MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 6 FINALE.
READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Watching the Walking Dead on any given week is a process that requires a fair amount of mental and emotional fortitude. Viewing this show is much like gambling: each episode brings both the possibility of getting more emotionally connected to your favorite character(s) (WIN!), or the possibility of watching them die (NOOOO). And the stakes (and our emotional connections to characters) just get higher and higher every episode, and every season. If you’ve been watching since season 1, then at this point it’s very likely that, even if you don’t particularly *like* all of the core characters, you probably have an attachment to them in some way. We’ve seen their story and their progression in this apocalyptic world. That in and of itself brings with it its own kind of connection.
Which brings us to the season 6 finale.
If you are a part of social media related to fandom in any capacity, it was hard to avoid the talk and the hype about what was coming in the finale. I watch The Walking Dead, but I’m not necessarily a part of the fandom, and yet even I knew that there was a likely major character death coming in this episode. It was hyped to the point of hysteria, and the emotions that people were feeling as a result of that were significant. In talking and processing with both online and offline friends about the coming finale, the most common word used was “anxiety.” People were both excited and terrified at the same time… much as I would expect someone to feel making a giant bet in a Vegas casino. If your character makes it through, then you’ll have a whole new season to watch them grow and progress and maybe – just maybe – carve out some happiness for themselves in this horrific world. But if they don’t… the fictional trauma will absolutely bring about real grief.
I wasn’t able to watch the finale immediately as it aired (I live in the dark ages and don’t have cable. The horror, I know…), so I wasn’t able to watch social media in real time because I’m a spoiler-phobe. But once I watched it a bit later and looked through the #TWDFinale hashtag, it seemed like people reacted fiercely while the episode aired with INTENSE amounts of anxiety and straight up terror during the final scene (which was confirmed by this video that I watched today). As a matter of fact, that word “intense” was used many, many times by many, many people to describe the emotions they were experiencing while watching. People (myself included) seemed to find Negan to be absolutely incredible… to a RIDICULOUSLY TERRIFYING DEGREE. In Vegas, you tend to know fairly quickly if your bet is going to pay off, but that last scene built the intensity higher… and higher… and higher… until the not knowing was nearly unbearable. I don’t know about you, but even just thinking about that scene makes my chest tighten up, remembering the level of suspense, fear, and dread they’d invoked in me.
And then the episode ended.
And the emotion that the fandom appeared to be experiencing seemed abundantly clear.
Now, I recognize that everyone is coming to this show with their own views, feelings, and experiences, which means that every viewer has a unique emotional response. Not everyone was truly angry at the end of the episode, and there were people that stepped up to support the writers in the cliffhanger ending and to just enjoy the excitement of that emotional rollercoaster of an episode. But since anger was the emotion I saw most frequently, I do feel like we should stop and talk about it for a bit.
Anger is a strong emotion. It’s an emotion we’re all familiar with, and we’ve all felt. But anger almost always accompanies – or is masking – a different or more painful emotion. Many people choose to express or focus on feeling angry rather than express or focus on an emotion such as hurt, disappointment, or feeling that trust has been broken, because those feelings are more personal and can make us feel more vulnerable. As people on social media began to move past expressing their anger and denial (with the caps lock on), those more complex emotions started to come through. Some people weren’t actually angry, but were instead just super emotionally escalated. Some people were just momentarily frustrated with the episode not ending as they expected. But then some people were truly angry because they felt that they were led to believe that they would receive some kind of resolution to the anxiety they have been feeling all season. They trusted the writers to give them answers to the questions they’ve been building up, and they felt that trust was betrayed. They were angry, but that anger stemmed from hurt and disappointment. It also stemmed from the realization that emotionally, instead of being able to grieve one favorite character and begin that healing process – or bask in the glory of your favorite character surviving – we now have to continue to have anxiety over all of them for the next half a year. That Vegas slot machine will be spinning for six months.
Emotionally, it is a difficult realization.
But, true to typical fandom form, now that we are a few days out, people are beginning to move past those initial stages of grief (denial, anger) and into bargaining and depression. We’ve been told by the writers that there are clues in the finale episode to who was on the receiving end of the bat, and so people have begun to put together all manner of theories, and are tearing the episode apart piece by piece (bargaining = if I can just find that magical piece of evidence then I can prove my favorite is safe and I’ll feel better!). Literally as I write this paragraph a friend of mine posted a piece of evidence so compelling against my favorite that I had to do some deep breathing exercises because the possibility hurts and I believe I’ll be hanging out in the depression stage of grief for a little bit. I believe others are likely feeling the same, and yet others have likely moved on to the acceptance stage where they just look forward to season 7 and the new story it will bring. Since we are all unique, we will all feel and process these emotions differently and at varying levels of intensity and for differing lengths of time. And since we’re all human, we will likely jump between those stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) a bit before all is said and done. And all of that is okay.
Despite the fact that fictional trauma can bring about very strong and real emotion, it is still important to fangirl/fanboy responsibility, both for yourselves and for others. Everyone is going to process their own feelings in their own time. Some people may have no problem with the ending, no concern for the dead, and can talk about everything objectively and without emotion. Some people are going to carry deep anxiety for their favorite until the premier of season 7, and will work on fan theories and analysis until then. There is nothing wrong with either reaction or any reactions in between. Try not to judge others for their emotions, and do your best to be kind to each other. We’re all here because we love this show, after all. But it’s important to take care of yourself as well. If you’ve found that you’re so angry over the cliffhanger, or so concerned over the possibility of your favorite character being dead that it’s impacting your life negatively, it may be time to take a break from the show and/or the fandom. The show is on hiatus for six months. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a step back during that time and finding your chill over this. It’s also extremely important to remember that, no matter how invested you are in the show, or how long you’ve watched it, watching a television show is always a choice. If this choice is making you unhappy, make a different choice. Good television isn’t always going to make you feel good, but it should be enhancing your life in some positive way. If you find that this show – or ANY show/fandom – is not doing that, then maybe it’s time to find another one, or perhaps find some new people to talk about your fandom with who will help you re-find the positive. Self-care is of critical importance. So again I say: fangirl/fanboy responsibly.
Because this episode was so difficult and invoked so many negative emotions, I do want to leave you on a positive note. First, if you’re someone that takes comfort in numbers, then remember that statistically speaking, your favorite has a pretty good chance of survival. There were a lot of people there that night, and I know that we’re all working on looking for clues to narrow it down, but ultimately it could be any of them. Keep the faith. If that’s not good enough for you to draw hope from, then think about the fact that, no matter what the fate of your favorite character is, you are still very much alive. If you want to make this character’s death have some meaning, go do some of the things they can’t. Call someone close to you and tell them you love them. Reach out to some friends and do something fun. Go do that awesome thing you’ve been wanting to do but keep putting off because reasons. Go throw some positivity and kindness out into the world. Yes, it may seem overdramatic to talk about a television show impacting our actions in this way, but this show is as successful as it is because it does impact us deeply. And there’s nothing wrong with using any excuse possible to do some good for ourselves, and for the world around us. Go out and explore our world that is, mercifully, not full of walkers. Live. Then reconvene back here when you’re ready so we can process some more fictional trauma together next season.