Last week our ongoing series The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club came to an end, with the show’s season premiere going so far that club co-founder Bryan Bishop swore off the series entirely. Starting this week, Nick Statt tries to bring him back.
I have to admit, last week was pretty brutal. The season seven premiere of The Walking Dead was the show’s chance to redeem itself and make up for pulling an unnecessary and manipulative cliffhanger finale more than six months ago. Unfortunately, not only did the episode fumble the big reveal of who Negan kills in disastrous fashion, it even pushed you to quit the show for good.
Yes, Glenn died. Abraham died, too (though I know you never really cared for him, or his awful Fu Manchu). But instead of the serious and tension-filled send-off those characters deserved, we got an almost laughably violent exercise in how to milk a scene for all its worth. It could have gone so differently, and it’s a good time to reflect on how TWD could potentially course-correct.
I'm going to try and change your mind
So here in The Walking Dead Redemption Club, I’m going to try and change your mind. Each week, instead of tearing the show down, I’m going to find something to highlight. It can be a poignant scene, a subtle change in character, or an interesting development in the overall narrative arc. But each week I’ll seek out the moments that remind us of TWD’s best qualities. Maybe, if the show learns how to balance its campy zombie world with its serious explorations of human nature again, you’ll forgive it. Maybe you’ll come back.
There was a giant CGI tiger
I can’t help but point out how ludicrous the tonal shift was in this week’s episode "The Well." Going from the violent murder of two major characters by way of barbed wire baseball bat to meeting The Kingdom’s King Ezekiel was a jarring jump. Under normal circumstances, this kind of dissonance would highlight the narrative strain TWD suffers from when it has to introduce integral comic book moments and plot lines that don’t translate to television. After all that noise and blood last week, we jumped to a CGI tiger, and a man who was acting like a regal ruler living in a fantasy world. Seriously?
After all the noise and blood, it's time for... a tiger?
But remarkably, it all kinda worked. Not lingering on the grief of Rick and the others that Negan spared gave the show a little time to exhale — something much needed after last week’s spiral of despair. It also gave TWD an opportunity to channel one of its finest and most underrated plot tools: world-building. It’s easy to forget that there’s a whole universe beyond Alexandria and Rick’s never-ending feud with power-hungry maniacs. The show is at its best when it stops being shallow and starts thinking big, and The Kingdom is clearly the beginning of something larger.
Sure, Ezekiel’s backstory was spelled out in its entirety by the episode's end in honor of "putting all the cards on the table," as the King put it. (He’s a zookeeper and former stage actor. Go figure.) But putting Carol — whose general lack of bullshit makes her one of TWD’s best characters — in an unfamiliar situation with a wacky new character helped the show feel much more alive this week.
Morgan is remembering that he lives in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland
Morgan spent much of last season sucking the fun out of pretty much every scene he appeared in. When he wasn’t lecturing Rick or Carol about the virtues of nonviolence, he was shacking up murderers in his makeshift prison cell in between bo staff practicing sessions. Instead of using Morgan’s triumphant return as a perfect way to illustrate how the end of the word had changed him and Rick, TWD turned Morgan into a boring and conflicted character viewers were forced to dislike.
Morgan is becoming a more nuanced and capable survivor
So it was a big relief to see him start questioning his approach to the zombie apocalypse in "The Well." Morgan even looked longingly at a firearm this week, as if it were perhaps a better way of dealing with flesh-eating zombies and murderous racketeers than a bamboo stick. In making peace with Carol, and her cynical worldview, Morgan is becoming a more nuanced and capable survivor. It may take a few more acts of aggression from Negan’s camp for him to see the light, but I have faith he’ll come around to realizing there’s some fights you can’t walk away from.
Carol stops her circular soul-searching
Carol became TWD’s strongest and most dynamic character over the last few seasons because of her constant reinvention. She went from a quiet and unassuming survivor on the show’s periphery to its most ruthless killer. More so than even Rick, Carol understands that the world they now live in requires them to cast aside their former selves and do what’s necessary to continue living — at all costs.
Yet her late-season identity crisis earlier this year threw that characterization into confusion. We saw Carol doubt her philosophy, put her fellow Alexandrians in serious danger by running off, and seemingly give up for no real reason. It felt like a weak and contrived way to give Carol something to grapple with. Instead of pushing her character forward, the show just walked her back.
The Carol we love finally returns
In last night’s episode, we saw a bit more of Carol’s trusted resolve return. She’s recovering from having almost died at the hands of Negan’s lackeys and struggling to understand Ezekiel's intentions. But by the end of "The Well," it appears Carol has found a new community worth fighting for. That’s a good thing. Because if there’s anyone cold and calculating enough to take on Negan, save Daryl, and bring Rick back from the brink, it’s Carol.
The Road to Redemption
Look, Bryan, nothing this week made up for what happened in last week’s season premiere. I don’t know that anything really could. Lines were crossed, trust between audience and the show’s creators were broken, and those characters… well, we’re never getting those characters back.
There is another path 'The Walking Dead' can take
But "The Well" showed that there is another path The Walking Dead can take, one where overbearing, soul-crushing violence isn’t the only thing that’s being offered. It reminded us that one of the show’s best characters — one of your favorite characters — is still alive out there, and no matter what happened to her last season Carol’s fighting spirit is still alive and intact. And it was a good time to recognize that this is also a show that can just be downright weird at times, and there’s something really fun about a TV series that is willing to go to those lengths.
I know you’re not watching, and I don’t expect one episode to bring back you and the other viewers that have sworn off this show. Redemption doesn’t come in a single week. But maybe over time The Walking Dead can change its way, and remind us all why we loved watching it so much in the first place.