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The Walking Dead season 7 premiere: “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” is terminally stupid television

Which character did Negan kill? Who cares when everything is this pointless, sadistic, and dumb?

The Walking Dead
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gets ready to kill somebody.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead, is dumb.

No, that doesn’t go far enough. It’s dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s stupid. It’s downright appalling, is what it is.

I’ve had a lot of issues with The Walking Dead of late — especially with that genuinely terrible season six finale — but I probably still would have called myself, in general, a “fan” of the show until tonight. Being a fan sometimes means rolling your eyes at something stupid but powering through.

I’m not sure I can power through this. “The Day Will Come” was such a blatant spit in the face of viewers — one that continued the finale’s stupidest decisions — that it reminded me of the famous Dallas reveal that the entirety of season nine had been a dream one character was having. In fact, I suspect that 20 years from now, we’ll mention the dream season and Negan’s endless “who’s going to die” tease in the same breath.

Of all the dumb things that happened in this dumb episode, let’s break down the five dumbest.

1) The endless, endless tease about whom Negan was going to kill

There was a reason I was watching this episode after season six’s fade to blood — in which new villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) swung a bat at somebody’s head, but the audience saw it all from the victim’s point-of-view. I wanted to see who died and figure out if it might push the story in a new direction.

The episode eventually revealed that Negan actually killed two cast members. The first was ultra-competent military dude Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) — whose point of view ended season six — and the second (killed in response to Daryl punching Negan after Abraham’s death) was Glenn (Steven Yeun), one of the few remaining characters from the The Walking Dead’s earliest days and the character who was killed at the same point in the comics.

But after spending the whole summer teasing fans about which character(s) would die, “The Day Will Come” spent even more time teasing viewers. It skipped past the deaths to show Rick threaten Negan, then to show the two of them drive out into the middle of nowhere in the RV, where Negan put Rick through some pointless games (more on those pointless games in a bit).

It took almost half the premiere’s running time to circle back to the end of season six, which the episode drew out even more, and then it spent much of the rest of its running time suggesting maybe someone else would die. No one did. Carl almost lost his arm — but didn’t — and Negan and company took Daryl back to their camp as collateral, but outside of Abraham and Glenn, everybody’s alive and physically unharmed.

What this episode did was cruel. It was pointlessly convoluted. It seemed like The Walking Dead was trying to get the audience to thirst for blood — to be relieved when Negan started hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat — rather than to fear what Negan was capable of.

2) Negan really wants to keep Rick alive for poorly explained reasons

The Walking Dead
Welcome (back) to zombie town.

Yes, it makes sense that if Negan wants to subjugate the Alexandria crew, he’ll need to break their leader. And getting Rick to swear fealty to him would make for a pretty big display of being broken.

But Negan’s efforts to save Rick’s life after he tossed Rick out into a zombie-filled wasteland in pursuit of an axe went well beyond even that. He gunned down a bunch of the zombies to keep Rick moving. He talked to Rick about how this was just the way things are now. He made it seem like this was really just Negan’s attempt to provide Rick with proper motivation, like he was some sort of demented life coach.

I can understand Negan’s plan in the abstract, but at various points throughout the hour, I wondered if he would really go to such great lengths to keep someone who had vowed to kill him alive. Doesn’t it feel like maybe he’d just let Rick become zombie chow, then try to deal with Daryl or Michonne? (I realize that trying to think logically about this show — and its treatment of Rick, especially — is a self-defeating proposition, but I couldn’t help doing so.)

3) “The Day Will Come” exists solely to explain who died

Is there a story in this episode? There’s a hint of one in Negan’s attempts to bring Rick to heel. And I guess you could make the argument that The Walking Dead needs to take the time to mourn two characters who’ve been with it for some time and now no longer are. So you can make an argument for it on that thematic level.

But the episode can’t really have things both ways. It can’t be a serious attempt to mourn the deaths of these two characters and a bloodthirsty build to find out who died. It can’t be a tease and a rumination on grief. For as stupid as I find the Negan character — the fact that he’s basically a walking, talking “I can kill anybody!” plot device is why I stopped reading the show’s source comics — there’s a way The Walking Dead could have made these deaths land with the weight they would require.

Of course, that probably would have meant having Abraham and Glenn’s deaths happen back in the season six finale, so this episode could be about how the characters live in the same world as a psychopath like Negan and about how they mourn their dead compatriots. The endless tease emphasized all the wrong things about this story and suggested that Negan will be just as much of a plot device on the show as he was in the comics.

4) Carl almost got his arm cut off — but the show backed off at the last minute

The final step of Negan’s plan for breaking Rick involved having Rick chop off Carl’s arm with an axe. But right as it seemed like Rick was going to do it, right as the sheriff turned into a blubbering mess, Negan stepped in to say, “Nah. Kid can keep his arm.”

Why does Negan do this? Why does Negan do anything in this episode? He exists solely to do whatever the plot needs him to do, to cause chaos when the action becomes too sedate. Sure, The Walking Dead might give him more nuance in the weeks to come, but when you have to explain one of his major decisions by saying, “Maybe he’s a big fan of the Bible story where God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last possible second,” something’s wrong.

This is too bad, because Jeffrey Dean Morgan is having a hell of a good time playing Negan. His sheer, sadistic pleasure at being the biggest asshole in a world full of assholes could give the show new life if it didn’t come with everything else wrong with the character.

5) I couldn’t choose just five stupid things to break down. Here are a bunch more that don’t deserve full sections.

  • Negan calling Lucille a “vampire bat” was just ridiculously bad dialogue that never should have left the comics page for your TV screens.
  • The “dream Thanksgiving” sequence near the end of the episode somehow made Mr. Robot’s stupid dream Thanksgiving from earlier this TV season only the second stupidest dream Thanksgiving sequence on TV this year.
  • The shot of Glenn’s eyeballs just sort of floating in the bloody muck that had once been him only underlined The Walking Dead’s increasingly pointless sadism.
  • The show’s occasional teases that everybody but Rick had died were really awful.
  • Not only did the show kill Abraham, but it called back to the love triangle from last season to remind us it had run out of stories to tell with an actor as terrific as Cudlitz.

Okay, enough vitriol. Here are five things that made me mildly hopeful for the rest of the season.

  • Yeah, Morgan is doing a great job at playing Negan. At times, he feels a little like Hannibal, the grinning leader of The A-Team. It’s an intriguing, iconoclastic choice for such a dark character, and there’s some universe out there where he’s the burst of levity The Walking Dead show needed.
  • You could maybe see a world where Glenn’s death provides enough motivation to drive the characters forward. The last five minutes of “The Day Will Come” don’t suggest we live in that world, but, hey, maybe.
  • Lauren Cohan was really great when Maggie broke down over the death of her husband, and Chandler Riggs was good when Carl asked Rick to just cut off his arm already.
  • I’m at least mildly interested to see what life is like in the society Negan and the Saviors have set up.
  • Somewhere, Morgan and Carol are hanging out with a dude who has a tiger (if the trailers for what’s ahead are to be believed). Maybe we can just watch them ride around on the tiger for the rest of the season.

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