Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Walking Dead Season 8 Finale: 'Wrath'

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead 
Season 8 Finale 

Two seasons ago, fans watched in horror as Negan savagely beat Glenn and Abraham to death in front of a kneeling lineup of their helpless friends. After years of dodging close calls, Rick's group finally ran out of aces to pull from their sleeve, finding themselves up against a villain just as apocalypse-hardened as they were. As a fan, it hurt to watch two beloved characters (Glenn, especially) get wiped out so unceremoniously, but as the show found itself straying further and further away from its signature willingness to kill off any character, at any time, their deaths were probably just the kind of shake-up the show needed. Due to how it aired, Negan's lineup scene was, and still is, incredibly divisive amongst fans and critics, but it was gripping television, and probably The Walking Dead's last truly iconic, "must-see TV" moment. 

At the time, it felt like Negan was about to forge a new class of Walking Dead antagonist- the kind that wouldn’t succumb to plot armor or deus ex machina, as so many enemies had before. But alas, over the course of two seasons, Negan’s menacing aura slowly eroded until he became little more than a walking one-liner with a hard-on for human resources, who ended up killing more of his own men this season, than of Rick’s. (No, seriously. Look it up.) Paradoxically, as Negan’s lethality declined, the quality of the show rose, with season eight delivering a marked improvement over season seven, with critics (although, still very far off from the show’s heyday in season five). However, regardless of Negan’s recent shortcomings, he’s still been the most compelling villain this show’s seen by a country mile, and after two seasons of build-up, we finally get to see his conflict with Rick, come to a head. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Unfortunately, “Wrath” fails to live up to the hypeas the long-awaited showdown between Rick and Negan barely eclipses the intensity of a Carl-Ron slap fight. Right from the get go there’s very little that goes right for this scene- the setup is confusing, the camera angles are terrible, and the choreography is mind-blowingly bad, like “we hit our budget halfway through the scene and had to film the rest with stuffed dolls,” bad. This is strange given that quality fight scenes is one of the few things The Walking Dead manages to do on a consistent basisTypically, the show does a good job of letting its fight scenes build to a natural crescendo, but this particular scuffle ends about as awkwardly, and abruptly, as it begins. 

I understand that the show has been building up to this outcome for a while- Carl’s dying words in the midseason premiere, and the letters he wrote to both Rick and Negan, suggest as much. And, in general, this season has shown more members of the group questioning the morality of killing the Saviors, including Jesus, who eventually convinced Maggie to keep a group prisoner at The Hilltop, rather than executing them. But, it was just two short episodes ago that we saw Rick promise safety to a group of Saviors, only to unhesitatingly go back on his wordand murder them all in cold bloodAs much as Carl’s memory means to Rick, it’s hard to believe that he could go from a mindset of such extreme violence one day, to sparing Negan, along with the rest of the Saviors, the next. 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Eugene’s final betrayal of Negan serves as a good example of a character twist that has been properly developed over the course of a season. Despite Eugene’s claims of being “utterly, completely, stone-cold Negan,” the writers have been carefully placing clues, throughout season eight, suggesting that Eugene isn’t enjoying his time with the Saviors as much as the sardine mac & cheese might lead us to believe. During the attack on The Sanctuary, Eugene reveals that he's turned to drinking in order to combat the chronic insomnia he suffers as a result of living under Negan’s tyrannical rulePlus, even though the past two seasons are littered with examples of Eugene turning his back on his Alexandria allies, he never transformed into a truly evil person, evidenced by his refusal to reveal Dwight's disloyalty to Negan, as well as his willingness to help Father Gabriel escape from The Sanctuary. 

The biggest, though least obvious, clue was left by Rosita last week, during Eugene’s short-lived kidnapping. Eugene, a self-admitted coward, has made it abundantly clear that he will join up with whomever gives him the best chance of maintaining his biological imperative. And, while Eugene is living the relative good life at The Sanctuary, Negan has consistently proved that he’s not above killing, even his most loyal men, 'people are a resource' be damnedAfter capturing Eugene, Rosita inadvertently recruited Eugene back into the fold, by threatening him with the worst punishment Rick’s group was willing to impose- keeping Eugene as a mistreated, isolated, but very much alive, prisoner, a much nicer fate than living in constant fear of being killed by Negan.
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Admittedly, it’s a little disappointing, that the show doesn’t fully commit to Eugene's defection. It would have been a unique change of pace for a show whose main characters never seem to waver in their loyalty to a leader with a long track record of reckless decisions. Don't get me wrong, I love #TeamRick as much as the next guy, but seeing characters' motivations, and in turn their allegiances, change adds a layer of complexity that's been missing from the show's character development, for quite some time. This is why I’m excited to see where the Maggie-Daryl-Jesus coalition takes things next season. It’s unlikely that we’ll get a true coup, and Maggie’s quest for vengeance has the look of a storyline that's bound to fizzle out by the midseason finale, but at least these characters are doing something interesting and different, even if it does seem a bit out of character. 

And with that, The Walking Dead's longest running arc comes to a close. The Negan storyline ran two full seasons, and while it might not have lived up to its narrative potential, we get a fair bit of shake-up during this time, with multiple major character deaths (Glenn, Abraham, Sasha, and Carl), and several key players well positioned to take on new storylines. Maggie has forged her own identity as leader of The Hilltop Colony, while supporting characters like Anne (aka the artist formerly known as Jadis), Alden and Siddiq, all seem poised for larger roles. If next season follows the comics, we're in store for a major time jump, which inherently comes with a lot of change. But, will it be change for the sake of change (a Walking Dead staple), or will the show continue to make the kind of small, but noticeable, improvements to its storytelling and structure that we saw throughout most of season eight?

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