A trip to the Hilltop turns deadly (and deadly long) as Negan finally makes his debut

By Jonathon Dornbush
April 04, 2016 at 01:45 PM EDT

And this is the way the season ends. Not with a bang, but a bashing.

Yes, after months of teases, Negan strolled into the picture with his cherished bat, Lucille, in tow to shake things up for Rick and the other survivors. Unfortunately, we don’t know just how the new world will look for Rick’s group because the episode concludes with Negan killing someone, but who that person is remains a mystery.

Before arriving at that crucial juncture, though, let’s roll back to the beginning of “Last Day on Earth” as there is plenty of road to cover in the lengthy season 6 finale.

We’re talking about an actual road here, though, because the actual events of “Last Day” can be boiled down quite simply: Rick wants to get Maggie to the Hilltop for treatment, but the Saviors have set up various roadblocks at every turn to prevent them from arriving at their destination. Negan is sick of having his men killed, and he’s finally seeking retribution and restitution. He’s just playing with his food first.

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Almost every familiar face in Alexandria accompanies Rick on the RV when they set out for the Hilltop. Father Gabriel stays behind, now in charge of protecting the town (and, most importantly to Rick, Judith) with Spencer by his side, while Enid is left behind against her will. She pleads with Carl to go along with them, wanting to be there for Maggie and to help save her, but Carl refuses to put her in such jeopardy. So he fools her into the closet of the armory, locking her inside, and telling her to “just survive somehow.”

So the rest of the cavalry (well, those not already captured last week by Dwight and the Saviors) ride out of town, Maggie burning up in the back as they race to get her the medical attention she so desperately needs.

Rick tries to comfort her while on the road by saying that they’re all in this together, that everything they’ve accomplished has been as a group, as a family. But any comfort those words provide should start to dissipate at the signs of their first roadblock. A relatively small group of Saviors, their cars parked blocking the road, stands before them, with Steven Ogg’s chatty Savior in the lead. (While you may recognize him from guest spots in shows like Better Call Saul, Ogg will likely be most familiar as the man behind Grand Theft Auto V’s Trevor.)

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Stepping out of the van, Rick offers to make a deal, but Ogg’s Savior tells Rick he wants all of their stuff and will probably kill one of them. (Stuff is so vague a bargaining term, but it’s understandable why he may not have a detailed list on him at all times. Who knows how long he had to be out at that roadblock for?) Rick would rather take their “stuff” and not kill anyone at all, but, unsurprisingly, no deal is actually made. The Saviors have a captive, whom they spray paint in the street after having previously beat him to a bloody pulp (he says he comes from “the library,” but what that is isn’t exactly clear to me), assuming he must be one of theirs.

So Rick makes to leave, just as the lead Savior of this group makes the first big foreshadowing speech of the episode. Rick asks him if he wants to make today his last day on Earth, and the Savior throws the question right back at him, suggesting he or someone he loves is not long for this world.

Whatever mind games he’s playing, they certainly seem to contribute to shaking up Rick, who visibly grows more concerned and even more scared than he has appeared in a while. The group turns around and plans to make for another route (a leg of the trip in which Abraham conveys to Sasha, in his own way, that he’s open to the idea of fostering a family with her). Naturally, they come across another band of Saviors, a slightly larger, more heavily armed battalion, which forces them once again to find another road.

So they come to a third block in the road, which, on the surface, is not comprised of Saviors. Instead, a group of walkers have been chained across the road, and running right through them with the RV could risk taking out their vehicle. So Rick and a small group ease their way out of the van only to find these walkers bear familiar markers. Signs of Michonne and Daryl signal that their fellow friends are in serious trouble, but they quickly find themselves in danger, as well, when a firefight breaks out. Rick makes to clear the the living dead defense system, chopping off an arm to break the line and thereby setting the walkers loose.

