Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Just for laughs, I wrote you an email a couple hours before the show started, speculating on who Negan might kill. Here’s my educated guess, in full:
This is my scientific analysis of who is going to die tonight. It’s like a “Guess Who” game, process of elimination style.
Potential dead people: Maggie, Abraham, Daryl, Sasha, Carl, Rosita, Eugene, Glenn, Michonne, Aaron, Rick.
First off, it can’t be a woman, because there’s zero chance they’re going to show a dude with a baseball bat beating a woman to death. Walking Dead is a safe show at heart, and they have to be smart enough not to open themselves to the kind of heat that would come from that scene. I mean, imagine the uproar over the Game of Thrones rape, multiplied by a million. So that leaves: Abraham, Daryl, Carl, Eugene, Glenn, Aaron, Rick.
We know it’s not going to be Rick from the trailer (and also because, duh), and there’s no way in hell they’re killing Daryl since he’s so awesome. As much as I’d love it to be Carl, they won’t kill a kid either. Which leaves Abraham, Eugene, Glenn, Aaron.
I feel like it can’t be Glenn or Aaron because they’re not going to want to go into “depicting a hate crime” territory. Again, the safe show theory. Plus, Glenn is likely protected by major character status.
Which leaves Eugene and Abraham. If he ends up killing two people, it will be these two. If it’s just one…I’m leaning Abraham. It fits too well. Nobody really cares about Eugene, but if Abraham goes, that’s devastating for both Sasha and Rosita, and it gives Eugene a revenge motive to become even more of a badass. Plus, Negan will want to take down one of the big threats, and Abraham stands out.
I’m almost 100 percent certain that the Ginger Hulk is going down. My only hesitation? Glenn—it would be a good rug-pulling moment to wax him after that dumb “survive under the dumpster” storyline, and my safe show theory is most tenuous with him, especially since he’s flirted with death so much already. Still, I’m sticking with Sergeant Abe.
So, I was kinda wrong, but also pretty right, and I say this not to brag—although I am, of course, saying it to brag—but to make a broader point, which is this: The Walking Dead is basic as hell.
I can already tell I’m going to mention Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin a bunch in this review, so I might as well break the seal now. Do you think I could predict which characters on Thrones will die, ever? No, because GRRM has more than a very tenuous grasp on how real life works, and how people behave, and why they behave that way. There’s a bit of mystery there. But when a show is basically a zombie soap opera with the depth of a wading pool, you inevitably start to see the strings. The Dead writers were always going to kill Abe, and they were maybe going to kill Glenn or Eugene. For a show that milked the hell out of this cliffhanger, it’s frustrating that the outcome was so obvious.
I’m so annoyed by this entire stupid episode, Josh. I wish I could be a little more positive, or see something redeeming in it, but it was just so so bad and I’m glad it’s over. Here are a few ways that it totally and completely sucked:
1. Negan went from being vaguely interesting in last year’s season finale, albeit a bit verbose, to being the most annoying, one-dimensional character on TV. Does this guy have a smirking, over-long monologue for every occasion? When he goes to the grocery store, does he make the produce boy listen to him prattle on about vegetable ripeness while he eeny-meeny-miney-moes each head of lettuce? When he’s alone, taking a piss in the woods or something, does he wax philosophical about nature and creep out the squirrels? This guy is an insufferable bore disguised as a sociopath. If he were alive in our world, he’d be giving 3-hour long TED talks on corporate synergy.
And sure, I get that this is sort of a comic book approach to character-building, which is different from GRRM-style realism, but even by that standard, it has to be a failure.
2. The idea that a weird sadist like Negan has inspired the loyalty of hundreds of people, without being the son of a king or controlling the entire water supply of the south, or something, is so insulting to my intelligence that my intelligence is actually weeping in a corner. I mean, do his henchmen even get overtime for sitting around all night watching him soliloquize and beat people to death?
