Much has been made this week about The Walking Dead's dwindling season 7 ratings. And while there has been plenty of analysis as to what's driving viewers away, and whether it's permanent or temporary, the show, like its characters, must simply soldier on. With season 7 nearing its halfway point, the series is poised to head into hiatus carrying with it some of the lowest-rated episodes the series has seen in years, leaving no time to right the ship before then. And yet, to a certain degree, it almost seems as though showrunner Scott M. Gimple has been preparing to deal with the drop in viewership by proclaiming the series will return in 2017 with a new focus and tone.
Until then, however, The Walking Dead is stuck on the path that it's put itself on, moving forward with a series of decompressed episodes that have so far acted as repetitious examples of just what a bully Negan is and how the Saviors' oppression of the other communities near Alexandria has created the ideal circumstances for rebellion. The idea of mutiny is probably not something the show wants to think about outside the confines of its story, but seven weeks into its seventh season The Walking Dead would have better served its audience by getting that rebellion against the Saviors up and running instead of preparing yet another 90-minute episode like 'Sing Me a Song.'
The super-sized installment promises to take a deeper look into the world of the Saviors and the question that immediately comes to mind is: Why? In one way or another every episode this season has been dedicated to Negan's ironically named cohort, mostly through the lens of those they have subjugated. One episode, 'The Cell', gave audiences their first look inside the Sanctuary, and afforded some necessary backstory to Negan's right-hand man, Dwight. At this point, it's pretty clear who Negan is, what he's doing, and why his group follows his every command. They take what they want and are rewarded for it with a sense of security and access to the sort of creature comforts that have become scarce since the dead took to roaming the earth.
It is easy to see where Gimple and the show's writers might think peering deeply into the abyss will somehow make for more compelling television. After all, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos were lauded for their efforts in peeling back the layers of otherwise bad men to see what makes them tick. It's what leads to Negan reciting lines like, "We survive. We provide security. We bring civilization back to this world." It's a rationalization of their behavior, but to whom are they rationalizing? Civilization has crumbled, and as such the need to justify abhorrent behavior – especially the abhorrent behavior of a dominant group – becomes a bit of a curiosity, one that, so far this season, The Walking Dead has not demonstrated it's capable of turning into compelling television.
More so than anything else, 'Sing Me a Song' is interested in setting up the plot for the midseason finale, in which someone will surely be killed by Negan and perhaps then the pieces will fall into place allowing some sort of forward momentum that will bring much-needed conflict between the Saviors and the other communities. The episode has various threads going at once, including Rick and Aaron searching for supplies, Rosita telling Eugene he's worthless as a way of getting him to make her a single bullet, and Spencer and Gabriel having a discussion about Rick's value as a leader. But the only one that matters is Carl sneaking into the Sanctuary, killing two of Negan's men and then spending the day in his presence. The benefit isn't really for Carl; it's for those watching, as the show is convinced it has a character in Negan worth spending time with. The problem is his interactions with subordinates – i.e., just a couple of guys bustin' each others' balls – and with his wives, or with the unlucky guy who broke the rules and got a hot iron to the face, are just an extension of everything we've seen before.
There's not another layer to Negan because he can sit and have a conversation with Carl that's both threatening and enticing at the same time. The scenes just drag for the most part because there's nothing really at stake. At this point, the only card The Walking Dead has left to play is character death, and because it's readily apparent that Carl isn't going to die while in Negan's territory – why get Lucille messy when there isn't an audience to shock? – the interplay between the two feels leaden when it should feel suspenseful. To his credit, Jeffrey Dean Morgan does his level best to infuse the scenes with some energy. His bully routine is so on point it's a wonder he hasn't completely transformed into a default Twitter egg avatar. Negan is all smiles and faux olive branches after taking one of his "jokes" too far, and then he's a towering menace all over again. It's an entertaining performance, but the show is using it all wrong. Negan is the sort of character meant to supplement a strong storyline, not act as the focal point of one that isn't going anywhere.
The end of the episode presents the only reasonable chance at real dramatic stakes that has been seen in quite a while. Aside from Michonne carjacking one of the Saviors and Jesus apparently scurrying around inside the Sanctuary, while Daryl seems to have found his ticket out, Negan's presence in Alexandria all but guarantees confrontation. Since the show has been so slow at building toward the larger, more narratively important conflict that will eventually include the Kingdom, Hilltop, and presumably Oceanside, the only reasonable option is to presume someone will be killed by Negan to make the same point that was made in the season premiere: Negan's dangerous and he holds all the cards. Hopefully the midseason finale will do more than luxuriate over another death at the villain's hands. If not, the winter hiatus is going to seem a lot more like a reprieve from the show's oppressive nihilism than it should.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Hearts Still Beating' @9pm on AMC.
Phtotos: Gene Page/AMC