The Walking Dead Season 6 (2015-16) Review
The Walking Dead's sixth season reaffirmed the popular notion that this show is increasingly difficult to love, despite how good it truly can be. By the end of the finale, it feels as though the actors carried much of the sixteen episodes, but a welcome dose of plot progression ensured that the show didn't feel quite as aimless as it has in the past.
For argument's sake, the first eight episodes didn't have that same direction that the second half did. It was an isolated incident, a two-day horror show as Rick and the members of his group tried to find redeeming qualities in the Alexandrian people in the midst of chaos. Humans and zombies alike gave the first half weight, at least for its first handful of episodes, before the show fell into the same abyss as always.
At times, it feels very much like an executive-run series, one that lives and dies by its first and last episode. It therefore maximizes its split-season formula, but to such an extent that the formula has grown stale. So when the threat of the Saviors and Negan began to take center stage in the latter part of the season, it was refreshing to see a show that seemed as though it knew exactly where it was going.
Included, too, is some experimentation and diversification that's lacked in recent times, though the first hint at creative direction csme in season 5's back-half opening episodes. Here, season 6 opened immediately with an enjoyably unique episode split between past and present, with black and white differentiating the flashbacks from the current events. So too, the show introduced its first lesbian relationship, on the back of its first gay one introduced last year. But like the latter, Denise and Tara's relationship is given little time or effort, and eventually the show's experimenting lead to more unpleasant and less contemporary practices.
And the season falls back on its meandering, if this time a little later in the season, and relies on its characters, which would be fine if they were written consistently. The actors do a fine job, particularly its front-line ones (Andrew Lincoln has never been better), but even they can't pick up the slack when the writers drop the ball. Melissa McBride as Carol is a prime example, as it seemed the show eventually felt unsure of what to do with her. Ultimately, they gave her a newfound conscience that felt wholly out of nowhere, in the aftermath of events that should have solidified her beliefs, not forced her to question them. Her self-epiphany may well have been better suited for earlier seasons, when she was killing the sick and particularly during the events within the now famous season 4 episode, The Grove.
Where she and Maggie (Lauren Cohen) were in apparent mortal danger when they're kidnapped by Negan's people, it's simply another case of 'been there, done that.' So often the show falls back on the same familiar tendencies. Characters are kidnapped, rescue missions are enacted, and often it's a ploy to narrow the focus on two or more characters while the others teeter around waiting for their turn. It begs the question, is sixteen episodes too long for a season of The Walking Dead? In saying that, season 2 was 13 episodes long, and suffered from the same flaws. The one thing that can be commended is the show's utmost confidence in its characters to steer the ship when their turn comes around.
But when the finale arrived (and we can revert back to Carol here), it emphasized just how messy the fan-favourite character had become. She's now ready to die, but really her motive is so muddled prior to that, the finale may well have been better off cutting her and Morgan's arc completely. Without it, though, the show wouldn't have been able to introduce another element that's set to come into play next season. And while the sixth season focused on the moral and philosophical questions of when and when not to kill, Morgan and Carol's climax felt watered down and lacked the impact it certainly wanted to have.
No doubt, the show, along with those themes, reached its heights when Rick took his team in to take out a warehouse full of Saviors, killing them in their sleep and in turn proving just how far the team had come. It's seriously damning to see Rick shadowed by strangers who claim that "Negan has nothing on you," putting into perspective just how far the character has, in many ways, fallen. When it came to the finale, these same thoughts resurface, and it's difficult to see the seemingly invincible core characters on their knees, a group who, primarily because of Rick, brought this entirely upon themselves.
When it comes to the finale, it's another fine example of how brilliantly The Walking Dead can execute tension and horror. Bear McCreary's pulsing sounds alongside beautiful, frightening cinematography prove the show a master in visual storytelling. But it couldn't distract from the feeling that the entire thing felt so painstakingly orchestrated. Maggie falls ill so that the group would need a reason to leave the safety of the walls, and that reason comes in the aftermath of Denise's death a couple of episodes prior, the only Alexandrian doctor, and the Saviors seemingly knew that the group would need to head out on the road (were they going to wait with the plan ready to go for however long they needed to?). The show can almost be forgiven all of this when Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) finally enters the ring.
He, along with his prized weapon Lucille, delivers an edge-of-your-seat masterclass in tension, keeping our eyes glued to the screen as we attend to every word uttered and every movement the new antagonist makes. It contrasts the ninth episode of the season, which holds our attention with a tense sequence of zombie-induced action, resulting in consequences that feel as though they played out an eternity ago by the time Negan appears. That feeling is a flaw, instigated by the show's failure to address Carl's (Chandler Riggs) injury in any meaningful way. It made sense to fast forward from that shocking moment - we've seen Carl shot and injured before - but there needs to be closure. Instead, Carl's only a slightly more driven and bloodthirsty version of the same old Carl, and not that we'd know it. He got all of twenty minutes of genuine screen-time after that episode.
The season ends on a cliffhanger, much in the same way the show has had a habit of doing in the past. Season 4 ended at Terminus, with the group at the mercy of a community of cannibals. Last season, albeit a little lackluster, ended right before the reunion between Rick and Morgan, two men who had become polar opposites of one another. This year, though, comes on the back of the first-half dumpster fake-out that left Glenn missing in action for a number of episodes before, low and behold, he returns mostly unscathed. There's some semblance of truth to be taken from the showrunner's notion that the cliffhanger closes out a story, only for the next tale to begin in season 7. The actions of Negan come down on us, the viewer, breaking the invincibility of Rick, who had come a long way toward feeling like he ruled his own world, and giving us a new, all-powerful threat to stay tuned for.
But it's a weak notion, and the story could not have been harmed by revealing just who is on the end of Lucille. The sequence itself is executed with polish and gripping brutality, but execution and intent both need to be considered, and it's hard to justify the cliffhanger as the show's way of 'closing out a story-line.' At its best, The Walking Dead is too good a show to rely on these kinds of endings to reel in its audience for the next season, but at its worst, maybe it feels as though it needs to keep its audience firmly wrapped around its finger.
And while its shining moments are the ones we tune in for, the displays of brutal human behaviour in a world like this one, it fails to feel as wholly committed to its ensemble as it'd like us to think. Characters go missing for weeks at a time, only to return under the assumption that we still care. It shouldn't be a surprise to see a character return, when they live two doors down from the rest of the cast. What's surprising is the lack of loss in the season as a whole, something the show has become known for. While there were certainly occurrences of bloodshed, notably in the first half, these felt gratuitously an attempt to cull the unnamed red shirts floating around in the background.
The Walking Dead provides more of the same in season 6, but offers a little more consistency across the board. It found some much-needed purpose in its final eight episodes, but again fell into the same trappings the show is now famous for. It continues to waste its time getting from one point to the next, and fortunately its destinations are more often than not worth the murky waters viewers have to trek through in order to get there.