3. The whole episode is built thematically on the idea that Rick and his people being captured by Negan is some shocking interruption of paradise, and they even repeated Negan’s words at the end, via voiceover: “You thought you were going to grow old and have Sunday dinner together…”
Uhh, did they? Because as far as I can tell, they’ve been living in the zombie apocalypse for a good long while, witnessing a whole shitload of death. Unless they have completely lost themselves to a waking fantasy, their entire mindset should be that, no, in all likelihood none of us are going to grow old, period, much less together. Things like this just make me think the writers have no concept of the world they’ve created up to this point.
4. There’s no f***ing way that one dude had a pen on him. THAT IS NOT A MAN WHO CARRIES A PEN.
5. The montage at the end presupposes that any of us gave a shit about Abraham.
6. I’m sorry to lose Glenn, but also, I guess I’m a bad person because I started laughing in weird revulsion when he tried to say something to Maggie after being battered senseless with Lucille. Talk about death with dignity! I get that it was meant to be horrifying, but it was so strange and gratuitous that it just felt like a bad B-movie to me, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Again, I might just be a terrible human. But I bet Glenn wishes he had crawled our from under that dumpster and just let the zombies get him.
7. On that note, my biggest general complaint here is that at every turn, mindless violence and a teenager’s idea of seriously dark shit drove the narrative. I mean, can’t you just see a bunch of 14-year-old nerds sitting around writing this script, going “oh man, how f’ed up would it be if he made Rick cut off his son’s arm! Whooaaaa!” Basically, every gripe people had about Suicide Squad, I had about this ep.
8. Also, just great job in general to drag out the “who died” drama for the first half hour. The writers and directors clearly saw how much everyone loved the cliffhanger at the end of last season and thought, “hey, let’s keep it going!”
9. If Negan is such an astute judge of people, it’s taking him an awful long time to learn that Rick is kinda stupid, stares a lot, and is slow to respond to anyone. It’s not necessarily defiance, just synapses that click at the speed of molasses.
I don’t know, man. At least they didn’t kill Daryl, I guess? That’s the best compliment I can summon. I honestly can’t imagine what this show possibly has left for me. I hate to be a total Debbie Downer, but until they inject the kind of realism we used to see in the early years, and very occasionally after that, I’m going to continue to feel pretty burned out.
Aw hell, you’re going to make me defend this episode? I wasn’t preparing to go “Rah-rah writers,” but you definitely took a harsher view than me on this one, so I’ll take your bait.
Sure, you could almost see the self-satisfied smirk hidden beneath the somber exterior of this premiere. But—for as annoying as it was to be left hanging last season—The Walking Dead managed to have a “Who shot J.R.?” moment in the 21st Century, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off when audiences are so scattered among shows and TV bloggers were probably getting microfiche dead-drops from extras to try to spoil the surprise.
The Season 7 premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” had the feeling of a Big Deal TV Moment, and I tried to let myself just get lost in the narrative, soak in the Speilbergian haze during Negan and Rick’s buddy comedy road trip, and let myself feel alongside Sasha as we lost Abraham “Suck My Balls” Ford.
The heart of this new turn for The Walking Dead, though, is Negan, and we have to remember why we loved this villain in the comics. He’s a sociopath in love with his own voice, but he’s a pragmatist who knows he has to beat every ounce of resistance out of a man like Rick, and that’s what tonight was all about. Before meeting Negan, it would have been hard to imagine how some new boss could turn the apocalypse’s favorite sheriff into a shell-shocked yes-man. But Jeffrey Dean Morgan brought the character from black-and-white ink to hi-def color.
We’ve already been through so much with these characters that zombies are no longer much of a threat and no villain has seemed to stand a chance since the Governor. The crooked police precinct? Terminus? The Wolves? The small groups of Saviors we’ve seen so far? Once you’ve tangled with David Morrissey and won, subsequent challenges seem quaint.
