This week’s episode of The Walking Dead is 62 minutes — 90 with commercials — of nonstop stuff you’ve seen before.
The Walking Dead season seven has often felt like a puzzle whose many pieces have been flung about seemingly at random. Every episode so far has focused almost exclusively on a single individual location: Alexandria, Ezekiel’s Kingdom, the Saviors’ Sanctuary, the Hilltop, and Oceanside (the secret village in the woods).
Since the series doesn’t hop back and forth between different story locations, individual episodes increasingly feel siloed off from one another — suggesting a communication drought forming between every party we’ve been following this season.
Perhaps that’s why episode seven, “Sing Me a Song,” mainly seems to be about the narrative repeating itself. Indeed, several plot points within the episode repeat themselves.
It’s a kind of weary, empty ouroboros.
Nothing happens in this episode — even when it seems like things are happening
Let’s dispatch with the handful of events that happen in this episode in bullet point form.
- Carl clumsily infiltrates the Sanctuary to try to kill Negan. Instead, Negan finds the boy intriguing and decides to show him around, before screwing with him and ultimately bringing him back home.
- Out foraging for supplies, Rick and Aaron locate what seems to be a convenient cache of weapons and supplies. They suspect this because they find the “No Trespassing” sign of a man who has conveniently carved a message that he has a cache of “food, supplies, and ammo.” He’s also taken the time to add that he’s probably conveniently dead by now. The problem: Between the cache and them lies a pond full of zombies.
- Also out foraging for supplies, Spencer locates what seems to be a convenient cache of weapons and supplies — sound familiar? He finds the cache because “a list of caches from a dead guy with a plan” is conveniently spelled out in Latin in a note in a zombie’s pocket. (It’s cool that these men have each had the time between zombie killing to painstakingly perform the apocalyptic version of a “look at my haul!” YouTube video.) The problem: Rick has ordered the Alexandrians to deliver all their supplies to the Saviors, and Spencer’s not into it.
- Michonne takes a Savior hostage and demands to be taken to Negan.
- Eugene finally makes that bullet Rosita requested several episodes ago.
- Negan makes Carl take him on a tour of Alexandria, where he discovers the existence of baby Judith and suddenly declares his intent to move into the town.
Lest the number of bullet points make you think this is an action-packed episode, don’t be deceived. Yes, there’s stuff — like the big reveal of Carl’s shot-out eye, and the part where we watch Negan iron a guy’s face, just in case we forgot that ironing people’s faces was a thing he did.
- Number of times people cry in this episode: 6
- Number of fat jokes in this episode: 2
- Number of women sexually harassed, assaulted, or threatened in this episode: 3 (though really considering Negan has a whole nonconsensual harem, this is a perpetual state for all the women in his camp)
But none of the above actually drives the plot. Perhaps that’s the point: The characters seem to have lost the plot completely.
This episode’s central idea: repetition, repetition, repetition
The repetition in “Sing Me a Song” is literal. Characters repeat themselves or each other throughout the episode, and the narrative itself seems to temporarily become a skipping record, repeating ideas and parts of the plot the episode already introduced earlier.
Director Rosemary Rodriguez (Jessica Jones) has chosen a discordant, leisurely pace, one that seems dictated more by Negan’s ominous strolls around the Sanctuary than by what is — we’re told — the Alexandrians’ sense of urgency about having only one day to find supplies before the Saviors return to collect.
We’re 52 minutes into the episode before Michonne hijacks the Savior — which is finally a moment that would seem to significantly move the season’s plot arc along from where we were when the Saviors first came to loot Alexandria.
Prior to that moment, the episode feels like a repetitive echo of stuff we already know. Even Michonne’s hijacking attempt is a repeat of a move we saw at the episode’s beginning, when Carl and Jesus stowed away on a Savior supply truck to try to break into the compound. (Jesus bails before he makes it inside.)
The episode flits back and forth between the Alexandrians’ various attempts to forage for supplies and Negan’s stroll through his grand domain. Except for Rick and Aaron, each pair of foraging Alexandrians is at odds with each other.
