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, and co-author Bryan Bishop swore off the show entirely.
Ever since, Nick Statt has been trying to change his mind. Instead of tearing the show down, Nick’s been finding something to highlight. Sometimes it’s been a subtle change in character; others a great action scene, or a new development in a narrative arc. But every episode, Nick has sought out the things that remind us of the very best of The Walking Dead. This week, he convinced Bryan to come back.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Bryan Bishop: Tap-tap-tap. Is this thing on? I gotta say, Nick, I didn’t think I’d be back here. Quitting The Walking Dead after this season’s premiere didn’t just feel justified or warranted; it felt like a blessed relief, like I’d finally broken free of a dysfunctional relationship that was grinding me down on a weekly basis. It might go without saying, but I actually haven’t even been missing the show — but I’ve had your Redemption Club columns to keep me up to date. Judging from what you wrote last week, it seemed like this week’s mid-season finale might be the time to check back in on The Walking Dead, and see if the show had any new tricks up its sleeve.
Nick Statt: It certainly seems like the show’s characters are gearing up for a full-scale war, and it could be the most ambitious storyline we’ve seen yet. The only problem is how long it’s taken us to get here. This season has had its ups and downs, for sure, but its defining trait has been its unbearably slow pace. We had to sit through four standalone episodes across four different communities just to illustrate to viewers that Negan is an unpleasant human being and people really want to kill him. But The Walking Dead is always best when it’s focused on fireworks. And we’re about to see a whole lot of those.
Bryan: It sounds like the run has been like a greatest hits of the show’s worst tendencies from the last few years, all hyped up and supercharged. But through it all, there’s been a thread that maybe — just maybe — this could be a moment where the show subverts expectations instead of going for the usual TWD finale bloodbath. But there’s only one way to know for sure. Let’s do this, and see if this half-season of The Walking Dead really has redeemed itself.
Cooking with Negan
Bryan: The last time I saw Negan he was murdering some of the show’s most beloved characters in a display of torture porn-tinged brutality. Reading your piece from last week, the previous episode ended with him in the threatening situation of holding Rick’s baby daughter. But in this week’s open, we see a lighter side of Negan, as he shaves for that matinee idol look and then sets out to… make some spaghetti?
Okay, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what to make of this. Is there some nefarious bolognese sauce backstory alluded to in previous episodes? Have we set up that Carl is allergic to the rolls that Negan asks him to pass at the dinner table when Rick doesn’t return? How is this supposed to be creepy or intimidating in the slightest, because coming into this episode cold, Negan comes off like the doofiest joke of a clown I’ve ever seen. What am I missing here?
Nick: I’m sorry to say, Bryan, that this is pretty par for the course. The show has built Negan up as this buffoonish caricature of a biker gang thug whose capacity for violence and manipulation is supposed to illustrate some deeper sociopathy. But liking to hurt and abuse others is not really a good enough reason for Negan to be the big bad guy. It certainly got old fast.
Viewers — and characters, too— need to hate Negan for what he stands for. And it’s unclear at the moment what that is, because we don’t know much about him or why he is the way he is. Maybe there is some spaghetti reference in his backstory we’ve yet to see. But it’s more likely that much of the character’s quirks are just cheap winks to comic book readers thrown in for fun, designed to make Negan seem like this likable jerk that makes light of every situation. What I do know is that the second half of season seven could sure use some Negan flashbacks.
Swimming in zombie lake
Nick: In one of the episode’s more lazy detours, we have Rick and Aaron paddling a boat across a lake full of zombies. It feels as if this entire scenario was concocted to kill time, and these kinds of scenes are pretty common now on TWD. They remind us that, yes, we are in fact watching a show about the zombie apocalypse, yet these zombies pose the bare minimum amount of threat. In typical fashion, Rick and Aaron come close to getting bitten, but come out unscathed and with a truck full of supplies for Negan.
Bryan: So let me get this straight, The Walking Dead. Aaron falls off a boat. Aaron gets attacked by swimming zombies. Swimming zombies then pull Aaron underwater. And yet… Aaron survives without even a scratch?