NEXT: Rick and the group hunt for salvation while Morgan continues his hunt for Carol

He and a few of the others go to work tearing them down while laying out some suppressive fire on the nearby Saviors hiding in the treeline, booking it back into the RV and further down the road to safety. Of course, once free of the fight, Rick notes that the Saviors fired at the Alexandrians feet, not to kill them. They have a plan in place, and they want them on this very road.

That road, naturally leads them to a fourth roadblock, as a serious troupe of armed Saviors sits in their path. Rick, clearly frazzled by this point, has them turn around the van looking for yet another means of reaching the Hilltop.

Of course, that brings them to the fifth and perhaps most ingenious obstacle, a massive wall of lumber sitting in the RV’s way. (And by now, while the sense of progression is clear as this episode is essentially one long build-up to a final scene, I think we all got the picture of their trouble by the THIRD stoppage point.) The wood is burned by the Saviors to ward them off but only after they hang their captive from before, now adorned with a big “X” on his shirt, from a nearby overpass.

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The warning signs are clear, and with so many avenues shut down, it’s obvious the Saviors have thought of every possible path for the RV to travel. Eugene makes the prudent point, however, that the Saviors seem fixated on the RV itself. They don’t know who is inside it at any given time, so why not use the RV as a distraction while others carry Maggie on foot once it turns dark.

And whether because he made the plan or simply volunteered, Eugene is the one to stick by the RV while the rest head off with Maggie on a stretcher. He says what he believes to be his goodbyes, giving Rick a recipe for making bullets in case he has no chance to do so himself while Abraham offers him an apology for never believing in him before.

And so in the dead of night, Rick and the others make their way through the forest, hoping to find safety now that they believe they’ve outsmarted Negan and the Saviors. But the Saviors appear to have put all of their thought into this plan, as the group soon hears a set of whistles ringing out around them until they find themselves in a clearing surrounded by the Saviors and their rides, Eugene and the RV already under their capture.

The only one missing is Negan, but don’t fear…or do, because he’s finally here.

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But in the spirit of delaying that moment just a few minutes longer, let’s briefly address the other story running parallel to Rick’s Roadblock Simulator 2016.

Morgan continues his search for Carol, though he’s not the only one hunting her down, as the sole surviving Savior from the shootout with Carol last week is also on her trail.

Morgan’s trip, though, is aided by the help of a friendly horse pal, whom he rides into a town where he finds Carol huddled up on a doorstep, injured and seemingly afraid. He patches her up and tells her about he wasn’t the only one going to look for her. They want her back, but Carol says she can’t go back. She’d have to kill to justify her spot there, and there is no room for someone who doesn’t want to or can’t kill (a far cry, of course, from the diametrically opposed points of view Carol and Morgan shared earlier this season). He won’t leave her, but she points a gun at him and demands he leaves.

He does, at least temporarily, to take care of a walker hanging nearby that Carol couldn’t kill. When he returns, he can’t find her, and so he rides off once more in search of his fellow Alexandrian.

Carol has set off on foot again, and as she comes to a stray walker, the face of which she mangles as she struggles to kill it, she’s tackled by the surviving Savior. He tortures her, shooting her first in the arm and then in the leg. And Carol says she hasn’t suffered enough.

Rather than finish her off, he makes to leave her to her pain, but she calls out after him. She demands he finish it. He doesn’t get to walk away. He has to end it, and so he rushes back prepared to. Until Morgan appears, that is.

Aiming a gun at the Savior, Morgan demands he drop the gun, telling him they can make it out alive, but the Savior has no patience for this standoff. He prepares to kill Carol, only to be gunned down by Morgan. All life is precious, but perhaps Morgan is starting to believe there are exceptions when one precious life is at risk.

