In the dark of night, a vicious killer raised a baseball bat covered in barbed wire at his captives - a beloved crew of zombie-apocalypse survivors a devoted audience of millions has followed for years on one of basic cable's top-rated shows.
And, as this week's episode made clear, one of The Walking Dead's survivors would survive no more.
After a macabre round of "eenie meenie," the killer's bat came down. The screen went black. We heard sickening thwacks and screams of terror. And that devoted audience found that, to its horror, the only thing worse than watching a beloved character die was having to wait until the AMC show's return in October to find out who.
The Walking Dead's
undead army of online re-cappers rushed to their keyboards - but, for once, viewers were left on their own at the edge of cliffhanger one commenter likened to a "cheap cop-out." Why write "spoiler alert" when there is nothing to spoil?
In lieu of an actual plot point to analyze, Entertainment Weekly offered a perhaps less-than-satisfying online poll: "Who do you think was killed last night on the season finale of The Walking Dead?" Imagine an equally infuriating cinematic parallel had the final minutes of The Usual Suspects been cut: Who do you think Keyser Söze is?
The show's season six finale wasn't a debacle a la the finales of Seinfeld or The Sopranos - after all, this story isn't over. But on a show often praised for its "no one is safe" ethos, it appeared the cast was all-too safe.
Sure, many friends of Rick have been dispatched by enemies living and undead since The Walking Dead ambled on to the air in 2010. Lori is gone, as are Shane and Hershel and Andrea and T-Dog, to name but a few. And the much-discussed, heretofore unseen bat-wielding bad boy Negan seems prepared to dispatch even more.
Still, many of the AMC blockbuster's central protagonists are starting to look a little unkillable as they survive zombie horde after killer flu after well-planned military-style incursion by heavily armed, living unfriendlies.
Rick, of course, walks on, as does his son Carl, and Rick's old friend/new love interest Michonne. The show feinted at killing Glenn earlier this season, then took it back - and, after Monday, now seems to be feinting at killing him again. But will anyone actually bite the dust? And when?
Yes: Cliffhangers, as anyone who endured "Who shot JR?" knows, are part and parcel of TV viewing. But some of The Walking Dead's narrative developments may be totally unrelated to the narrative.
"It's a branding concern," Paul Tassi of Forbes wrote. "AMC has pretty much made Daryl the face of The Walking Dead, not Rick. He's on every piece of promotion, he's the star of the damn iPhone game, he is the show, personified in human form. Killing him would not just make fans cry, it could actually hurt the Walking Dead 'brand' in AMC's view, so they might not let it happen for that reason."
There are also inevitable questions of identity politics. Though its main protagonist and its "face" are white, The Walking Dead sports a relatively diverse cast. There are characters of colour, even if some have wondered if the show can only handle one black man at a time. There are gay characters - though, for the record, one recently got an arrow through the eye. (Even Merritt Wever's Emmy, it seemed, could not protect her/Denise on those railroad tracks). When someone who's not a white male dies on "The Walking Dead," it's a bit like an entire demographic is getting voted off the island.
"It's not a problem that you have one black male face at a time, but you really want to have these characters fleshed-out and multi-dimensional," Jenn Fang, who wrote about the show's "one black man at a time" rule at the Nerds of Color, told The Washington Post last year. "A show about interpersonal relationships requires complex characterisation."
Then there's the ongoing show's tenuous relationship with the ongoing comic book it's based on - a comic in which fan favorite Glenn perishes beneath Negan's bat.
"It's been four years since the issue was published, and spoilers and speculation about Negan (and Glenn's potential death by his hand) have long been whispered about - especially with regard to how this scene might be adapted for or depicted on TV," Alex Abad-Santos of Vox wrote. "But the original scene is still one of the most shocking and heartbreaking comic book moments in recent memory."
The comic, the brand, race and gender - is all this too much for The Walking Dead's showrunners? After all, a series that started six years ago with a modest six episodes just aired its 83rd, and occasionally gets a bit creaky. Remember when Daryl and Carol sort of seemed to be an item - but then definitely weren't? Or when Carol was an unrepentant killer - until she suddenly seemed traumatized by all the killing she had done? Or when Rick was a sheriff who became a killer who became a farmer who became a killer who became a community leader who became a killer again?
Perhaps this tangled thread is what made the finale so frustrating. The Walking Dead could use some weeding - but when the clippers have come out recently, it's usually peripheral characters that end up getting clipped. And Sunday night, the show was unwilling or unable to concede that any specific character had been killed at all.
"With such a murderers' row of aces in its bullpen, The Walking Dead shouldn't have to resort to throwing the creative equivalent of junk pitches," Brian Lowry wrote at Variety. "And that's why despite its highlights, the finale simply drove home the sense that while this season wasn't a complete swing and a miss, those in charge continue to make aggravating unforced errors."
What happens now? Unlike a show with a clear stopping point always on the horizon - say, M*A*S*H*, which had to show the end of the Korean War at some point - The Walking Dead could go on walking forever. But will a popular show reluctant to kill off its main characters shuffle on, zombie-like, toward a muddled resolution - this decade's Lost? Or will it make tough choices and start moving toward a conclusion consistent with the compelling scenario it has set up?
No one knows. Perhaps not even the people making The Walking Dead.
"The end of the story is what people saw," showrunner Scott M Gimple told The Talking Dead, AMC's weekly after-episode gabfest. The mystical declaration didn't inspire confidence.
"I'm starting to think they don't even know who was killed yet," is how one Twitter user put it.