Delete your account.
Carol returns, while Daryl escapes
Nick: It has taken five episodes for us to return to Carol, and it’s not quite clear anything has really developed at Ezekiel's Kingdom. Morgan is still abiding by his no-killing rule, and Carol seems about as interested in her surroundings as The Walking Dead’s writers are, which is to say not at all. Still, it’s clear Ezekiel will play some role in the upcoming war, and a member of the Kingdom comes to Morgan and Carol and pleads with them to help coordinate a first strike against The Saviors. It’s not exactly clear why Carol spent so much time on the sidelines this season, but here’s to hoping she comes back in a big way.
Daryl, on the other hand, has graciously heeded the directions of whomever slipped that piece of paper under the doorway of his cell in last week’s episode. He manages to grab some clothes to slip out of The Saviors’ compound and naturally heads straight for the motorcycles. He’s stopped by Joey, who realizes Daryl could very well beat him to death with the giant lead pipe he’s carrying. As fate has it, Daryl does just that. The exchange seems designed to tell viewers that Daryl has no sympathy for The Saviors, regardless of how lightly he was treated in captivity. It was cathartic to see Daryl knock off one of his captors, but it probably could have happened to someone less helpless and more vile than poor Joey.
Bryan: Coming back into the show, it’s striking just how little seems to have changed with both Carol and Morgan since I last saw them. They’re both in a sort of default position here. Her: strong, willful, and playing by her own rules, and Morgan… well, Morgan is still opting for peace over violence, no matter what situation is at hand. I don’t know if it speaks to the strength of these characters or a total lack of attention paid to them during this season, but I honestly feel like I could pick up their storylines right here and not have missed anything. It’s certainly making jumping back into the show a frictionless viewing experience… but is that really want you want for a (supposedly) character-based drama?
Watching Daryl on the defensive, however — and going a little mad — is a welcome surprise. He’d become so ineffectual (and illogical) during last season, it’s a pleasure seeing him revert to fight-or-flight, base instinct mode… and then demonstrate how much he’s truly been broken by losing it on Joey. Daryl’s basically going full Negan here, just swapping a pipe for Lucille (and without the tasteless gore that the show delighted in back in the season opener). From a character perspective, Daryl unhinged is something I’m very interested in seeing.
The worst pool game of Spencer’s life
Nick: It wouldn’t be a mid-season TWD finale if a few characters didn’t get cleared off the chopping block. Up first was Spencer, who decided it was a smart idea to cozy up to Negan with a bottle of whisky and a plan to depose Rick. After kicking off a pool game in the middle of the street — how the heck did they move that table out of the garage so fast? — Spencer reveals his intentions. Unfortunately for him, Negan isn’t buying it. He slashes Spencer’s stomach open and makes a not-so-clever quip about not having guts. (It’s from the comic book. And no, it does not play well on TV.)
It’s hard to care about Spencer. He was built up to be a weak-minded social climber willing to excuse Negan and The Saviors for their sins if it meant he could stop taking orders and start giving them instead. His death also doesn’t really alter that much about the state of Alexandria, other than removing one of Rick’s minor threats. So mark this character death down in the “inconsequential” category.
Bryan: Remember how I was just commending the show for not using cheap gore when it came to the Daryl and Joey scene? Yeah, I take that back. It makes complete sense that the “guts” line was from the comic book, because the shot of Negan and his ridiculous knife towering over the disemboweled Spencer is about as over-the-top comic book-y as it comes. I was hoping for more from Negan coming back to the show. Instead, his would-be Andrew Dice Clay schtick and the continued focus on ludicrous gore are reminding me of everything that made me walk away in the first place.
Rosita’s point-blank mistake
Nick: After Spencer’s death, Rosita lets her anger get the better of her. She pulls out a gun, carrying the bullet Eugene manufactured for her, and fires off a round. Cut to commercial break! When the dust settles, we discover Lucille blocked the bullet, leaving Negan unharmed. To punish Rosita for her rash decision, Negan orders one of his henchmen to kill someone at random. Olivia is the unlucky choice, not that any viewer really cares that much about her, or Spencer for that matter.
