In the wake of The Walking Dead's season six finale, on both Talking Dead and a Monday morning conference call I attended, showrunner Scott M. Gimple has given the same answer to the question of why the series didn't reveal which character new villain Negan was killing at the end of the episode.
The problem is that his answer doesn't make any sense.
Said Gimple during the conference call:
In many ways, what we saw last night was the end of the story of season six. Where Rick winds up is completely different from where he started out in [episode] one and where he started out in [episode] nine. I know, obviously, and I've known for a while what is in [episode] 701, and presenting what occurs — to show what happened in full force — it is the beginning of the next story.
See? According to Gimple, it wouldn't make sense to show which character died, because the arc of season six was all about the effect of that moment on Rick.
Here's why the show's explanation doesn't make sense
Instead of focusing on anything having to do with Rick — you know, to really drive home just how shattered he is — the season's final sequence is shot from the point of view of whomever is having their head bashed in by Negan and his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, Lucille.
If Gimple and company really wanted viewers to be thinking about Rick in that moment, the filmmaking choice they made was one of the worst ones possible. Rick isn't even visible in the frame, and the whole scene is set up as a simple mystery: Whose point of view are we in? Gimple's insistence (on Talking Dead) that this ending isn't meant to be a "who got killed" cliffhanger is pretty rich, because that's literally the only thing this specific filmmaking decision asks you to consider.
It's not even that hard to workshop another, better solution, one that actually focuses on Rick. Imagine, say, that Negan begins to swing his bat, and we hear the shrieks of others, but the camera's focus is tight on Rick, who continues to watch as we hear the thunk of the bat. It would be difficult to watch, but it would also provide an acting showcase for Andrew Lincoln, if that's what Gimple intended.
But c'mon. It's obvious that's not what Gimple was going for. He wanted to provoke internet chatter about who died — he probably just wasn't counting on it being so negative.
The ending also doesn't really make sense as a culmination of Rick's journey
I think I see what Gimple is attempting to do. Rick started the season feeling like he knew what he was doing, and like he was slowly getting the hang of being Alexandria's sheriff. (Never mind, for a moment, that the season five cliffhanger posited that Rick had completely lost it — the show didn't seem to care about that.) He finishes the season kneeling before another man as one of his friends is killed.
There's a story about hubris in there somewhere. Rick, filled with swagger after defending Alexandria from a zombie invasion, took the fight to the Saviors (Negan's group) after being tipped off to their existence by survivors in another community. He and his followers then killed a bunch of Saviors in their sleep — apparently never considering that there could be many more of them.
You don't even have to poke too hard at this season to reveal the role of Rick's ego in this story. It's just that the show itself continually lost sight of it, in favor of constantly propping him up as the show's hero and all-around best dude.
The most compelling version of this idea would lean into the horrible thing Rick was responsible for and suggest that Negan's decision to take the life of only one Alexandrian was downright reasonable in the face of Rick's reign of terror. It could have circled back around to making Rick heroic eventually, but only after making us question his tactics and leadership skills. But The Walking Dead isn't a show that handles that kind of moral ambiguity well.
The thing is, of The Walking Dead's many showrunners (there have been three so far, including Gimple), he's the one who's always been most interested in these sorts of ideas. He guided the show's fourth and fifth (and best) seasons, and he's long been fascinated by what makes its characters tick, by what characteristics make for a good leader in a post-apocalyptic world. There's a version of this story by Gimple, one less indebted to the comics, that functions as a raw examination of the show's lead character, long the big void at its center.
But season six built for so long and so steadily to Negan — and largely sold him as a monster based on who he is in the comics and what fans knew he would do to a beloved character upon his introduction — that Gimple could never escape the gravity of that introduction.
Maybe he really did think he was telling the story of Rick, but that final shot reveals the whole story — whatever human element existed here was wiped out by a character who only appeared for one short scene and an endless tease of even worse things to come.