But Jeffrey Morgan Dean’s Negan is anything but quaint. I think it’s easy to imagine a guy like this gathering power after civilization collapses. His followers might have to work hard on initiation night, but the payoff is yet another group of people to do their bidding. They’re the new aristocrats, and they follow the guy who keeps the peasants in their place. This is what The Walking Dead needed if we want to cheer for David in the face of Goliath with a barbed-wire bat.
And yes, Rick and Glenn and Maggie and Michonne were starting to hope for a future with Sunday dinners. At the end of last season, they had a swagger that made them over-reach. Tonight they paid for that arrogance, and it was hard to watch. But it made me want to watch the rest of Season 7.
So my question to you this week is: Is Game of Thrones with its 3,000+ pages of high fantasy source material, a fair comparison? What does The Walking Dead need to do to recapture the fun and excitement of those early seasons?
First, no, Game of Thrones is not a fair comparison, and even I—someone who can name every Targaryen king of Westeros, starting with Aegon the Conqueror and ending with Mad King Aerys II—can admit that. But the point I wanted to make was that realism matters, whether you’re talking about a fake medieval world with dragons or a zombie apocalypse. These are not relatable worlds for the average viewer, and the extent to which they resonate will be based largely on how well they tell a compelling story about people. That kind of emotional realism is even more important, I’d argue, in a world that feels very unreal.
And I guess, for me, The Walking Dead has (temporarily, I hope) fallen past the point of resonance. It’s hard to even really have a focused criticism, or to praise the cinematography or any individual actor (despite the fact that the cinematography was good and there were some good individual performances, particularly from Andrew Lincoln) because my prevailing thought is, “what’s the point?” It just feels like I’m on a ride with no purpose.
In the last email, I failed to mention the manipulative way they flashed back to each character during what you called the “buddy comedy road trip” (legit laugh there, point for you), making it seem like every character in turn might be the one to die as Rick’s memory-visions alighted on each by turn. It was the show doing the eeny-meeny-miney-moe thing, just like Negan, playing with us in the most juvenile, unsatisfying manner imaginable. It was a small moment, but a perfect microcosm for the entire episode, and the finale from last year as well. This feels less like a well-told story, and more like a series of pointless zig-zags without a broader, unifying theme. It’s almost like a world without rules, but not in a fun way—when I experience art, I want to also experience the almost-subconscious knowledge that there’s a competent mind behind the art, and that the creationg I’m witnessing has a structure beneath it that won’t give way at the slightest touch. Watching The Walking Dead, I just feel that I’m watching a giant fuckaround session with a lot of money behind it, where nobody has a solid plan…an endless cycle of titillation and sappy moralizing, neither of which have much substance.
I think the simplest answer to your question, about how to recapture what made the show good, is that they have to start telling good stories about real people. Sorry, but to me, Negan is not a real person. Yes, every bad guy in this universe is going to be a bit hyperbolic—that’s a given. But remember the episode we liked so much with the Governor, and his origin story? Part of that was David Morrissey’s great acting, but another part was the humanity we saw in what had been a very strange character. The humanity didn’t last, but even the fact that he couldn’t maintain his hold on goodness told us so much that we never knew about the Governor. We saw into his soul a little bit, and that’s what good TV should do.
Negan, at this point, has no soul. He’s just a grinning symbol of pure evil, and maybe he’ll have his Governor moment down the line, but for now he just feels like the shallowest possible depiction of a person. It’s like a videogame, where they found themselves in position of needing a bigger, badder boss (as you alluded to), and this is what they conjured up. But my question is this: Why did they need a bigger, badder boss? Why not explore the world a little bit? Why not create a separate group of people that are a little bit like them, but who they have to fight because of limited resources? Or, if you’re going to take the dictator route, why not humanize Negan a little bit from the get-go? We’ll probably learn that something horrible happened to him in a few episodes, and we’ll probably feel a little bad for him, but why do we have to keep going back to this awful formula of “caricature villain does horrible thing, later has a dead daughter, finally gets killed”? Why can’t we start from a place of moral ambiguity, instead of trying to reverse engineer it after we indulge our bloodlust-y appetites?
