The Walking Dead had a major obstacle to overcome in yesterday's season seven premiere. After leading up all of season six to the arrival of Negan and the promise of a main character's death, the show decided to postpone the reveal of who died to season seven. Could the show possibly live up to its own hype and expectations? Short answer: No. How could it?
Let's start from the very first problem here, which is that even though we've all called the mysterious murder at the end of season six a "cliffhanger", it wasn't really. We all knew the minute it was announced that Negan was coming to the show, and that he would introduce himself by killing a main cast member. And that's exactly what happened in the season six finale -- he showed up and murdered somebody. We just didn't find out who. So we haven't been waiting all winter to see what happened next; we were waiting for a payoff to a scene that we'd not only watched, but that had been promised to us.
The short-term result of the show's decision was that it kept the audience obsessing for six months, which we did, and ensured we'd watch the season seven premiere (I feel pretty confident guessing the ratings for the episode will be phenomenal). And the showrunners took every opportunity to hype the "big reveal" -- how the cliffhanger would all make sense, how it would shock us, how it would devastate us. By fetishising this one plot development, the makers of The Walking Dead amplified not only our desire to see it, but our need for it to pay off -- to a degree that the show couldn't possibly achieve.
Moreover, we spent all winter basically considering every possible victim, every possible combination. We even wondered if Rick might get his hand cut off as he did in the comics, and the show teased and fed our suspicions and loved every minute of it. As a result, there was literally no one who could have been killed yesterday who would have truly been a surprise, which meant the dramatic weight of killing off these characters was negated (no pun intended, actually).
The show backed itself into a corner: Some characters were untouchable, because they form the foundation of the story (Rick, Carl), or because they are fan-favourites (Michonne, Daryl) and killing them would have been such a transparent bid to be "devastating" that they wouldn't be narratively satisfying. Most of the other characters would also have been narratively unsatisfying, too, because they were too minor to upset any viewer if they were killed (Aaron, Rosita, Eugene, Sasha).
That literally left three people: Glenn, Maggie and Abraham. For most of the winter I had sincerely doubted that TWD would show a pregnant woman being beaten to death with a barbed-wire-covered baseball bat on TV (although when the premiere seemed like it was going to skip a third-person view of the death, I thought that the show had rather cleverly gotten around showing it while still having the result). But in the end, the negative press that would result was too much for the show, and frankly, that's fine.
That left Abraham and Glenn. Negan killed them both.
In the end, they chose the two most obvious answers. Thanks to having a winter to stew over it, the "two victim" theory had plenty of time to disseminate around the nerd-o-sphere, so the fact that Negan killed them both didn't really make the scene any more shocking or give it any more impact.
Oh, it was plenty gruesome. The show even had Glenn's eyeball fly out. But I just shrugged. The show had built it up too much. I had waited for it too long. And most disappointingly, the answer was more or less what most people had expected all along.
Had this scene played out at the end of season six, it would have been incredible. It would have done everything The Walking Dead wanted from this scene -- it would have shocked us because we were still only guessing there'd be one victim back then. We also didn't know, until the final moments of the finale, which characters would be facing Negan's wrath in the final scene. The momentum was there. We were all invested.
And had they killed Abraham then, it would have had the impact that the showrunners wanted. And then Glenn's death would have completely shocked us. It would have horrified us because of the gore. And we'd have felt the surviving characters' pain and loss. And yeah, that would have been a negative feeling, but that's what The Walking Dead trades in. More importantly, there would still be plenty of characters to be invested in and keep them watching. These deaths would have been depressing if they'd been in the season six finale; now, all these months later, they are primarily disappointing.
There's another major problem here, in that everything that happened with Negan is 100 per cent Rick's fault. If Rick hadn't picked this fight -- if he hadn't had such hubris as to attack an unknown force -- Glenn and Abraham would be alive right now. Of course Negan would still kill them later, presumably, but at least we'd have the satisfaction -- rather, we would not have the dissatisfaction of feeling Rick is, yet again, a bad, bad, often crazy leader. It detracts from Negan's character too, because in a sense he was justified in punishing Rick's group because they murdered a bunch of his guys first and without provocation.
