If there’s been a theme for this season, it’s arguably been ambivalence and indecision. Yet a full season of characters being unsure what choices to make — and talking about their indecisiveness a lot — has resulted in a final burst of activity in the season finale, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life.”
Spoilers for The Walking Dead finale follow.
We get to see one of our favorites go full zombie, a giant CGI tiger maul some people, and a true last-minute cavalry rescue. It’s clear that this — the Alexandrian alliance’s first stand against the Saviors — is where the show has been stashing part of its budget, leading to lots of big confrontations that occurred off-screen, to the show’s detriment.
But apart from the finale’s tearjerker moments of finding out who lives and who dies, showrunner Scott M. Gimple has largely left us where we were at the end of season six: with the threat of Negan unresolved, Rick still vowing to kill him, and tearjerking montages of characters preparing to fight.
Season seven feels like an anticlimax that’s played out over 16 episodes.
The first phase of the war starts — and ends
Throughout this episode, characters are making deals, double-deals, and back-deals with each other and with themselves. Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) makes a deal with Negan. The Hilltoppers and the Kingdomers finalize their decision to join the Alexandria alliance, but Morgan (Lennie James) has his own ideas; he outfits himself in the combat gear of a dead friend in preparation for a solo ambush against the Saviors.
“I’m stuck,” he tells Ezekiel, in a neat encapsulation of this entire season’s ethical conflicts. Instead of sending him off on a surely suicidal solo mission, Ezekiel (Khary Payton) offers Morgan a chance to join the alliance with the Alexandrians and the Hilltop, so Morgan, true to character, puts his slow stroll toward violence on hold a little longer.
At Alexandria, Dwight (Austin Amelio), who arrived in a cliffhanger last episode, reveals that Negan has learned of Rick’s plans to resist, and that he’s bringing a group of 20 or so saviors to fight the Alexandrians.
If Dwight’s plan to defeat the small group, then attack Negan’s compound and wipe out the Saviors feels a bit too tidy, it should. Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) arrives at Alexandria with her formidable army from the Junkyard Gang. Jadis straight-up puts the moves on Rick by asking Michonne if she minds if Jadis sleeps with him after. It’s sort of great, and Michonne kinda thinks so, too. But these friendly overtures are put on hold when Jadis betrays Rick; just as you might have suspected, her group is in league with Negan.
Intermittently, we see intense close-ups of Sasha as she listens to Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” while reliving memories of her last moments with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), along with a special moment shared with Maggie (Lauren Cohan). It’s not until later that we realize the context of these close-ups: Negan has placed Sasha, alive, in a coffin to bargain for her life with Rick.
Halfway through the episode, we get the confirmation that most Walking Dead fans expected — we’ve been watching Sasha die from Eugene’s proffered suicide pill the entire time. When Negan finally opens up Sasha’s coffin, a most excellent zombie Sasha emerges, and her distraction gives the Alexandrians a chance to fight back.
But very little actually changes. Rick promises, again, to kill Negan, leaving him precisely where he was at the end of last season. After the rest of the alliance, the Kingdomers and the Hilltoppers, arrive to save the Alexandrians, the Junkyard gang and the Saviors immediately retreat, leaving the Alexandrians and their alliance to nurse their wounds and prepare to fight again.
“We are; we will,” Rick tells an injured Michonne later, continuing his season-long theme of promising to lead Alexandria with her.
But of course, that’s not going to happen today.
The “future” our heroes are fighting for is just as violent as the present
Watching this episode, I finally figured out why the show has so fully stagnated when it comes to its themes of violence this season.
It’s not just that ever since last season’s controversial finale, the show has committed itself to drawn-out suspense built around brutality. It’s not just that Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his sadism have dominated a plot line that has often felt listless and stalled out except for occasional gratuitous acts of violence. It’s not just that these violent acts have had no real impact on the plot or yielded any long-term repercussions.