What we get in place are the shallow questions we deserve from such shallow characters. Like, oh, wow, Daryl killed Glenn because he couldn’t control himself. Rick killed Abraham because he was over-confident. Oh, the title of the episode references a quote from that guy at the CDC, and this is the moment when Rick won’t want to live anymore. Oh, there’s a twist on the biblical story of Abraham. But really, to me, who cares? When the bigger picture doesn’t seem to matter, I’m just not going to be interested in the little details. And by and large, the plots are increasingly ridiculous. What the hell was the point of that road trip, for one? Why go to weird lengths to save Rick’s life? Why randomly save Daryl? Oh, is it because they happen to be the two most prominent characters, and have to be saved at any cost, even if it defies reality? Okay then…if that’s the case, maybe don’t write them into situation where everything has to get nonsensical in order for them to survive.
There’s a good chance I’m asking The Walking Dead to be something it’s not. But I think that’s a cop-out, because I know I’ve enjoyed this show before on its own merits. Even late in the fifth season, when the group was welcomed into Alexandria despite their grave feelings of mistrust, I thought the show captured some really interesting dynamics. The way that season ended, with both groups teaching other something even amidst the general chaos and violence, felt worthwhile. I’m fine with a down episode here or there, because in the past, it’s always been rescued by a really good one. But I think we’re really on a cold streak now, and it’s the kind of cold streak that makes me think the show itself is in jeopardy of becoming a farce. Maybe a bad season opener was inevitable after a universally despised cliffhanger finale, and maybe this is the palate cleanser that precedes a return to form. I hope so, but I’m worried.
Good God, I feel like such a downer. I’m not even being remotely funny, and I can’t think of any questions to ask in return. This is bad letter writing, Josh. I apologize. I’ll do better. As I kick it back to you, I’ll ask you this: Where do you think this season is going? Will Rick and company really be cowed, or do you think they’ll be plotting rebellion from the get-go? And if they plot rebellion, will it be more like the failed Blackfyre Rebellions, or a classic Robert’s Rebellion? (Crap, I did it again…)
Ever since our gang abandoned the prison, there’s been one singular question on the minds of the comic fans: When do we get to meet Negan? His introduction in the comics is one of the most iconic moments in the series. From his very first panel, he’s the biggest, cruelest boss they’ve met yet. There’s no redeeming backstory; he’s just an unrepentant asshole. I don’t need to know what made him that way to believe that without the constraints of civilization, a combination of ruthlessness and charm would be great tools for an alpha dog to grab power. That’s Negan, and I have no doubt he’s going to prove to be a great and memorable villain.
That’s not to say I don’t share your frustrations at seeing a flashback of Sasha, immediately thinking it was Sasha who was killed, and then realizing that no, this was just the writers pointlessly teasing out the question of who was on the business end of Negan’s bat. And worse, there were the strange shots of, I guess, Rick imagining all his friends getting beaten down by Lucille. Or was that just a fever dream last night? I did wake up sick this morning. But yes, much of last night was just Bad Television.
I think there’s legitimate concern from fans about how the finale and premiere were handled. But the set-up puts the show in a really interesting place, as far as I’m concerned. We haven’t seen Rick have to submit to anyone since he took control when Hershel’s farm was overrun. And everything that you say was random about Negan’s actions just worked to completely break Rick. Two of their members were just brutally murdered, but they’re not in a position to immediately rebel. This is going to take more than just Carol getting her Rambo on to save the day. And first they’ve got to somehow put their leader back together. To me, that’s a much more interesting big picture than the elaborate cannibalistic scheme of Terminus or the weird nihilism of the Wolves. Negan is a bad guy who makes sense in this world. To go back to your comparison, he just wants the Iron Throne.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.