It was a long summer waiting for AMC’s The Walking Dead to come back after that Season 6 cliffhanger. Not long in a good way mind you. No, it was definitely long in the very worst way. It was long in the way that a drive-thru lineup is longest when you just need to grab a coffee before heading to work. Long in the way that makes you wonder if it’s worth even trying. It makes you wonder whether or not it’s time to put a series out to pasture for good. But sometimes you get that resolution that makes it all worth it. The drive-thru line zips by surprisingly fast. You realize it was worth it to take the chance and hope for the best because the best happened. Last night’s episode was not that moment for The Walking Dead. Spoilers below the cut.
The Walking Dead isn’t the best written show on TV right now. It’s not the worst, but even its best episodes are a far cry from the worst episodes of Game of Thrones, for example. Still there’s something about the show that keeps people watching. It’s kept me watching, though I tend to be overly positive about most of the media I consume. Even now, with the writers of the show throwing actual feces at the viewers like a room full of deranged monkeys, I still intend to keep watching. What sells The Walking Dead for me is not the abortion that passes for writing 90% of the time, but some honestly stellar acting from the series mainstays. It’s they who have carried the show to its seventh season, and if last night’s episode was any indication, Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes is going to be shouldering the heavy burden of the All Out War arc for some time.
Season 6 ended on the infamous cliffhanger which turned an hour of actually riveting and suspenseful television into a big joke. There was nearly a full hour of buildup to the introduction of The Walking Dead‘s greatest villain: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and it promised to be a catastrophic episode for Rick’s group. Then at the climactic moment where someone gets their skull bashed in by Negan’s lovingly named baseball bat, Lucille, Negan clobbers the viewer over the head instead. There is only a few brief moments of confusion as our vision blurs and the screen fades to black. To be continued next season.
Cliffhangers are in vogue with TV again over the past couple of years. Not that they ever necessarily went out of style completely, but they weren’t as big or prominent as some of the more recent cliffhangers in both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. There’s a reason for this: television writers realized that hanging everything on a cliffhanger is lazy. They didn’t stop writing cliffhangers, but they got smarter about them. Mostly. A perfect example of this is the major Game of Thrones cliffhanger from the end of Season 5. Let’s talk about it for a second before we get back to The Walking Dead.
At the end of Season 5 of Game of Thrones Jon Snow is killed. Now viewers of the show know very well the fact that a plot-central character is not necessarily safe from death in Thrones, but Jon Snow was being angled as one of the absolutely essential protagonists for the endgame of the series. Killing him was a shock, but it left us waiting with bated breath thinking: what next? That’s an example of a cliffhanger being particularly effective. Now you can argue as well that the format of Thrones lends itself better to this as at no time are all the eggs in one basket for the viewer.
By comparison, The Walking Dead had the audacity to even try to start a hashtag on social media as #WhoIsIt? following the premier of the Season 6 finale. ‘Who is it?’ is an inherently less interesting question to ask than ‘What happens next?’ One of those questions has a definite answer that the showrunner intentionally hid from us. The other question is open ended and leaves us thinking of possibilities and theories.
So finally we get to last night’s season premier. Everything has lead up to this moment and we’ve been promised by Scott M. Gimple (showrunner) and even Robert Kirkman, the author of the titular comic, that it would be worth it. Yet we receive an episode that I don’t think anyone came away feeling good about. Now arguably people weren’t going to feel good about this episode based on the content matter alone. We went into it knowing someone would die. Bets were on Glenn thanks to the comics, but Negan came out the gate with a surprise kill on Abraham. Mind you, it took us two commercial breaks to actually get to that point and find out who died, but we did get there. In a moment that was more of a stunner, Negan turned around to also kill Glenn, waiting the requisite amount of time to make the viewer think he might be safe.
The kills were gory, maybe too gory. The death in the comics was gory as well, but you were past the juiciest bits in a matter of pages. The show made it a labour of love to get the sound design just right as Negan clobbered Abraham and smashed his head apart swing after swing. It lingered a little bit longer than it had to, giving Negan a few more swings than he needed to really make his point. But his point was well made. The murder of Glenn was nothing short of gratuitous. While admittedly Glenn’s death is iconic in the comics, including the bulging eye and him trying to say Maggie’s name with his crushed skull. Yet the show lingered so much on those aspects and it made me feel a little bit sick. It seems clear that the minds that went into making these scenes reveled in the deaths of these characters a great deal more than many viewers seemed to have, at least in what I’ve read.
The one truly harrowing scene in the season premier came when Negan decided seemingly on a whim to force Rick to cut his son’s arm off with a hatchet. The threat seemed real, maybe more real than any threat has felt in the show for a long time. With guns to the heads of every present and surviving member of Rick’s group Negan began a countdown and as an intensely distraught Rick raised the hatchet to do the deed Negan showed mercy. It was a startling scene, and objectively the best written and performed of the episode and that leads us to what really shined in an episode that took too long and could have been folded into the Season 6 finale quite easily.
The acting was phenomenally good. We mostly have Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Andrew Lincoln to thank for that, but Lauren Cohan (Maggie) and Chandler Riggs (Carl) had a few shining moments as well. Andrew Lincoln portrayed perfectly the breaking of Rick’s defiant spirit, particularly in the climactic scene mentioned above. Negan observed aloud throughout the episode for us that Rick had a look in his eyes that he didn’t like, and it was the look of the Rick we know from the train car in Terminus who makes bold claims like “They’re fucking with the wrong people.” Something changed in Rick when he realized he had to take his son’s arm or have everyone he knows and loves killed. We see that half-crazed look fade into hopelessness as Carl looks up at him and whispers “Just do it, Dad.” Not momentary hopelessness either, it’s the hopelessness of a broken man that we see from Rick for the first time in seven seasons.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, on the flip side, is everything a comic reader might have hoped for. He’s an asshole, but it’s clear that Morgan is absolutely loving portraying the iconic villain and it makes him a refreshing presence on screen. Yes, he just killed two beloved characters in front of us, but the rest of the psychopathic package is oozing with so much charm it’s kind of impossible not to like him even just a little bit.
Was the season premier worth the wait? You likely know by now that my answer to that is a very big no. However, Negan is a compelling character, and the casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan for his character is spot on. I’m also curious to see where Steven Ogg’s Simon character goes, just because he was stellar as Grand Theft Auto V‘s Trevor. Rick’s character arc in the comics was not particularly interesting during the course of All Out War, but I don’t doubt that Andrew Lincoln will at least make it enjoyable to watch. At the very least, we can be content knowing that Carol is still out there and presumably her ass kicking days are not over. There are things to look forward to, even if the writing or pacing are not some of them. The writers might think the viewers are stupid, but at the very least the actors do not.