Because in the middle of all this, The Walking Dead has expended episode after episode having characters waffle about committing acts of violence. Tara, Morgan, Dwight, Eugene, Sasha, Rosita, and Carol each got entire tiny arcs devoted to the question of when violence is necessary to stop injustice.
Why, then, has this season felt so empty and valueless and devoid of anything but violence?
Tonight, somewhere around the third time someone reminded someone else that what they were doing was for the future, the answer hit me. The future doesn’t really matter, because The Walking Dead has already had the characters give up on the possibility of nonviolence.
The title of this episode recalls our hero, Rick, (Andrew Lincoln) and his assurance to Michonne (Danai Gurira) earlier in the season that he wants to build and lead a new community with her once all the fighting is over. Of course, the recurring theme of The Walking Dead is that the fighting is never over. But in this season in particular, the show’s emphasis on nihilism has undermined its attempts to explore whether it’s possible to build a peaceful society without resorting to violence.
This exploitation makes the show’s insistence that everything Rick and company are doing is morally righteous and good for future generations increasingly hard to swallow. No less than two separate characters subconsciously remind a slowly dying Sasha that everything she’s doing is for the future — that Maggie in particular is “carrying the future” in her unborn child.
Yet the future the Alexandrians are building is also steeped in the legacy of violence. Negan’s fixation on Rick’s children isn’t just a threat to Rick, but a reminder us that the violence he enacts will live on after him. When the Alexandrians and their enemies are at a standstill, it’s Rick’s son Carl who takes the first shot. The future is already tainted.
Life under Negan’s authoritarianism has led to the show’s repetitive reliance on violence — and effectively killed off the plot
The tension surrounding violence throughout this season has never been built around a true version of pacifism. With the exception of Morgan, whose pacifism has been bookended by periods of complete reversions to violent stances, none of the characters with whom we sympathize have ever been fully committed during this season to peace-building without violence. Instead, their hesitancy about committing violence has boiled down to, essentially, feeling bad about knowing they will one day have to commit violent acts.
Their waffling hasn’t felt like plot movement because their violence has always been structured as inevitable. Instead of trying to find peaceful solutions, or trying to build peaceful friendships, they’ve just been talking about violence a lot in order to delay the inevitable.
You can argue that this is the inevitability of life under Negan’s authoritarian regime. But the show has done nothing to explore options for maintaining peace within that system, even if those options are ultimately futile. When Sasha insists to Negan that no one has to die, Negan tells her that “punishment is how we built everything we have.” Later, Daryl (Norman Reedus) tells Rick that even if Dwight is telling the truth, he plans to punish him by killing him later. Violence is already a foregone conclusion, and our heroes are already succumbing to the faults of our villains.
That violence is inevitable is such an unquestioned premise that at one point in this episode, the show shines a spotlight on it: Negan gives Sasha a speech that’s a meta-address to the Walking Dead audience, who have been betting heavily on Sasha’s impending demise in this finale. (Granted, the odds were good that Sasha was doomed given that Martin-Green was already leaving the show to star on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.)
“No one’s gonna wanna watch you die,” Negan says. “So you don’t have to. But someone does. Maybe a couple others. Tops. But not you.” As if to pour on the meta, he later brings out a coffin and announces that Sasha is inside it.
Given that this season has been criticized extensively for falling back on the recurring question of who will die in pivotal episodes, it’s tempting to read this blatant meta-commentary as tongue-in-cheek savviness. Or it would be, if there were anything funny or savvy about the incessant use of shocking violence as a substitute for satisfying character arcs and plot developments.
The Walking Dead writers haven’t successfully found their way around the paradox of having made their characters fully embrace violence while wanting them to feel really bad about it.
Thus we conclude another, sluggish, empty season of The Walking Dead. When the show’s relentless sadism is preordained, as it seems to be for the time being, there’s no lasting tension, no real emotional conflict, and no brighter day in the morning that can make the violence of the present feel less exploitative.
And there’s no plot point on the horizon that can save us from being stuck, like Morgan, in the swamp of the show’s moral turpitude.