could rise out of this mess and survive?
In many other apocalyptic stories this isn’t boring at all and propels the story forward in exciting and thrilling ways.
The Walking Dead however prefers these days it seems to be all shadow and style, selling its once-philosphical for violence and empty machinations that ultimately adds up very little but ever diminishing returns on the same old thing.
I am not looking forward to season 8 in October with any sense of anticipation (although Scott Gimple is, naturally enough, all agog atwitter and hyped to the freaking hilt).