Morgan killing a man isn’t the only surprising thing to happen, however, as two men suited up with armor appear and ask, not looking for trouble, about what happened. One of them is on horseback and carrying a spear, causing Morgan to realize the horse he has belongs to the man on foot. These men, either actual guards or LARPers who chose an odd time to pretend they’re in a real-life Elder Scrolls civilization, offer some help, suggesting yet another civilization is set to be introduced in the near future. (Comics readers will have some idea of what that is, but for the sake of spoilers, and as someone who doesn’t read the series, I’ll refrain from saying more.)

NEXT: Enter Negan

And, without further ado, Negan. Jeffrey Dean Morgan steps out of the RV to find all of Rick’s group neatly lined up for him. Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, and Rosita have been brought out too from their hiding spot. (The episode hints at them sporadically with a recurring shot that, well, really amounts to nothing else but to show where they’ve been locked away.)

Now, Negan does not appreciate all of the killing of his men, first in their sleep, then of the men who were sent to kill Rick and his people. Rick’s going to regret crossing him, Negan tells him before launching into an extensive villain monologue.

As played by Morgan, Negan is calm, cool, and reveling in the moment. He makes his demands clear. He wants their stuff, and they have no chance of negotiating. Even worse, he’s going to kill one of them because he can’t let everything that’s transpired go unpunished. If they fight back, life will only become worse. Negan now owns them, he owns the damn door his people knock on when they come round to Alexandria to claim whatever they please.

He wants them to work for him, and they can’t do that if they’re dead. One casualty is the necessary toll in Negan’s mind, however, but he simply can’t choose. And how could he? He only has almost every principal character set out before him to choose from. So much potential, so many ways to irrevocably change life for Rick’s group.

So rather than make an outright choice, he goes down the line and back again, playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe until he settles on his choice.

That choice…remains a mystery. The camera, after cutting frenetically from one Alexandrian to another, shifts into a first-person mode as Negan faces his victim. A few words delay his ultimate decision, but he inevitably gets around to the actual killing as he bashes in one of Rick’s people, hitting him or her over and over again, blood seeping down the first-person perspective like the “Game Over” screen of a first-person shooter.

But the identity of that perspective will be unknown for months, and in many way it feels like a cheat while being somewhat unsurprising in a season that played with Glenn’s fate for episodes and only last week ended on Daryl being shot as blood sprayed the screen. By not showing who died, The Walking Dead writers threw the only real twist they could bring to a moment that every viewer who read the comics (or who had discovered details about Negan’s entrance via interviews, spoiler posts, or Wikipedia) knew would end in death. Maybe it would line up with the death in the comics; maybe it wouldn’t, but everyone with some background expected the end of the line for a major character. And so they delivered that death but without the gratification of revelation viewers anticipated.

Negan’s introduction, and the episode as a whole, almost feels like it telegraphs that very twist. This big moment obviously wouldn’t come until the end of the episode and the season. But the episode’s extended length, the repetitive nature of Rick and the group’s arrival to that moment, and then the delayed gratification with Negan’s lengthy speech and indecision all push revelation and resolution further into the distance. And the episode doesn’t just nudge the answer to the episode’s ultimate question into the final seconds. The episode swings Lucille at the satisfaction of knowing whom Negan kills and bats it away months into the future.

Does that make it right? Personally, not at all. Cliffhangers can work for season finales. I’ve certainly sat through my fair share and enjoyed some, but the finale and much of this season is so clearly set up to culminate in this moment, in this introduction and death. The effects of that death will echo out across the show, but those effects are so much more interesting to speculate about and contemplate than a mere identity is. No matter how great Jeffrey Dean Morgan may be in his first scene as Negan, the show robs fans a chance of something deeper in this moment, of properly ending the narrative being laid out all season. And the rest of the finale is devoid of enough meaningful material or character developments to justify the ultimate lack of resolution. The ending is meant to be a shock to fans, an unexpected twist on what is expected .Yet in a season so full of toying cliffhangers, this final one isn’t a shock. It’s a disappointment.

Someone in Rick’s group indeed has their “Last Day on Earth” during the finale, but because of the way that last day is handled, the show makes it difficult to care about who that person actually is.