[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 7 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is a fair bet to say that The Walking Dead season 7 premiere is going to attract a lot of attention for finally revealing who it was giving audiences a first person perspective of being beaten to death by Negan and his beloved bat Lucille. The season 6 finale wasn't without its controversy or detractors, as the cliffhanger ending felt in many ways like another unnecessary decision by the show's writers to toy with their audience in much the same way as when Glenn went dumpster diving and appeared to meet an early end that was distinctly different from what series creator Robert Kirkman gave him in the comics. Instead of simply generating curiosity and excitement for the reveal a few months down the line, the show wound up earning some ire.
Unpopular and unnecessarily gimmicky storytelling choices aside, you have to hand it to the cast and crew of The Walking Dead, the news that Abraham and Glenn would be the ones to meet their end remained a secret until the premiere aired – on the East Coast, anyway. It was certainly a horrific sequence of events for Rick and his fellow survivors (and the audience) as it took nearly 20 minutes of recollections before the death was finally revealed. As it turns out Abraham went first before Negan turned his attention to Rosita, prompting Daryl to step up and punch the bat-wielding maniac. This spurred the villain to then attack Glenn, as a means of retaliating against Daryl's disobedience.
The scene was a close to a reproduction of the comics as anything this show has offered, turning the bait and switch of Abraham's death into a brutal two for one. But Negan didn't stop there. After taking Rick on a jaunt in the Grimes Family RV, Negan threatened to kill the rest of Rick's group if he didn't cut off his own son's arm. It was another test of Rick's obedience and how much misery the audience was willing to put up with, as Rick nearly went through with severing his child's arm before Negan stepped in, satisfied that he had his adversary completely under his control.
For a brief moment, the reveal that Abraham would be Negan's victim managed to be an effective surprise, if not the major blow to the status quo many had expected in the wake of the shenanigans the show pulled last season with regard to Glenn. For just a moment longer, Abraham's demise – especially as it played out with the same lines of dialogue Jeffrey Dean Morgan spoke in the season 6 finale – created a clever misdirect, one that delivered an extremely gory moment and followed it up with one that was much worse. And while getting the audience to believe one thing and then revealing another affords The Walking Dead ample opportunities to surprise (and, surely, in some extreme cases entertain) its viewers, the consequence of engaging in this sort of trickery is twofold: for one, it requires the show to engage in the act of one-upmanship against itself, and to face the already present prospects of rapidly diminishing returns from reaching for higher highs that are frequently focused on lumpy piles of meat and bone. Secondly, repeated acts of deception aren't a great way to earn the trust of viewers, and given that the show is already over reliant on repetitive story arcs, revealing a penchant for unpleasant ruses isn't exactly the habit you want a show to have picked up at the start of its seventh season.
After such a harrowing first episode, the question now is: what does this mean for the series? The producers and writers frequently discuss the ways in which each major character death changes the show in fundamental ways, but for a series that offers character death as its major selling point (or the only selling point), there's bound to be a question or two about where the show goes from here. In essence, The Walking Dead has achieved a major goal: it has killed off two major characters at once and did so in spectacular fashion (i.e., ensured AMC got the most bang for its advertising buck), but what's on the other side?
As with most achievements in life (or on post-apocalyptic television shows) the question of what's next in the face of diminishing returns is a perpetual storm cloud hovering on the horizon. And now that Negan has proven his Big Bad bona fides and dropped two major characters, The Walking Dead might actually face a greater obstacle than it has in its entire six-season run. How do you keep the excitement alive in a show that is only truly exciting when teasing certain death?
For her part, Maggie is ready to seek retribution against Negan and his Saviors. Formerly in life-threatening prenatal distress, Glenn's widow has steeled herself against her grief and chosen anger and reprisal. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the premiere, then, is that Rick, ever defiant in the face of adversity, appears wholly cowed by his experience confronting Negan, losing two of his allies in mere moments before facing a narrow biblical choice. The sheriff who so often embodies the show's "only the strong survive" ethos wound up on the wrong side of a skirmish and was stripped of his defining characteristic. He couldn't protect his people, and couldn't overcome an adversary through sheer will.
This was, despite his appearance in the season 6 finale, Negan's big splashy entrance. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was given the majority of the episode's dialogue, and he certainly was game to play the character as the strutting a**hole who also envisions himself as a charming truth teller, elucidating others as to new world order. But as a pragmatist swinging a bat wrapped in barbed wire, Negan isn't spouting anything these characters or this show hasn't said a thousand times before. And while it seems obvious that Rick is going to have to do what he dislikes most – i.e., rely on the help of outsiders – to topple this foe, the thread being unwound is distressingly familiar, even if it is dressed up in a leather jacket and fancy red scarf.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Well' @9pm on AMC.