[This post contains SPOILERS for the Walking Dead season 7 premiere.]
When The Walking Dead ended season 6 nearly seven months ago, it exited on what was easily the biggest cliffhanger of its entire run thus far, having the villainous Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) kill an unknown member of the cast. The move proved to be a controversial one, with fans and critics alike expressing their disappointment soon after the episode aired. As the summer pressed on, the expectations – and, in some circles, frustration – mounted, leaving many with the growing feeling that the season 7 premiere, "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be," couldn’t possibly live up to so many lofty expectations.
Now that the “event” episode is here, the question can finally be answered. Was The Walking Dead’s cliffhanger ending worth it? The answer is one that's predicated on a major caveat - with the satisfaction of the payoff ultimately depending upon viewers’ overall levels of tolerance and patience.
So, let’s dig down into it and see what’s what.
The initial death – of the tough-as-nails Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) – would have been a letdown had no further tragic developments followed. That’s not to understate the value of Abraham as a character, or of Cudlitz’s skill in portraying him; Ford has been a likable presence on the series, being one of Walking Dead’s biggest action stars and providing some of the quirkiest and most enjoyable dialogue the show has to offer. And to add insult to injury, the character's season 6 arc teased a greater state of permanence for the character, starting with his overtures to Sasha Williams (Sonequa Martin-Green) to someday start a family, and finally giving Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) his due.
Even with that said, however, Abraham has remained more of a background presence than a main act, perpetually playing second-fiddle to Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) balancing act between humanity and savagery or Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) continuing personal development in the face of a post-apocalyptic world. (In fact, when Daryl strikes out at Negan after Abraham’s execution and the audience is led to believe for one moment that he would be next on the chopping block, the episode was far more dramatically effective.) His loss would certainly have been felt, and it would absolutely have hung over the rest of the characters’ heads (poor Eugene!), but having Abraham cut from the series was not quite the stab in the heart The Walking Dead had promised.
That is, of course, until the second death landed with a sickening crunch. Fans had known for almost the past two months that the likelihood of there being two murders in the premiere was high, thanks to a slip-up by executive producer/director Greg Nicotero, but the follow-up reveal was still shocking – and not least of all because the episode had led viewers to believe the worst was over (even though we at Screen Rant had nailed the likely deaths earlier this month).
Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) is one of only three main leads to have been on the series since day one, and his steadfast involvement on Walking Dead made him one of the show’s bedrocks – his boy-next-door nature heightened his acts of bravery (such as risking his life on supply runs or being lowered into wells as bait for waterlogged walkers), and Glenn having killed his first human in cold blood in the sixth season was one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments. Just as with Abraham, many of Glenn's season 6 moments seemed to bind the character even more closely to viewers’ hearts: first there was his fake-out death in the opening batch of episodes, which was followed by the news that he was going to be a father. His death, by far, is the more meaningful of the two and is the development that cements the cliffhanger’s long wait as having been worth it.
There’s another way that "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be" was reinforced by its tag-team nature: since Glenn was Negan’s victim in the source material, those readers would have known what to expect, even if they represent only a small slice of the television-viewing audience. By inserting Abraham first, and then following it up with Glenn as an added bonus, those watching at home were likely taken by surprise.
And that’s not even taking the rest of the installment into consideration. The tension of just what, exactly, Negan was going to do to Rick following his twin executions – especially for those comic fans who know that Mr. Grimes had already had his hand chopped off long ago at this point in the story – was palpable, and then the writing-producing staff topped themselves again by literally putting Carl Grimes’s (Chandler Riggs) arm on the line. In terms of tension and dramatics (if not of good taste), there’s no way that the opening salvo of season 7 could be considered to be anticlimactic.
But the individual events are only half the story – there’s also the plot, the order in which the events unfold. This is where some fans may still feel as though they have been cheated.
As if waiting seven months wasn't enough, writer (and showrunner) Scott M. Gimple and director Nicotero make audiences wait until almost halfway through the premiere before finally revealing who the mystery death was. And, along the way, the suspense is played fully to the hilt, showing quick, “greatest hits”-esque flashback montages for nearly all of the characters assembled on the ground around Negan, and then following it up with a kill shot for them all afterwards. (Just how thorough was this deception? The producers even kept all of the main actors’ names in the opening credits so as not to allow any sneak peeks for those in the know.) The episode is almost a master class on torture, making the wait as unbearable as possible.
But, then again, if Gimple and company made the decision last year to keep the death a mystery all throughout the off-season, they might as well embrace it and milk it for all it’s worth, right? By not showing the reveal right away, the showrunner can justify the move at least a little more, making it feel more like a general approach to telling this specific story and less like a cheap gimmick.
That is, until it’s time to lift the curtain on Abraham’s death. Rather than sticking with the version depicted in the season 6 finale, "Last Day on Earth," Walking Dead’s staff opted to introduce new material, including some already-famous final words for Sergeant Ford and additional taunting by Negan. This is where the tightrope walk that the writers laid out for themselves last year came back to haunt them – the footage was presented as a genuine, if limited, narrative, not as placeholder material that could be invalidated once they deigned to show viewers who was selected to bite the bullet (er, the bat). And the decision to open the premiere just after the deaths tips the show's hand even more – instead of actual storytelling purposes, the sequence was used purely as a marketing stunt.
The final verdict, then, is very much a mixed bag. Did the drama of "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be" pay off? Yes, it did – the combination of Abraham and Glenn’s deaths, along with the extra tension surrounding both Rick and Carl’s limbs, is more than enough to warrant what is, in retrospect, an intolerable wait. But did the premiere’s storytelling sensibilities live up to a spirit of narrative genuineness? No, they didn’t; rather, they betrayed the marketing-stunt nature of the cliffhanger, providing an even bigger target for fans’ feelings of betrayal over the summer.
Though satisfying and frustrating in (more or less) equal measure, the real test will be in how the writing staff incorporates this incident moving forward: did they learn their lesson, or are they emboldened by the outsize (social) media attention? The season 7 mid-season finale, then, may be the next place fans can look for an answer.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Well' at 9pm on AMC.