Bryan: I know that last thing I should feel when The Walking Dead pulls a cheap stunt is shock, but this one was impressive even for me. She shoots Negan! Point blank! Commercial break! And it hits the baseball bat? Let’s move beyond how silly that is on its own: what about the fact that taking a bullet apparently didn’t cause Lucille to move even a single inch. What?
Nick: Now, I totally understand why Rosita shooting Negan in the head does not make narrative sense in any way, shape, or form. We’re watching a TV show that has just spent nearly eight hours building up a villain we know won’t meet his demise for probably another full eight hours of television. But it’s hard to watch a show, even one that telegraphs its big moments as transparently as TWD, just go through the motions of a fake surprise and tepid reveal.
At the very least, Rosita could have harmed Negan in some way. But of course, the scene is there for a purpose: Eugene reveals himself as the bullet-maker, which leads to Negan imprisoning him and Rosita acknowledging how she treated Abraham’s best friend as useless and dispensable.
Bryan: It’s like you can feel the apathy from the show’s creators bleeding through the screen. The lack of care; the boredom as they move pieces across the board, killing time until the real conclusion — which will no doubt come sometime next year, at the proper end of the season. Has The Walking Dead somehow become even cheaper in its antics over this stretch of eight episodes? I can only think to the steadily dwindling ratings that the show’s been facing ever since Negan took his big swing at Glenn.
Moments like this are why. The audience knows what’s coming. We know what’s going to happen. We can see the strings. And no matter what the people making The Walking Dead think — and no matter how legendary he may be as a comics character — Negan simply fails to connect for me in the context of this television show. Everything about him is a con, a cheat; and while Jeffrey Dean Morgan is doing his best, all the charisma in the world can’t save a character when his entire existence is predicated upon cheap storytelling tricks and sleight of hand.
Deciding to fight (just like every other season)
Nick: It took nearly a half-dozen character deaths, Daryl’s enslavement, and a runaway Carl, but we’ve finally arrived at Rick’s defiant decision to stop accepting Negan’s terms and rebel against The Saviors. In the final moments of “Hearts Still Beating,” we get the Maggie reunion some viewers have been asking for. And Daryl escaped the Sanctuary alongside Jesus, who brought him back to the Hilltop. It’s a testament to the show’s devout following that it can simply show Rick and Daryl in the same frame and elicit emotional responses from viewers. Just check Twitter, which is awash with overjoyed TWD fans ecstatic to see the two embrace after seven long episodes apart.
Bryan: Credit where credit is due: Daryl and Rick are elemental characters in this show, and the bond they share goes back years at this point. It’s steeped in the show’s first seasons, when it was arguably at its strongest, and a simple look and hug between them (with a hint of a Daryl ugly cry), carries with it years of pain, regret, love, loss — but most of all, understanding. With all the speechifying in this episode, nothing was so purely evocative as that one nonverbal moment. Its resonance says a lot about what this show once had — and the fact that it stands out so clearly says much about what the show has become since.
Nick: It’s a relief to have gotten through the slog of bad things happening to good people that season seven seemed to relish in presenting over and over again. But you just can’t help but think there was a better way to present it. We were beaten over the head with Negan’s cruelty, Rick’s helplessness, and the overall dissatisfaction of Alexandria’s more rebellious residents. Even when the show did decide to do some world-building, it did so in clunky hour-long chunks that bored viewers and dragged out a narrative that more capable TV shows could have deftly doled out in half the time.
