To be truly fair, I have to look at this one in two ways, firstly as an episode without regard to how it fits into the run of the show, the second taking that into consideration. And, spoilers, on one level, it works. On the other, not so much.
Obviously, given the need to discuss specifics…
So, as an episode, how does it hold together? Generally very well. It’s brutal, pulls no punches at all, and is a pretty effective portrayal in tearing a man down to absolute rock bottom. For the most part, the episode runs as a two-hander between Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes and his latest tormentor, the long-awaited and diabolically cheery Negan, played with considerable relish by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who misses no opportunity to chew as much scenery as he can get his hands on. Pretty much everything in the last half-season leading up to this episode has been based on Rick’s hubris that he and his gang will have no real trouble ridding the world of a group that he has absolutely no knowledge of. He’s made promises based on almost no information and this is where it’s got him, surrounded by enemies, grovelling on the ground by the bodies of two of his most trusted people. Negan is utterly ruthless in destroying any last vestiges of resistance in Rick’s head, leaving him broken. As episodes go, this is certainly a game-changer, and a particularly brutal one. The status quo has been shattered in spectacular fashion.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t flaws in the episode. The episodes holds out on the big reveal of who Negan killed for a good twenty minutes, throwing in unnecessary teases showing every member of the lineup falling prey to Negan’s bat. The brutality is pretty relentless, making for the bleakest episode of the show by some distance, and the gore is extreme even by the already pretty high standards of The Walking Dead. Negan, so far, is pretty one-note, basically coming across as a charismatic and ruthless sadist; if the character is to maintain interest over the length of his run on the show (if the comics can be used as a guideline, he should certainly be present into the recently announced eighth season), they’ll need to find some depth for Jeffrey Dean Morgan to work with. The other flaws aren’t so much the fault of the episode itself, but more that they made it the season opener, so I guess this is where the second angle of this review kicks in.
It’s a matter of considerable record that the decision to end the sixth season with the unrevealed death of a member of the group was controversial, to say the least. While some defended it, a lot of fans hated it with a passion, feeling cheated that, after half a season of teasing Negan’s arrival and encouraging speculation over who might be having a very up-close-and-personal meeting with Lucille, Negan’s infamous barbed-wire-wrapped bat, the producers decided to delay the big reveal for seven and a half months. Scott M. Gimple, the showrunner, spoke out, asking, not unreasonably, to be given the benefit of the doubt, stating that he felt that, once the season seven premiere aired, that people would understand and appreciate the way they’d decided to tell the story.
For me, this very much turned out not to be the case. This episode really should have been the final episode of season six, not delayed until the opening of season seven.
For me, a good season finale should end with questions that the audience need answers to, something to whet their interest for the next season. The season finale that they gave us did indeed do that by posing the most direct question possible, “who did Negan kill?” I’m not saying that that’s not necessarily a good question to be posing, but it’s such a straightforward one that it doesn’t necessarily give the following season premiere much to work with. We find out who he kills, question answered.
Seven and a half months is a long time to wait for an answer, and speculation immediately kicked off. It didn’t take a huge amount of thought, for example, to conclude that, dramatically speaking, only a handful of characters made sense as victims. Rick and Carl were already immune, spared by dialogue in the finale itself. Daryl and Michonne, as huge fan favourites, were arguably too big to kill off; at the very least, it would have been an extremely bold move to eliminate either. On the other end of the scale, Sasha, Rosita, Aaron and Eugene were too small to be dramatically satisfying as Negan’s big kill. That left Glenn, Maggie and Abraham. Of those, only Abraham really made sense. Maggie’s currently pregnant and is clearly unwell, making her an unlikely choice for Negan to make an example of, even before considering whether the network would really portray the beating to death of a pregnant woman, even on The Walking Dead. Glenn took a swing at Negan in the finale and was told that he got that one for free; Negan, despite being a spectacular bastard, is generally quite truthful in what he says, so it made no sense for him to then beat Glenn to death anyway. So, based on conjecture it might be, but Abraham became by far the best candidate. Then, as time went on, word began leaking out of Stephen Yuen signing on for other projects. Not impossible that he could have done those and continued to work on The Walking Dead, but it immediately threw into doubt Glenn’s survival. The end result was that, coming into the new season, I was already fairly sure that Abraham and/or Glenn would not be making it to the end of the episode. While I still enjoyed the episode, that did colour things; it’s easier to damp down an emotional reaction if you’ve been expecting a certain result for months. If what became the season premiere had instead been used as the previous season’s finale, there would only have been a week to think about it, and reactions would have been very different, I think.
As I said earlier, the theme of the second half of season six is basically hubris. It starts with Rick confidently boasting of his groups’ ability to eliminate Negan and his Saviours in exchange for trade with the Hilltop and how subsequent events prove that boast to be hideously and tragically overconfident. The events of the season seven premiere cover the end of that process, ending with Rick and, by extension, his group, broken and lost. They’ve failed utterly, lost two of their own and have a third, Daryl, in captivity. Negan is coming in a week’s time to collect his first tribute that they have to try to prepare. And they have no idea where Carol and Morgan have got to.
This leaves us with a question that, while far more vague and less headline-grabbing than “who did Negan kill”, is ultimately way more compelling. “What happens next?”
How do they go back to Alexandria and explain to the others what happened? How are they going to take the fact that they’re now living under the boot of a brutal sadist? How is the Hilltop going to react to Rick so spectacularly failing to live up to his promise, particularly as they may well face retribution from Negan for making such a deal in the first place? Can Rick, who has shown considerable instability in the past when things go south, pull himself back together to be an effective leader and, given his failures, should he even resume such a role?
Those are much more interesting questions to spend over half a year considering.