What a wicked, wearying slog that was. After half a year waiting and speculating, the season premiere of The Walking Dead turned out to be a master class in misery, perhaps like a glimpse inside Dick Cheney’s porn stash where pain and fear are foreplay in an orgy of graphic violence.
The Walking Dead has demonstrated its ability to punctuate long periods of dread with moments of horrifying violence. It is the struggle of humanity against our primal, savage nature that defines the conflict of this series. Our heroes are not pure souls struggling to retain virtue in a cruel world. They are flawed characters who have changed much over the past six seasons and done unspeakable things to protect themselves and their tribe. They have faced monsters like Negan before and prevailed.
But this episode sustains a raw brutality without respite, without mercy or levity to break up the misery or the torture. If not for commercials with shiny cars going ZOOM and cartoon bears singing the praises of toilet paper, some viewers might have been put on suicide watch by the second break. It’s a bold move for a television series and for a season opener likely to attract new viewers jumping on from all the hype. Some viewers (not acquainted with the comics) were, no doubt, expecting a last minute rescue or for the heroes to fight their way out of it. Perhaps, they suppose, after the killing they could fight back and escape? No. It just got worse. Spoilers ahead.
Let’s talk about the deaths first – which were almost lost in the pageant of cruelty that dominated the hour.
Abraham was not a shock. His story – such as it was – ended a while back and, while likeable and funny, he should have taken an arrow to the eye months ago when it would have been more of a shock. It was, however, a clever distraction in the larger scheme. By killing just Abraham, viewers might have felt cheated. With Daryl freaking out, it set the stage for a new dynamic. Because he did, Negan chose a second victim – Glenn. Glenn really had to die because he had the most to lose and was the only major character with an incomplete arc that would generate real emotional resonance with the audience. (I truly believed Rick, Carl, and Michonne were all safe.) That choice also creates tension between Daryl and Maggie and guilt for Daryl over causing Glenn’s death. The fractures from Glenn’s death will run deep and will widen as the season progresses. The only other choice was Maggie and that was who I thought would be killed second. In retrospect, killing her would have been so over the top that the only answer for it would be a massacre of Negan’s men before the end of the hour. Anything less and the show would have been undone by its sadism.
How will this play out in Season 7? Well, Glenn is the first original cast member to die since Andrea bac in Season 3. Maggie is carrying his child, so Glenn’s spirit will never be far from the show. Abraham’s memory will linger about as long as any of the other “In Memoriam” featured on Talking Dead. He leaves no real legacy or footprint on the show. I fully expect Sasha and Rosita to move on. Perhaps Eugene will take the loss a bit harder, but under the current situation I expect mourning his loss will be set aside by the need to get revenge on Negan and The Saviors.
As for Rick, he was beaten thoroughly by this episode. Negan needed everyone to witness it. And that trip into the woods in the RV was a lost opportunity. It was, by far, the creepiest sequence of the episode and recent memory up to an including using a hanged walker as a swing. Negan drives Rick into the fog a few miles from Murderdome and forces him to fetch a hatchet off the roof by fighting through a herd of walkers. It’s a plan that could have gone wrong so many ways. Rick could have been overwhelmed. Rick could have taken off into the forest. He could have found a grenade or other weapon on one of the walkers. He could have done a number of things that he’s done in the past to overcome one man with a rifle. We’ve seen similar situations play out in this show so many times. Rick just fights walkers and does what he’s told, evading sprays of bullets and surviving only because Negan cut down the herd at key moments in a way that defies belief.
It was a cool scene that didn’t work because it removed us from the immediacy and imminent danger of the situation. It felt like padding. If the point was to further wear Rick down while keeping the pressure on the rest of the group: Mission Accomplished. In terms of drama, however, we don’t shift into other character POVs enough to begin empathizing with their personal sense of loss. The dramatic impact of Rick’s absence on the group isn’t apparent. It might have been better to imply what happened to Rick off camera and bring him back broken and terrified, using the time to make better use of the supporting cast.
It’s that final few moments where Rick has to make that terrible choice that cements his submission. And that moment could have happened by the halfway mark, leaving us with time to shift forward in time rather than mill around the emotional crater left by the events.
Yes, this is horror. Horror does not shy away from cruelty or reaching deep into our darkest human capabilities. Horror wants you to come away afraid, fearful of what might come next. It’s the glimmer of hope that keeps the outcome uncertain and elevates the conflict between good and evil. Where there is no conflict, there is only cruelty. There was no way to win and this episode made sure to remind us at every opportunity of this fact. That’s not horror. That’s gore and spectacle.
If I didn’t know the comic and if Talking Dead wasn’t a weekly source of infomercial-level insight into the creators’ minds I would say that this is an example of a show that hates itself and its characters, possessing a level of author resentment on par with a “Misery’s Child” or “Mostly Harmless” in the hope that events would bring an end to a series. The producers, however, insist this is only the beginning. I hope they’re only referring to the structure of the story and not the creative sadism rivaling another I Spit on Your Grave remake.
It needed to be ugly. It needed to be bloody. But it didn’t need to be so damned bleak.