With the wait from the end of season six, to the beginning season seven, The Walking Dead has created another pop culture touchstone. All summer long fans, myself included, dusted themselves off from the disappointing cliff-hanger in order to theorize the shit out of who would be the fatal victim of Negan and Lucile. It was a cultural event akin to The Simpsons “Who Shot Mr Burns”, with the creative team turning to the fan-base, as Doctor Hibbert did, and asked, guess who? Now that it’s over, now that we know the victims of this ghoulish massacre, it serves as a reminder that The Walking Dead is a flawed, frustrating, and at times, a downright silly show. Perhaps the worst thing about “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”, is that there is a great episode of television in there somewhere. At least there could have been.
So let’s talk about the deaths. The season six closer angered many fans with the tease of these murders by Negan, but I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t about who Negan killed, so much as it was about our introduction to the show’s new big bad. Season six was the grand set-up of this new villain, so it made sense to focus on him when he finally came out of the shadows, or the RV. The season seven opener is about giving us answers, yet we still need to wait until after the first ad break. Which is ridiculous, The Walking Dead is not a good enough show to have earned this kind of patience, but that’s nothing compared to what this tactic says about the whole endeavour. The fact is this baiting and teasing has actually went against the impact of the end result. All the summer of guessing did was to prepare the viewer for the death of any one of Negan’s victims. The fact that it was Abraham and Glenn, isn’t really a shock, the shock is that it barely matters. We were prepared to lose someone, and all this tease did was make us prepared to lose everyone.
Abraham and Glenn were the favourites for the chop, and the fact that it was both of them stank of a show flailing to make all of this matter. The point is the show made too much of a spectacle of itself, robbing it of the emotional weight that previous character deaths have had. Their deaths also made it all the more easy to see the narrative strings being pulled, each making Abraham and Glenn all the more obvious and expendable. Abraham hasn’t really been a solid character after the revelation that the Washington cure was a fake by Eugene, and despite the intensely likeable performance by Michael Cudultz, he’s really just been killing time. The same can be said for Glenn, who also fulfils his comic mandated death. As he is kneeling, head broken, eye popping out, he tells Maggie that he’ll find her again, which only reminds us about the last time the character was good: his search for Maggie after the prison fell, instead of the emotional goodbye it was supposed to be. Time was running out for these characters anyway, each near miss (especially in Glenn’s case) taking away from their final exit.
So the deaths were a bust, but what about Negan? Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly having a blast: playing Negan as the psychopathic biker from hell, chewing scenery, and twirling his bloody baseball bat. He plays the character as if he’s walking along the tightrope between terrifying and campy. Some of his lines are a bit crap, but The Walking Dead has always had a dialogue problem. All in all Morgan brings a zeal that is much needed. He’s a megalomaniac, adept at psychological, and physical torture, prone to straight talking rather than flowery speeches, with a creative streak a mile wide. In one of the show’s darkest hours, the man causing it is the best thing about the episode.
Which brings us to his victim, the conquered Rick Grimes. It’s a neat touch from director Greg Nicotero to have the episodes events unfold through Rick’s eyes, as it’s his world that is being destroyed; even if the episode is poorly thought out, at least we see it in the right person’s shoes. Andrew Lincoln does a lot with a little here, as Rick is broken. This was his plan: bring the fight to the Saviours, believing that his group of killers could take on theirs. Season five and six had Rick giving into the darkness, but there’s always someone worse on the horizon. His, mostly, one sided conversations with Negan were a neat play on the hero/villain dynamic: instead of being worthy adversaries, Rick only meets Negan when he’s truly beaten. That’s the good part of the episode, too bad it barley takes up a quarter of the runtime. The rest of Rick’s decent into personal hell has the show repeating the same old beats. The showrunners have to know by now that throwing Rick into a bunch of zombies, even unarmed, isn’t dramatic anymore. Neither is the villain threatening Carl. What was supposed to be the episodes final ace in the hole: Rick being “forced” to cut off Carl’s hand, was just too obvious, and needlessly grim. Carl’s already a walking war wound, what’s losing an arm going to do?
The Walking Dead have fallen into the trap that most shows do if they run for more than five seasons: it has become a parody of itself, repeating the same character beats over and over, and desperately throwing hocks at the audience to stay relevant. Unlike other shows though, it still works for The Walking Dead, and that might be the saddest thing of all. That despite this disappointing stunt, there’s still interest in the show, I for one am eager for next week’s episode, eager to see what the era of Negan will be like in spite of my better judgment.
4/10 The big reveal failed to devastate, and the show continues to go in circles. Despite that, The Walking Dead is still must see TV, but as this episode proved: it’s not always for good reasons.