If there is one thing that can be said about the second half of The Walking Dead season 7 is that it seems hyper aware of its audience and critics. In previous seasons, the show's narrative unfolded within the same tonally flat set of circumstances, seemingly heedless the reaction to it. Perhaps the show's creators were more insulated by the epic numbers the series continued to put up, numbers that seemed to increase the more Rick and his companions found themselves locked in an endless cycle of aggression against both the living and the undead.
Over the show's initial six-and-a-half seasons, change came slowly. However, riding the wave of criticism stemming from a series of questionable cliffhangers – ostensibly created to toy with the audience rather than entertain them – and a grotesquely violent season 7 premiere that gave way to an utterly repetitive seven-episode stretch, The Walking Dead was not shy about its intentions to deliver changes. And for the most part, it has. The show's tone has varied at times in the last few episodes – most notably when Rick and Michonne spent a few days on a romantic search for food and weapons. But the willingness of the show's writers to move away from certain Walking Dead tendencies, in what appears to be a direct response to audience reaction, hasn't been relegated solely to the season's story line. It's also apparent in the marketing.
Last week, Sasha and Rosita spent an awful lot of time stalling as they discussed the reasons for their journey to the Sanctuary and their planned assassination of Negan. It was a typically slow episode of The Walking Dead, one that didn't offer up much in the way of propulsive storytelling until – you guessed it – a cliffhanger presented itself in the form of Sasha's apparent demise. After running headlong into a firefight with the Saviors, it seemed Alexandria's resident sharpshooter had met her end – until AMC's marketing department released a series of promotional stills showing her still very much alive, albeit detained and in a conversation with supposed turncoat Eugene.
To reveal Sasha's fate in advance of the episode seems an uncharacteristic move for the network and the series' producers, who have previously played such cards very close to their collective vests. What it's in response to is debatable, but it certainly alters the audiences' experience going into the hour as viewers are now well aware Sasha's still alive – though she may not be by the end of the 'Something They Need' – meaning the episode's other cliffhanger – the identity of the man with the crossbow – can take center stage.
And to a certain extent, it does. But, like everything in the second half of season 7, the exciting portions of the episode are relegated to a few minutes at the end of the hour. So, when Dwight accompanies Rosita back to Alexandria, saying he wants to help by betraying Negan, it begins to feel a lot like last week's episode, wherein the characters did a whole lot of talking about everything they planned to do without bothering to, you know, do much of anything until the episode was almost over. Delayed gratification is one thing, but after a torturous eight episodes that ended with Rick promising a war with Negan the back half of season 7 has felt more like a near-endless cycle of conversation with very little being done that couldn't have been handled off screen. And all that build-up should make viewers leery of what's to come during next week's finale.
Unless you count Rick and company depriving a group of women of their means to defend themselves – without questioning whether or not it's right or if it really is the only course of action left to them – as exciting television, then the structure of the last two episodes might presage what's to come in the finale. The chance of actually seeing Alexandria, Hilltop, and The Kingdom go to war with the Saviors during season 7 has passed, and considering where everything stands at the end of 'Something They Need', the chance that all-out war will actually happen in the finale continues to shrink as well.
Instead, it seems more likely that The Walking Dead will treat audiences to the start of a much larger conflict, but save the battle for the season 8 premiere. That's certainly disappointing as viewers sat through eight episodes of watching Negan be an obnoxious bully only to spend the next eight listening to people talk about how they're not going to let an obnoxious bully push them around anymore. That's not to say the show won't have some tricks up its sleeve come time to make the finale memorable, but it's hard to say whether or not that will make the slog of these latter episodes worthwhile.
If there is a plus side to an episode like 'Something They Need', it would be the exchange between Sasha and Eugene, and the potential for surprise the series is cooking up there. Sasha's introduction in the episode included a fairly accurate recreation of a character's death from the comics – which may still get some viewers' engines going – but it was the feeling that Eugene may be hiding something that was far more compelling. The Walking Dead has done such a hard sell on making Eugene not only the coward of the county but an A-class turncoat as well that it seems like a sure thing he'll get some shot at redemption come the season finale. It may be a more interesting twist for him to stay where he is, enjoying the creature comforts of life as "Negan" by continuing to betray Rick, but The Walking Dead is in need of a big, gratifying moment this season – for Eugene as much for everyone else. With any luck, viewers will actually get to see one next week.
The Walking Dead season 7 concludes next Sunday with 'The First Day of the Rest of Your Life' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC