AMC’s The Walking Dead has an uncanny knack for manipulating its audience, but this year’s hyper-violent season premiere went too far. So far that we canceled our ongoing series The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club, with co-author Bryan Bishop swearing off the show entirely.
Now, Nick Statt is trying to change his mind. Instead of tearing the show down, we’ll be finding something to highlight. It might be a subtle change in character, a great action scene, or a new development in a narrative arc. But every week, Nick will be seeking out things that remind us of the very best of The Walking Dead — the moments that might just give viewers a reason to come back.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
At long last, The Walking Dead finds itself back in Alexandria. The past two episodes have offered a refreshing and much-needed break, with standalone stories and a focus on the broader narrative with Carol in The Kingdom and Daryl in captivity. But now the focus is back on the critical power play between Rick and Negan, with Alexandria beholden to The Saviors and forced to pay tribute every week — or face a public execution.
This is a crucial time for season seven, and it’s when The Walking Dead’s post-premiere rebound could start to fall apart. We’re supposed to believe that Rick’s situation is hopeless. That after all he’s been through, Rick has now resigned himself, his family, and his friends to forever live as the hostages of a tyrant with a well-armed militia keeping a gun to their heads.
But we don’t need that beat into us with another 45 minutes of wheel spinning and Jeffrey Dean Morgan one-liners. Now, the plot needs to start moving. TWD is at its worst when it reminds us that its 16-episode seasons run six hours too long. Luckily, last night’s episode “Service” had a few key moments that offered a glimpse of where we’re headed, and it’s looking brighter.
Holding onto Lucille
When Negan shows up at Alexandria, his presence telegraphed by the unmistakable silhouette of a baseball bat, viewers are conditioned to expect the worst. And that’s the beauty of Negan as a character. By introducing his brutality in the premiere, every scene he appears in now has a horrifying tension to it. As Negan and his crew of well-armed cronies effectively ransack Alexandria throughout the course of “Service,” we get to experience the gravity of Rick’s situation without anyone getting their head bashed in, and it’s a welcome change to see TWD show some restraint.
Instead of knocking off some minor character to spill blood and fill time, the show makes a powerful point by using Lucille as a symbol; the ultimate embodiment of Negan’s rule. When Negan enters Alexandria, he hands the bat to Rick for safekeeping. It’s a cruel exercise, and a good illustration of Negan’s mind games at work. He knows Rick could turn the bat against him at any moment, but it’s worth the risk to establish his psychological dominance.
A head fake that works
When Negan inquires about Maggie in the episode, it’s clear his intention is to remind the widow of her husband’s murder — and, perhaps, to make her one of his many wives. But we never did see Maggie make her way to the Hilltop Colony to receive medical treatment after the end of the season premiere, and when Gabriel makes his debut, he surprises Negan with mention of a funeral service. We’re led to believe the unthinkable happened: TWD killed off another main character, and was callous enough to do it offscreen!
Negan is led to a grave site, but he’s never shown Maggie’s body, and what at first seems like another cheap stunt begins to look like it could be a clever ruse. Faking Maggie’s death would be a powerful display of resistance from Rick and the Alexandria survivors, something that would not just spare Maggie and her child further torment, but also give the group something to fight for and strive to protect.
Now, I’m giving showrunner Scott Gimple some credit here, and just assuming this is what’s really going on. I can’t fathom the show repeating last year’s brinksmanship, when Gimple and AMC conducted an overblown marketing stunt around Glenn’s faked “death” at the hands of zombies. (If TWD tries to milk Maggie’s disappearance in the same way, there truly won’t be any way to defend it.) Instead, Maggie is likely at the Hilltop, and I assume we’ll see her next week. But her very physical existence now becomes an interesting fissure in the relationship between Rick and Negan — and an act of defiance.
The bullet factory
Most of “Service” focused on firearms. As per The Saviors’ demands, Alexandria must hand over a sizable amount of food and supplies every week in exchange for “protection” from those pesky zombies roaming around. But as part of Negan’s inaugural visit, the group is also forced to surrender every single one of its guns.
It offers up the opportunity for a few funny exchanges: Negan finding the grenade launcher Daryl used to barbecue his motorcycle thugs, and Carl nearly getting everyone killed by firing a gun indoors, for pretty much no good reason. However, the best moment of the night comes right at the end. Rosita, who seems to have gotten over the shock of Abraham’s death, is riding fast on the revenge train. After being forced to give up her guns, she starts plotting. To what end, we don’t know — but when she finds a spent shell casing that Negan left behind, she enlists Eugene to turn it into a bullet.
Rosita clearly wants to shoot someone in the head, but her demeanor doesn’t suggest she’s ready to give up. Instead, the scene hints at something bigger. Last season, Eugene came up with a plan to turn an old factory space into a bullet-making plant. With Rosita’s request, we might be seeing the beginning of an escalation.
The road to redemption
“Service” brought us back to Alexandria, and the episode illustrated the tricky balancing act The Walking Dead is trying to pull off at this point. It wants to make the impending war between Rick and Negan feel necessary by playing up the awful circumstances the Alexandra group finds itself in. Yet the show is simultaneously falling victim to one of its worst qualities: when you’re not seeing an over-the-top character death or zombie attack, TWD is usually just killing time.
And while the show has effectively established Negan as the big-bad boogeyman it’s been building toward for years, the most important questions about the character are the ones TWD seems the least interested in answering. Why is Negan the way he is, and what was he like before the zombie apocalypse? To what extremes will Rick go to depose him, and what does that say about the new social order? Hell, why did Negan name his bat Lucille?
The first half of this season is hitting the dreaded midpoint slog, where the plot seems to drive around in circles and tell us things we already know. But I have hope, Bryan. What we see in “Service” — no matter how slow the burn feels right now — proves a war is coming. And so long as TWD starts answering some of its pressing questions about Negan, I think it’ll be worth sticking around to see the first shot.