Following a controversial cliffhanger that enraged half of the show’s fan base, ‘The Walking Dead’ returns for its seventh season with a premiere episode that seems almost willfully designed to drive away viewers.
Season 6 of course ended with new villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) introducing himself by killing one of the show’s main characters. The identity of the victim was left a secret. Even though cliffhanger endings like this have been a time-honored tradition on television since a mystery assassin shot J.R. Ewing in March of 1980, and ‘The Walking Dead’ closed previous seasons similarly, fans of the show absolutely lost their freakin’ minds over this, demanding immediate answers and calling for show-runner Scott M. Gimple’s head on a pike. Even our ‘Walking Dead’ recapper Shannon threw his hands in the air and swore never to watch again.
The season premiere answers the cliffhanger but waits a good 15 minutes to do so, seemingly just to toy with viewers. The only thing we’re told immediately is that Rick is still alive. When he defiantly vows to kill Negan, the latter finds that attitude unacceptable. He drags Rick to the camper and drives it some distance away into the middle of a horde of zombies. He taunts Rick by leaving an axe within his reach and daring him to pick it up, then plays a game where he tosses the axe onto the camper’s roof and throws Rick out the door, ordering him to fetch the weapon and bring it back. Throughout, the episode teases us with quick flashback glimpses suggesting that any other character could be dead.
Finally, after an interminable wait, an extended flashback reveals that Negan murdered the hulking Sgt. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz). When the first bash with the bat wrapped in barbed wire fails to knock him out, a bloodied Abraham snears, “Suck my nuts!” – a perfect Abraham-ism for the character’s last words. In graphic detail, we see Negan repeatedly club Abraham’s head again and again, laughing and joking about it the whole time, continuing long after his skull is crushed in and Abraham is decidedly dead.
I called this early on. (See my comments to the Season 6 finale recap.) Abraham was the most logical victim. As the most physically intimidating member of the group, he was the best person for Negan to make an example out of. At the same time, of the group of core characters, he was fairly expendable. Last season made a point of wrapping up most of his storylines. I didn’t find his death surprising at all.
Much more shocking is what happens next. Furious about Abraham’s death, Daryl jumps to his feet and punches Negan in the face. Negan’s men drag him off. Negan is displeased and declares that he needs to set another example. Rather than kill Daryl, he smashes his bat down onto Glenn’s head.
As with Abraham, the first hit doesn’t kill him. With part of his skull caved in and one eye popped out (yes, we see it all), Glenn mutters something unintelligible, then turns to Maggie and promises, “I will find you” (in the next life, presumably). Negan hits him again and again and again and again until his head is completely pulverized.
Back to the camper, Rick scrambles to the roof and retrieves the axe. He fights off the zombies (a gag where one hanging off a bridge from a noose is ripped in half is the “fun” type of gore we usually enjoy in this show) and finally, defeated, hands the axe back to Negan. All the while, he has fantasies of Negan beating the rest of his friends to death if he doesn’t comply. (This must allow the show’s producers to use all the fake-out death footage they shot to throw fans off.)
Negan and Rick return to the others, but Negan says that he still doesn’t like the look in Rick’s eyes. He isn’t convinced that Rick is completely broken yet. To make that happen, he orders his men to put guns to everyone else’s heads, then calls Carl over, makes him lie on the ground, and draws a line across his left arm. He commands Rick to take the axe and cut off his own son’s arm. If he doesn’t do it, Negan will kill everyone else and make him watch.
The badly shaken Rick cries and begs. He offers his own arm instead (a fan-service reference to the fact that Rick is missing a hand in the comics). Negan isn’t swayed. He begins a countdown. Carl tells his dad to do it. In total distress, Rick picks up the axe and prepares to swing when Negan stops him. He’s convinced now. He tells Rick, “You belong to me,” and allows Carl to go free. He then has his men toss Daryl in a van and says that he’ll be held as collateral. If anyone from Rick’s group disobeys or misbehaves, he’ll cut off pieces of Daryl and send them to Alexandria.
Negan and his people then quickly pack up their things and depart, leaving Rick’s group with a truck to return home in. Shell-shocked, the characters all sit silently for a moment processing what happened. Maggie stands up, vowing to fight. The others try to talk some sense into her. She tells them to take the truck and go back to Alexandria. She’ll walk to the Hilltop alone. (The only reason any of them left Alexandria in the first place was to get Maggie to the Hilltop’s doctor.) Sasha insists on going with her. The others promise to bury Glenn and Abraham.
The episode ends with a fantasy dream of the happy ending these characters will never get. On a sunny afternoon, everyone gathers around a picnic table for a meal. Glenn sits at the head holding the son he’ll never meet, with Abraham right beside them. In reality, Rick gets into the camper and drives it away (why did Negan need to leave them with a truck?). In the rearview mirror, he sees a zombie stumble out of the woods and crawl over to the spot where either Glenn or Abraham died, and begin feasting on the bits of gore left behind.
This is a very difficult episode to watch. Even by ‘Walking Dead’ standards, it’s unrelentingly grim and disturbing. We’ve seen these characters in bad situations before – we’ve even seen them feeling broken and despondent before – but nothing like this. The show doesn’t just kill off a couple of important characters here; it shoves their deaths in viewers’ faces, locking the camera’s unblinking gaze on people we care about as they’re savagely, gruesomely murdered in just about the most horrific way possible. And it doesn’t just do this at the beginning and then move on to set up the rest of the season’s story. The premiere spends an entire hour dwelling on every detail of their deaths.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. Unlike many of the show’s vocal fans, I wasn’t upset by last season’s cliffhanger and I thought the reaction against it was kind of ridiculous. However, the premiere is extremely unpleasant to watch and leaves me questioning whether I really want to continue with the show anymore.
From a narrative perspective, I understand what the show-runners are trying to do here. Every season, they feel pressured to raise the stakes for the characters higher and higher. These people have survived some of the worst the apocalypse could throw at them. As a writer, how do you keep topping yourself? How do you establish dramatic tension when you’ve set a precedent that some characters are essentially unkillable and undefeatable? I totally get that.
Nonetheless, I think the show has gone too far. This episode has almost no sense of entertainment. It’s pure torture porn, elevated to an especially disturbing level because we actually care about these characters and can’t simply detach ourselves from their fates, like we might the anonymous dipshit victims in a ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’ movie. Watching a beloved character like Glenn (Steven Yeun) die like this goes beyond simple suspense or even tragedy. Frankly, it’s sickening.
Killing off Glenn here is also aggravated by how badly his bullshit fake-out death in the middle of last season was handled. For him to survive that only to die here feels like a direct insult to fans. Some may argue that the character died at this spot in the comics, but the show frequently diverges from the comics. This shouldn’t have been his time to go.