Rick's gone back and forth between being a good leader and a bad leader (with forays into both "good but crazy leader" and "bad and crazy leader") that it's getting hard to root for him. Sure, he may eventually get his shit together and lead the group with some degree of intelligence and something approaching humanity, but we've seen him fall apart too many times to ever really believe in him. And the fact that he keeps edging closer and closer to becoming one of the "villains" he keeps facing makes it harder and harder to root for him.
So! That there was also an episode that was somehow wrapped around the disappointing answer to pop culture's biggest question is almost besides the point. The only thing that mattered was who Negan killed, and even then the show didn't have the decency to just answer it right away. It began after the murder, without showing the victim(s), and then with Negan leading Rick away for a heart-to-heart in the RV. This is followed by Rick having montage after montage of all of the possible victims, the show trying to wring the last, tiniest drops of dramatic tension from the moment. It was instead annoying, and we didn't see the actual death(s) scene until mid-way through.
Most of the episode is basically Negan trolling Rick: Seemingly offering him a chance to kill him with an axe, only to reveal he's got an assault rifle in his hands; throwing the axe into a crowd of zombies, demanding Rick retrieve it; after Rick scrambles to the top of the RV, Negan fires his rifle into the roof of the RV, forcing Rick to literally jump onto a nearby zombie hanging by a noose; and when the zombie's body rips off from its head (what with Rick's weight) and Rick falls into another crowd of zombies, Negan saves him at the last instant, again with his assault rifle.
Of course, The Walking Dead couldn't help itself but troll the audience as well, just for good measure. With the Negan business finally taken care of, there's only one scene from the original comic that people have wondered whether it would make it to the show: Rick getting his hand cut off (by the Governor). We've previously been told that Rick would never lose his hand on the show because it's narratively restricting and it would be a huge VFX nightmare to have to CG out the main character's hand in every scene he's in.
But the showrunners couldn't help themselves and began to tease that too, hinting that the moment may have finally come, and in the season seven premiere Negan forces Rick to carry around a small hatchet for most of the episode. He talks about the importance of having "right-hand men". There are lots of shots featuring Rick's hand and the hatchet. (What got me is, after it was covered in zombie goo, Negan took the time to find disinfectant to clean it off, as if to avoid a future plot-hole concerning someone having a limb cut off with a zombie gore-covered blade not turning into a zombie. By addressing the detail at all, I really thought it meant it was going to happen). At any rate, when Negan finally brings Rick back to the group, he brings out Carl, uses a pen to draw a line on Carl's arm, and tells Rick to chop it off.
I think we all suspected that Rick would be cutting his own hand off, rather than Carl's, in hopes that it would satiate Negan. And it would be kind of messed up to cut Carl's hand off when the character has also just lost an eye, and not in a dramatic interesting way, just a gross "why are you mutilating this boy" way. But instead, once Rick realises he truly has no choice in the matter and is going to do it, Negan stops him at the last second, seeing that Rick is truly, completely broken. And with that, Negan and his Saviors leave Rick and the others in the woods, with the essentially headless corpses of their two friends. And they all just sit there in silence, wondering what the hell comes next.
At least it's a question I'm a lot more interested in than who was going to die. Negan is by far the most interesting villain the show has had, because he still just oozes affability, even while he's the most murderous of bastards. Whether he's laughing at Rick's hatchet; running over a zombie in the RV, seeing its head burst open and asking Rick, "Remind you of anyone you know?"; or giving Glenn and Abraham the "Sprit Award" for their integral part in everyone's very important day, Jeffrey Dean Morgan was the perfect choice for the role, and it should be genuinely interesting to have this character added to the mix. And I guess I'll give props to Andrew Lincoln, too, for portraying Rick as someone who went from shock at being bested by Negan to anger at the murders of Glenn and Abraham to becoming completely broken at the end.
Now that the Negan business is finally over, the show can finally move forward, and start telling a story that's interesting again, hopefully. There's plenty to tell: How will the group deal with being Negan's subjects? How upset will Jesus and the Hilltop community be when they realise Rick has utterly failed to save them from Negan, and that Negan's wrath will surely fall on them next? How does Ezekiel, the Kingdom colony and that tiger fit into this conflict? How can Rick possibly recover from this in a way that's going to be satisfying to see? I don't know the answers.
I do know I'd be a lot more interested in the answers if I hadn't spent the last six and a half months being forced to wonder: Who did Negan kill?
• I found Rick's "visions" of all the potential victims in the beginning to be the most annoying. They were just wasting time until the reveal, sure, but my real problem is that the show, by giving every character the same amount of vision time, indicated Rosita and Aaron had as much emotional weight as, say, Carl and Michonne, which simply isn't true, even in Rick's head. (Especially in Rick's head.)
• Rick did seem completely broken by the episode's end, but also was breathing really fast, like Andrew Lincoln was trying to do an impression of a dog, and it was not as… moving as perhaps it should have been. I suppose there was a solid artistic reason for having Rick evoke a dog there, with Negan having completely subjugated him, becoming his master -- but I still think it was a bit goofier than it was effective.
• I'd actually say Laurie Cohen did an even better job at portraying her grief over Glenn -- she seemed truly devastated at Glenn's death, especially since the reason everyone had been out there was to take her to Hilltop because she had a fever and her baby seemed to be in genuine danger, as seen in the season six finale. But then the show had to make her decide to walk the rest of the way to the Hilltop community, which was super-weird. Sasha agrees to take her, but then they both seem deadset on carrying Glenn and Abraham's corpses, which is extra super-weird. Rick and the rest actually take the corpses for burial, but it seems like they still left Sasha and a dying pregnant woman to try to travel to Hilltop on their own. It makes zero sense on any level.
• Dwight seems to have some lingering issues with Daryl.
• Carl basically has no emotions during this episode, not even really when his dad is about to be forced to chop his arm off. If I thought The Walking Dead actually had some sort of plan as to where it was going beyond a season or so, I'd say this would be a great set up to Carl turning into a psychopathic villain of his own, and Rick needing to get his shit together to save his son from himself, Han Solo/Kylo Ren-style. But it would probably go better than it did for Solo, unless Andrew Lincoln had gotten bored making the show.
• I know a lot of people are down on this episode, myself included. But I will say that Rick leaping onto a hanging zombie to avoid gunfire, then the zombie's head ripping off because of the weight and Rick falling into a crowd of zombies, is the sort of thing only TWD can deliver. If you are looking for pure zombie thrills, The Walking Dead still does not disappoint.
• Rick has visions of more deaths that "could" happen, that is, he sees the rest of the group being beaten to death with baseball bats, too. I assume this is why TWD filmed 11 "death scenes", although given how insane the showrunners were about keeping the victims a secret, I'm sure preserving the mystery was at least as important.
• If you wanted to, you could make a connection between Negan demanding proof that Rick totally obeys him by commanding him to cut off part of Carl's arm, and God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac for the same reason (Genesis 22, I believe), especially since they both don't make their subjects go through with it at the very last instant. I'm not saying you should make the connection, just that you could. Maybe you have a Bible study and want to spice it up with a little Walking Dead?
• Near the end of the episode, based on a random comment by Negan earlier, there's a sort of "Sunday dinner" dream featuring everyone in Alexandria, eating food at picnic tables, and everyone is there, and Glenn has his kid on his knee. TWD obviously wants us to mourn this peaceful future that will never come to pass, except: 1) it's weird to see these characters do anything as trite as having a big Alexandrian family dinner together, 2) the scene is inserted out of nowhere, so implying that all the survivors are having a group delusion or vision of some kind, and 3) this is The Walking Dead, something this pleasant would never come to pass, and none of these guys should be fantasising about something so banal. I mean, Daryl is shown passing the salad. There are napkin holders on the table. Even three years in the future, in the best case scenario, they'd still live in a world of animated corpses that want to eat their flesh -- a world where, at the very least, they would not truck with napkin holders. It was deeply, deeply goofy.