Bryan: And the problem’s not just in the execution, although I’m sure you could pick nits for days on that front. It’s all in the sheer, basic design. This same generic arc — Rick goes crazy / gets sad / goes nuts for half a season, then smartens up and spends the next eight episodes making good — is basically a template at this point. I feel like I just watched 90 minutes of The Walking Dead Mad Libs, only somebody forgot to erase the nouns and verbs from the last time we played. Yes, there is comfort in watching a show where you know what you’ll be getting, but this isn’t a sitcom. It’s supposed to be a post-apocalyptic character drama. Instead it’s just the same people running through the same routines with the same arcs while bad guys get swapped in and various characters get plucked away when the show needs something to do.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: I came into tonight’s episode wondering if it would show me something different; if The Walking Dead would redeem itself by respecting its audience more, or making smarter choices when it came to story and character. I don’t think I found that. If anything, I’ve found a show that seems to have learned almost no lessons whatsoever. And I’ll be honest: I’m shocked. When I quit watching, I’d decided The Walking Dead wasn’t worth the investment of time I was putting into it. But even then I knew there may be cool moments or interesting turns I might miss out on. Coming back for this mid-season finale, I don’t think that latter assumption is actually even true.
And while I haven’t spent nearly as much time watching him as you have, it’s hard to not look at the main problem here as Negan himself. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is doing a great job with the material he’s being given, but TWD seems so in love with re-creating Negan as faithfully to the graphic novel as possible, that it appears nobody has considered if that treatment is actually appropriate for a TV show. Maybe his bad stand-up routine dialogue and leering grins play in single frames, but here he seems utterly out of place. Yes, I cringe when Negan seems coiled and ready to strike, but it’s because I think the episode may show me something grotesque or awful to look at — not because Negan as a character is actually frightening. That’s a failure.
Nick: I have to say I’m shocked, too, but for a different reason. I had come to trust TWD to get its big moments right, even when it was doing everything else wrong. Regardless of how meandering its seasons could be, or how cheap the theatrics seemed at certain points, I could rely on the show to deliver an explosive episode to make up for the painstakingly slow build-ups. With the fumbling of Glenn and Abraham’s deaths in the season seven premiere, I worried the show had taken an irreversible turn. But I held out hope that Negan would bring back the gritty moralistic explorations TWD had pulled off so well with the Terminus storyline, and then again with Rick and crew’s initial arrival in Alexandria.
Now, seven episode later, I realize I had placed my hope in the wrong character. Negan, who in the comic books is supposed to represent the worst perversions of power in the post-apocalypse, comes off on-screen like a poorly written B-movie villain. I agree that it seems like the show’s writers, in an effort to make Negan as true to the source as possible, have sapped the comic book character of any sense of realism. And it’s largely because the show refuses to tell us anything about his life that would explain his behavior. In the comic book, we know that Negan used to be a sadistic high school gym teacher who loved pushing people to their limits. I don’t see how the show can handle that translation without the same clumsy tonal dissonance that it suffers from now.
Bryan: The good news, I suppose, is that showrunner Scott Gimple and his team will have time to figure this all out. The back half of this season isn’t premiering until February, and if they’re concerned at all about the ratings drop, or the complaints from fans, they’ll have time to rethink, retool, and recalibrate. It’s nearly impossible to change the direction of a TV series when you’re in the middle of airing the season, but here the network ploy of two extended half-seasons will give The Walking Dead time to gets its act together.
That said, I don’t think I saw anything new tonight that convinced me there had been lessons learned in the first place. I came back for an episode and gave it a go, but right now I can’t honestly say The Walking Dead redeemed itself. You?
Nick: At times, I felt like this season had bounced back from its gory, manipulative premiere with a true sense of purpose. We saw the show sticking to its source material more closely than it ever had before, and it looked as if it was trading in its standard narrative toolkit for something newer and bolder focused on world-building. But it all fell apart about halfway in, when the show reverted to its standard wheel-spinning. And instead of delivering a strong mid-season finale to make the wait worth it, we got another tease of more to come.
I think it’s safe to say that redemption was never a possibility here because the minds behind The Walking Dead don’t seem ready to admit they have a problem. However, if anything can convince Gimple and crew that what they’re doing is no longer working, it’s lower ratings. Astronomical viewership is what turned this show into the machine that today is seemingly churning out episodes until someone pulls the eventual plug or Andrew Lincoln walks away from his lucrative contract. And if viewership keeps falling, maybe we’ll see the show change its strategy and even sunset the Negan arc earlier than anticipated. Perhaps that’s what’s needed right now: an acknowledgement that The Saviors can’t save The Walking Dead from its own worst tendencies.