Fear the Walking Dead repeated the sins of the past when it ended its Season 5 finale with a cliffhanger that left Morgan (Lennie James) on death’s door. Shot in the shoulder by Pioneer leader Virginia (Colby Minifie) and left to be eaten by encroaching walkers, Morgan’s apparent grim fate was left unconfirmed when the finale, “End of the Line,” cut to black. Now showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg say viewers, already dissatisfied with Season 5, will be on the hook to come back for Season 6: when asked to clarify if Morgan’s predicament was an off-screen death or a cliffhanger to be resolved later, Chambliss said the audience are “going to have to wait and see.”
Similar cliffhangers were points of contention among the fanbase in The Walking Dead under then-showrunner Scott Gimple, who has since been elevated to the position of TWD chief content officer. That role brought Fear under his purview starting with the semi-rebooted Season 4, the first under Chambliss and Goldberg.
Cliffhangers are par for the course in serialized television, and infrequent, week-to-week cliffhangers were put to good use in TWD Season 9 under showrunner Angela Kang: there, in episode 904, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) was left impaled on a piece of rebar as an entire horde of walkers shuffled perilously close. That cliffhanger was resolved a week later in the early minutes of 905.
Season-ending cliffhangers concerning character fates are a different matter entirely, particularly among a fanbase that already pushed back against the tactic in earlier seasons of The Walking Dead. A cliffhanger was used effectively by Gimple to end Season 4, where the survivors — after spending the back half of that season separated — reunited in the closing minutes of 416 as prisoners of a new enemy. “They’re screwing with the wrong people,” Rick said, making for a lead in that resulted in a series-high episode for 501.
Fans were infamously incensed in Season 6 when Glenn (Steven Yeun) met his own apparent end, seemingly ripped to shreds by a gnawing horde of walkers in 603. One month of real-time later, in 607, audiences would learn Glenn’s devastating death was a fake-out: though he appeared to be torn apart, Glenn managed to slip under a nearby dumpster and wait out the horde. That reveal, subsequently named “Dumpstergate,” is often cited anytime either Walking Dead series leaves ambiguity surrounding a character’s fate.
But it was the Season 6 finale that riled up the viewership a second time when Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), in his debut episode, eeny-meeny-miny-moe’d a victim out of a lineup that included Rick, Glenn, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), among others. Negan’s victim was ultimately selected and, with the camera switched to point-of-view style, the unidentified victim was bludgeoned to death with Negan’s barbwire-wrapped baseball bat Lucille.
The identity of Negan’s victim wouldn’t be revealed until TWD’s Season 7 premiere nearly seven months later. Despite best efforts to keep that episode’s major deaths under wraps, spoiler-centric websites quickly identified Abraham and Glenn as casualties when Cudlitz and Yeun were noticeably absent for filming.
Because it’s looking more and more like Morgan will survive — returning either in Fear Season 6 or resurfacing in the Walking Dead movies headlined by Lincoln’s Rick — Fear’s Season 5 finale cliffhanger serves little purpose beyond exhausting the patience of an already dwindling viewership that has few kind words for the spinoff.
When EW asked Gimple about the Season 6 cliffhangers over the summer of 2016, Gimple said that approach to storytelling was all “on behalf of the audience.”
“I wasn’t surprised. It’s a very passionate audience and I wasn’t surprised that there was some of that. I guess I was surprised how intense some folks got,” Gimple said at the time in response to fan backlash over the Negan cliffhanger. “But passion is passionate and if they have it for the show, after six years, I guess we’ve just got to take our lumps. I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in the story that that cliffhanger is the lynchpin of, and those story aspects that invite an audience to engage with their imagination, and to think about things and discuss things.”
Gimple then said the mystery was meant to encourage discussion.
“The thing that I find so wonderful about mass entertainment is the possibility of strangers being able to talk — to have some common ground and have something that they’re both passionate about, even if they’ve never met each other before,” he said. “And it’s very gratifying to me to see stories of people thinking and talking and positing and theorizing. I think that aspect of it is wonderful. Of course, we did not seek to make anybody angry. But we are going to stretch and we are going to take risks on behalf of the audience. All of this is on behalf of the audience.”
Chambliss and Goldberg had a similar response when asked to address the growing backlash stirred by Fear’s fourth and fifth seasons.
“You know, we told the story that we believe in and we’re proud of what we did and in terms of going forward, the show is changing and that’s always been a part of the plan,” Chambliss told Insider. “You know, it changes every season and every half season and we’re very excited about the direction it’s going and a lot of the tough challenges that our characters ahead are going to be facing.”