Before I get to writing this review of The Walking Dead season seven premiere, please wait twenty two minutes, including not one, but two commercial breaks, before I write anything of substance.
Okay – I’m trusting you all that it’s been twenty two minutes and two commercial breaks. Ready? Let’s get into it.
Last night, the cliffhanger we’ve all been waiting six months to see resolved, was finally answered. At long last, Negan, the super-villain that will haunt The Walking Dead for the rest of the foreseeable future, killed both Abraham and Glenn, not only taking away two major pieces from the character board, but also presenting Negan as an unpredictable force to be reckoned with. It was a brutal, at many times disgusting, and climactic way to resolve the cliffhanger, as well as to establish the tone of the show going forward. However, the question on all of our minds was quite simply, “did it work?”
The answer? …not particularly.
I wrote at the end of the sixth season that if the first half of season seven was unable to come back from the immense stupidity and narrative confusion of the sixth, I was going to be done with the show. And, while there are still seven more episodes for the show to redeem itself in my mind, this wasn’t exactly a step in the right direction. With that being said, this episode could have been a hell of a lot worse, but as it stands, we received a premiere with twenty minutes of filler, over-the-top gore, manipulative storytelling, and a narrative direction that has yet to be proven.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, and all of the problems I had with the season seven premiere, I want to take a moment to praise the acting of Andrew Lincoln and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Both of these guys did an incredible job in this episode, and as much as the character of Negan may be deeply flawed, Morgan is really bringing a lot to the role. As always, Andrew Lincoln delivers a powerful performance, and shows why he’s the leading man of this series. Anyway…
Let’s begin where the show did: with the terrible first twenty minutes. We open on the direct aftermath of the two deaths, shown from Rick’s point of view. He tells Negan quite literally that he is going to kill him eventually. From a character standpoint, it makes sense that Rick would say this, however, given the circumstances, I don’t know why he’s pushing his luck so much. Why Negan doesn’t kill Rick right then and there and attempt to bargain with whoever the second-string leader would be is beyond me, but whatever the case, he tells Rick to get in his van, as they’re taking a drive.
What follows would be a good scene for both men’s character development, however given that what the show knows all we want to see is the death reveal, it felt more manipulative than anything, with a scene of Rick desperately trying to survive whilst having flashbacks to the genesis of every character who could potentially have been killed. Not only that, but we’re then treated to ridiculous shots of every character getting their head bashed in, giving the show an excuse to show us even more extreme violence, and to screw with the audience once again. It was a stupid way to begin the episode, even if, at base value, the sequence was well-acted and interestingly shot.
Finally, after the second commercial break, AMC airs a disclaimer: extreme violence is incoming. And for once, that disclaimer was extremely necessary. We flash back to the big death, shown from the victim’s point of view. After another minute of buildup, we find out that the victim was one Abraham Ford: personally my favorite character remaining, sans Carol. Negan hits him once, allows Abe to give a trademark “suck my nuts,” and then smashes the military man’s head into bits. It was a brutal end to a great character, but even during this sequence, I can’t help but think about how much more impactful this would have been had we seen it six months ago.
However, the action is far from over. Idiotically, after Negan taunts Rosita of all people for a moment, Daryl comes unhinged and punches Negan in the face. Much like Rick telling the man who has a gun to his son’s head that he’s going to kill him eventually, this just seems absurd for supposedly smart characters. Rick and Daryl are certainly alpha males, and undoubtedly do act this way, but given the circumstances, it diminishes the intellect of both men. Whatever the case, this royally pisses off Negan, and as punishment, he decides to kill the person closest to him, which happens to be Glenn, one of the few remaining characters to have been around since season one.
After one smash from Negan’s bat Lucille, Glenn is essentially brain dead, and his eye begins to fall out. Instead of ending it right there, however, The Walking Dead goes back into the well of manipulative storytelling, focusing on the grotesque Glenn for an extended shot as he looks at Maggie, realizing he’ll never see his unborn son, or be there to comfort his sickly wife. It’s supposed to be emotional, but after the tenth second of Glenn’s horrific pre-death, it became more uncomfortable than anything. The show was milking the gore element for all its worth, and despite the fact that, at its heart, The Walking Dead is a horror show, this was purely unnecessary. At long last, another swing of the bat effectively ends Glenn’s life.
I have no problem with the deaths of Glenn or Abraham. Neither character had a real story to continue in, and if the purpose of the episode is to show Negan as a real threat to the group, more so than any in the past, killing these major characters established him as such. However, by brutally killing off two fan favorites in the premiere, it still doesn’t make up for the disaster of the season six finale. Perhaps they could have ended last year with the death of Abraham, and then surprised the audience by killing off Glenn in the season seven premiere. This way, the story would have actually come to a conclusion, even if the full scene is saved. This way, it felt more like the episode that should have finished season six, with the seventh season’s story not actually starting yet. At the very least, there was no fake-out here: dead is dead, and going forward, the show should have learned its lesson.
After the flashback, Negan returns with Rick to the group and tells him to cut off Carl’s arm. As tension rises, and Rick pleads with Negan to change his mind, the big bad channels Old Testament God, and saves Carl at the last moment, a terrifying scene that, even if we never really believed Carl’s arm was going to be cut off, proved once again the nature of our new villain. This is the last straw for Rick Grimes: finally he’s broken – de-fanged and pledged to Negan. The nature of the show has changed, and where once Rick was a fearless leader, someone scaring the hapless Alexandrians with his life philosophy, he is now but a slave in this new regime.
And then, Negan leaves. Half of everything Rick and his group own belong now to the Saviors. It’s time to go back, regroup, rebuild, and begin prepping for the long battle with Negan that will hopefully last through the rest of season seven (if Negan is killed by the end of the half-season I’m definitely done with this show.) It was a harrowing hour of television, and one that, even if it strayed into audience manipulation several times, (the show using big moments to make up for poor storytelling? Unheard of!) and over-the-top gore, effectively set the stage for the terrifying world to come in season seven.
Once upon a time, there was a show that revolutionized the horror genre on television: it could be a character based drama while at the same time delivering real thrills and fascinating plot. That show, The Walking Dead of old, is effectively gone. In its stead is one that uses shock and aww in order to manipulate the viewers to tune back in every week to see what the fallout of the previous cliffhanger would be. It’s cheap. It’s bad. And yet, there’s a chance we could be past it. Dumpster-gate is over. Negan’s choice is over. It’s a brand new season, a brand new world, and a brand new chance for The Walking Dead to redeem itself. It hasn’t yet, and the clock is certainly ticking, but it has seven weeks to win be back over.
Oh – and by the way – if it turns out that either Glenn or Abraham actually crawled under a dumpster and let some redshirt take their place, I’m OUT.