The deaths of two long-running characters in The Walking Dead’s season seven premiere, "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be," have prompted even more of a critical pushback against the show than usual — which is saying something.
Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz offered a long disquisition on the emptiness of the show’s violence. Hitfix’s Donna Dickens swore off the show, as did the recapping crew at Vox’s sister site the Verge. The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen called the premiere a new low for the show. Your humble reporter called the episode "dumb" about 600 times.
And just speaking anecdotally, I’ve said harsh things about The Walking Dead before, but I’ve never received so much agreement on Twitter and via email from fans of the show, nor as little pushback from those who thought I was wrong. It really does feel like The Walking Dead has crossed a line in some way it just hasn’t in the past.
The natural response to some of the backlash has been, "What show did you think you were watching?"; the die-hard fan version is some variation on, "These deaths might be painful, but they’re necessary to wake fans up from their complacency." And both of these sentiments are fair.
Certainly The Walking Dead doesn’t shy away from killing characters who have outlived their usefulness, and if nothing else, Negan bludgeoning someone with a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat was foretold in the source comics (right down to one of the victims).
But the problem isn’t who died, or even how they were killed. Both the deaths and the brutality of them are fair game within the world of The Walking Dead. The problem is the show’s execution of those executions.
Major spoilers follow for The Walking Dead’s season seven premiere, "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be."
Let’s start here: This storyline is horribly repetitive
By far the best defense I’ve seen of the season premiere is that when the vicious Negan starts clubbing beloved characters in the head with his bat, the act is meant to further the story of The Walking Dead’s protagonist, Rick. Rick is the beleaguered sheriff who more or less led his people directly into this trap, and now, in the wake of Negan’s murder of his compatriots, he would be forced to swear fealty to a monster.
However, just last season, Rick and his group killed several members of Negan’s group, the Saviors, while they slept. As a response to that act of preemptive warfare, Negan killing two of Rick’s crew is more or less proportional. So there was probably a way to use this story to force Rick to think about the consequences of his bad decisions.
This defense is complicated by two things. First of all, The Walking Dead rarely views Rick in that critical of a light, making it hard for the show to tell stories about how his leadership skills are lacking (to say the least).
And second, The Walking Dead has done this basic story beat — or very close variations on it — so many times that jokes about its endless repetition are common. Every season, Rick thinks he’s found some great new safe haven, and then he meets a psychopath who proves him wrong. Rinse and repeat.
Indeed, the Negan story, so far, is essentially a redo of the Governor story from seasons three and four, and while that arc wasn’t the show’s finest, the series did present the Governor as sort of a final boss — the last Big Bad Rick and his pals would have to overcome to live peacefully.
Obviously, viewers knew that couldn’t be true, since there were seasons of television to come and many, many more issues of the source comic to adapt. But both the TV series and the comic have struggled to follow up the Governor without simply repeating the same beats of his storyline.
In both cases, Negan is essentially the Governor, only even more so. Where the Governor had some degree of twisted family man to him, Negan is essentially just a really bad dude. (I won’t spoil some of the stuff he gets up to in the comics, but if you click on the Vulture link in paragraph two, above, you can read all about it.)
For "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" to work as a major hallmark of Rick’s story, the episode would’ve had to create some sense of forward progression for the guy. Instead, it feels like he’s living in a zombified version of Groundhog Day. That might be okay early in a TV show’s run — when it’s easier to overlook core flaws — but once you’ve been with a show a long time (say, seven seasons), it’s much harder.
But I think there’s something else going on here, something deeper.
The Negan story is a betrayal of what The Walking Dead is — no really!
The Walking Dead has never been a truly great TV show. If it ever flirted with greatness, it was probably in 2014, when the aftermath of the Governor arc scattered the characters to the winds, essentially allowing the show to become a collection of short stories set during the zombie apocalypse. But for the most part, the repetition I’ve outlined above, combined with a lot of largely flat characters (who are only occasionally heightened by good acting), have held the show back.
Unlike a lot of critics, I’ve always at least liked The Walking Dead, even as I’ve grumbled about it. The show might be clumsy, and its inability to find new stories to tell has always been an issue. But for a long time, it had a certain purity to it that I couldn’t help but admire. At its core, The Walking Dead was never a zombie show; it was always a small-town Western, and as with most small-town Westerns, it was about the defense of traditional values against an onslaught of perils. There’s a reason Rick wears a cowboy hat.
In some ways, The Walking Dead is the ultimate red state show, in that it voices a lot of socially conservative concerns by burying them in a metaphor nobody can object to. To put it in Western terms, killing zombie after zombie is a lot more palatable to viewers in 2016 than cowboys gunning down Native Americans in old B-movie Westerns would be.
Most of social conservatism boils down to the idea that if we don’t stand up for what is good and pure in this world, it will be devoured by modernity. And that’s Rick’s struggle in a nutshell: If I can’t protect my people, they’ll be eaten alive by this new world we live in.
(It’s not as if The Walking Dead doesn’t appeal to social liberals as well. It wouldn’t be such a hit if it wasn’t engaging to people across the political spectrum. And it is, after all, about a casually diverse future in which metaphorical climate change — those all-purpose metaphors, the zombies — threatens citizens.)
But there used to be a weird hopefulness to The Walking Dead. It used to suggest that even though the world had ended, the values of honor and respect and obedience might survive. Rick was sometimes a dictator, but usually a benevolent one. His little community of people cared about each other, and they built each other up. They fell in love and got married (and pregnant). They looked out for each other. They tried to make the best of things.
That hopefulness is mostly gone now. Even if Rick and his pals can defeat Negan, Negan has exposed the lie behind everything they believe in. It’s so easy to tear apart, you can do it with a baseball bat.
This story’s lack of hopefulness might be possible to overcome — if not for one very specific problem
The Walking Dead’s Negan storyline has turned out to be a huge tactical error for the show, because it’s shifted the series’ center from Rick as protagonist to Negan as protagonist. Negan is the one making all the decisions, and Rick has to dance to his tune. Negan is the guy all over the billboards, and the season seven premiere focuses, at length, on his grinning face, his blood-drenched bat, and his casual violence.
The collective structure of the season six finale and the season seven premiere even bears this out. Instead of digging into how their encounter with Negan affects Rick and the gang, the show concentrates on how Negan will torture them. It mimics a similar shift that takes place in the comics: Just when Rick and his friends have settled down a bit, Negan takes over the narrative and starts destroying everything they’ve built.
This is why the "we’re sad about Glenn and Abraham’s deaths" montage at the end of the premiere seems so perfunctory, so tacked on. It has utterly nothing to do with Negan’s story, which is what the rest of the episode is about. Negan doesn’t care that Glenn and Abraham are dead; his top priority is to reduce Rick and company to psychological pulp.
In short, The Walking Dead has abandoned many of its core themes and values — and yes, they have always existed, even in the show’s lowest moments — in favor of the easy sadism of waiting for a man decide who to murder.
The show’s infuriating season six cliffhanger and subsequent season seven opener are constructed so that all of the tension, and all of the relief from that tension, stem from a baseball bat connecting with a skull. It’s a cynical ploy designed to jerk around the audience, not an authentic storytelling decision.
It’s possible to successfully build a TV show around that kind of cruelty. In fact, that’s often how Game of Thrones, which never met a twist it didn’t love, functions. But you have to be willing to engage with the fact that you’re telling a story about people who treat each other monstrously, something Game of Thrones does (give or take a Ramsay Bolton) and The Walking Dead has always struggled with.
The Walking Dead might never have reached its full potential. But it used to seem engaged with the idea that even after society fell, the best parts of ourselves could live on, no matter how much we struggled. Now, it’s just another show about who’s going to die next, and that’s why so many fans feel so betrayed.