How did we get here?
Seriously. I’m wondering. How did we get from what was certainly a promising beginning of Season 6 to a season premiere so unfathomably bad that I would give up on the series entirely if I didn’t have to write about it? It’s remarkable. The Walking Dead has always been a show of highs and lows, of quality that fluctuated rapidly, sometimes within the same episode. But this episode is such an absurd low that it sets itself apart from anything the show has ever done before. It’s The Walking Dead indulging all of its worst impulses, embracing its desire for torture and misery porn, and spitting in the face of viewers that actually want to watch a television show with decent storytelling, reverence to character, and emotional resonance. And it’s even more insulting that The Walking Dead pretends to have those things, pretends to be quality drama when it has descended so ridiculously low, when it has willingly run itself off a cliff.
The Walking Dead could have course corrected, or at least tried. It had dug itself into a pretty deep hole at the end of last season, ending on a criminally stupid and manipulative cliffhanger that was designed to make us come back to watch Season 7, not to push forth any solid plotting or character development. The ad campaign for this season has also been absurd and, frankly, a little revolting, trying to hype us up to watch a character get his head caved in with a baseball bat. The advertisements for this season are basically asserting that we want to watch this torture happen, and while that may be true of some viewers, it feels insulting that the show’s staff would think that its audience is a horde of bloodthirsty simpletons. So I had a bad feeling that this premiere would double down on the awful Season 6 finale, and boy, did it.
Because here’s the thing. A television show has to EARN its misery. When Game of Thrones aired the Red Wedding, it was very pointed how each character went into the scene, how the history of the characters informed how they got there, the reaction they had. The setup for that scene was incredibly detailed, very involved, and remarkably intricate. That’s why it worked. The series had built enough goodwill, had done enough prep work, that the scene was justified. It was perfectly in line with how the series was positioning itself. The same undeniably cannot be said for The Walking Dead. Season 6, while occasionally strong, squandered some character development for the sake of twists that didn’t make sense. The Glenn death fake-out was incredibly manipulative, showing us that the show was willing to play with its audience in order to keep us coming back for more. And the entire build up to Negan’s scene was all about spectacle. It was all about wanting to know who died. To boil the show down to a gladiator match it to reduce it to its most insultingly negative components. Television shows have lately had a habit of competing to see which one can be the most miserable, which one can kill characters in the most shocking ways possible. Indulging in this mindset, that television is bloodsport, is remarkably dangerous, and it runs counter to the dramas that actually are working. Rectify, Orange is the New Black, The Leftovers, the dramas that are more about empathy than anything else.
So what are we left with? This episode of The Walking Dead waits twenty minutes before getting to what they’ve been advertising for over half a year now. The Rick content is mostly filler; it’s all there to pad the episode so that it can actually fill 45 minutes. Because, honestly, the whole episode can be boiled down to everybody sobbing incoherently and two characters, Abraham and Glenn, getting their heads caved in. Abraham’s death is awful, to be sure, but it would have worked if the show hadn’t relied on that cliffhanger or built up the death so absurdly much. It would have worked if this all happened in last season’s finale. Glenn’s death, on the other hand, steps way over the line. Not only does the show just revel in the gore and the violence, it also completely invalidates Abraham’s death, revealing it as a cheap manipulation tactic to trick us into believing that the main tragedy is over. And while Negan’s character is energetic, the level of suffering and torture on display is almost cartoonish. It’s not taken seriously. It’s not even supposed to be sad. I mean, how can it be sad when Negan’s dialogue is so awful (“vampire bat”? Ughhhhhhhh) that it drains any of the emotion from the scene. It’s like The Walking Dead doesn’t want us to care about these deaths, that it would rather we recoil and cringe than actually feel sad about this.
And who’s fault is this? I honestly don’t know. It’s partly Kirkman’s fault, as I feel he is so enamored by his own creation and so completely unable to translate comics to television that he embodies the worst the show has to offer. It’s partly Gimple’s fault for not actually coming up with 45 minutes worth of story to put in the episode, for structuring the episode like he did, and for scripting the episode so poorly. And it’s partly AMC’s fault for agreeing to advertise and then display something this repulsive and revolting without giving it the weight it deserves. There’s more than enough blame to go around for creating something this needlessly disgusting, sadistic, and awful. And it’s not simply about the graphic nature of the scene. It’s about the way it’s executed. Abraham’s death, by itself, is something that could have worked. But it was dragged so far down by everything else that there was almost no way to execute it well.
There’s a host of other stupid things that happen in the episode, from teasing that Rick might have to amputate his own son’s arm, to the minutes and minutes dedicated to the supporting cast crying and looking sad, to the bad dinner montage at the end of the episode. If there is anything to look forward to, it’s that maybe Carol, Morgan, and The Kingdom will be decent enough to rescue the show from the absolute brink. The Walking Dead is capable of examining how the status quo is formed, how communities are created, and how status quos and belief systems come into conflict. At this point, the Negan storyline is a bust. It’s awful, and even Negan, who Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a good job playing, is just a one-dimensional psychopath. The other storylines have to be good enough to compensate for how low the show has gone. And, honestly, I don’t know if it can.
So where do we go now? The show has been renewed already for an eighth season, but it can’t even prove that it has enough legitimate story to fill its seventh season premiere. This premiere was so bad, so repulsive, that I would give up on the show right now if I could. Of course, there is always the possibility that the further the show distances itself from the cliffhanger, from the awful death scenes in this episode, that it could steadily improve itself. But I’m not going to hold my breath at this point. Because this show has actually gotten to the point where I have pretty much no faith in it anymore. Now it has to prove that, after slapping the viewers in the face, it’s actually worth watching.
What did you think of the episode? Are you as irritated as I am? Let me know in the comments!