Jesus and Father Gabriel, for instance, each bail on their traveling companions and hike it back to home base. Jesus ditches Carl because he’s afraid of getting caught entering the Sanctuary, while Gabriel ditches Spencer because Spencer won’t shut up about how much he hates Rick. Or take Eugene, who makes the bullet for Rosita, only for her to call him a weak coward: “The only reason you’re alive is because you lied and because people feel sorry for you.” (Eugene cries.)
Even within this episode it sometimes takes several scenes for actions to make any sense. For instance, Michonne beheads a zombie, then drags it away to parts unknown in the opening scene. But we don’t return to her to find out what she was up to until nearly the episode’s end. Thus, the episode’s pace is glacial — even before you consider the centerpiece is Negan Negan-ing his way around the Sanctuary, something that grew exhausting and repetitive three or four episodes ago.
Perhaps all of this inaction and repetition is a way of inducing the same exhausted weariness in the viewer that Negan’s followers at the Sanctuary must feel. We already know Negan has a harem, and a labor camp, and a sadistic streak. We already know he irons faces. We already know he likes to bluster and threaten and enact psychological torture.
But showing the viewer these things again and again is a way of wearing us down, putting us in the position of Negan’s victims. (Really, it’s almost too on the nose that according to Robert Kirkman, writer of the comics Walking Dead is based on, Negan used to be a used car salesman.)
Most of the characters seem ambivalent or exhausted
Even worse, most characters ultimately bail on the decisive actions they undertake.
Jesus hops on the van with Carl, then chickens out. Carl hesitates to kill Negan even when he has a gun trained on him. Daryl is given a chance to escape solitary confinement but doesn’t take it. Dwight and Sherry, whose relationship is starting to crack under the “deal” they’ve made with Negan (to let Sherry “marry” him in exchange for their safety), have a weary argument over the choice they already made.
Negan himself is ambivalent about what to do with multiple misbehaving members of his compound, as well as Carl. After Negan spends a few hours leading Carl around the Sanctuary and ordering him to dance to the beat of Lucille’s rhythm, the boy finally calls Negan’s bluff: Negan doesn’t intend to hurt the kid.
Negan rarely seems to have much of a plan beyond threats and occasional outbursts of violence, but it’s especially apparent here that strategy isn’t really his strong suit. Instead, bullying is.
Perhaps the episode’s most moving moment comes when Negan humiliates Carl by making Carl take off his bandage and eye patch. (Tellingly, this moment as filmed is framed as a more chilling and psychologically dramatic moment than the moment a scene earlier when Negan casually extorts a vow of fidelity from one of his “wives” by threatening to hurt her family.) Negan then apologizes to Carl, threatens a random minion, and forces a clearly terrified Carl to sing him a song while he swings Lucille around.
Later, a scene between Negan and Olivia mirrors the earlier scene with Carl. In rapid succession, he mocks Olivia, calls her fat, makes her cry, then offers to have sex with her. In both scenes, he employs a bait and switch on his victims, a classic abuse tactic of withholding, then offering love in rapid succession. But it’s still surprising that Negan’s victims react the way they do. It’s hard to believe that Olivia — who’s survived zombies, Wolves, and a prior threat from Negan — would burst into tears after a single fat joke.
These two scenes are supposed to reveal how unerringly Negan targets both Carl and Olivia’s weaknesses, which in both cases happen to involve their physical appearance. But Olivia’s role as an oversensitive fat lady is ridiculous, and Carl’s breakdown comes after he’s gunned down two men earlier that day without so much as batting an eye (or having his eye batted, if you get my drift). It’s difficult to buy Negan’s schoolyard bully tactics having so great an effect on either character — and by extension almost everyone else the tyrant meets.
“That was an example of breaking balls,” Negan tells Carl, like some sort of demented mentor. But even Negan seems ambivalent about the forms his bullying takes at this point. Maybe he’s gotten bored of himself.