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.
Now, Nick Statt is trying to change his mind. Instead of tearing the show down, he’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.
Reactions to last week’s standalone episode were, at best, disgruntled. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever received angry mail from readers upset that we weren't hard enough on The Walking Dead; that we gave the show a pass by focusing on yet another new community with shallow characters.
It’s easy to understand the anger. Since Rick and the gang bested the cannibals in Terminus, TWD has fumbled time and again. Its mammoth 16-episode seasons — a strength for AMC as a network — are now proving to be the greatest weakness of The Walking Dead as a show. It simply makes things too slow, too filled to the brim with filler.
Viewers agree. Ratings have dropped to season three levels, while a core group of fans continue to hold on because, well, why stop now? There’s certainly a metaphor in there about post-apocalyptic survival and soldiering on week after week in the face of lifeless writing and shoddy pacing, but I’ll ask you to trust me one last time, Bryan. Because “Sing Me a Song” is in fact the best episode of this season. It’s evidence that the show can still entertain and set up an explosive finale — when it actually bothers moving the plot along, that is.
The triumphant return of Father Gabriel and Michonne
No one can say TWD doesn’t like to show love for its secondary characters, but it often chooses the ones with the least potential. That’s why it was so refreshing to see “Sing Me a Song” bring back Father Gabriel in a tiny but incredible scene illustrating just how neat his character — a man of religion who’s willing to kill — can be when it’s not relegated to the background.
Alexandria is scattered in the opening of the episode, with multiple groups out on scavenging runs to please The Saviors’ weekly demands. Gabriel happens to be on one with Spencer, son of Alexandria’s former leader Deanna and a grade-A doofus. When Spencer admits to Gabriel that he’s lost all trust in Rick, we see the flicker of malice in Gabriel’s eyes. “What you’re saying doesn’t make you a sinner, but it does make you a tremendous shit,” Gabriel responds. “It doesn’t have to be terminal,” he adds, a subtle but powerful hint that Gabriel’s allegiance to Rick means he’d go so far as killing Spencer if he had to.
Meanwhile, Michonne — always one of TWD’s best and most distinctive characters — is on a mission of her own, after being absent from the show for nearly the entire season. She lays a trap for a Savior by slaying an entire roadblock-sized mound of zombies with her katana, and then catches the women and disarms her. With a weapon in hand, Michonne demands to be taken to Negan. And she’s not the only one with a Negan assassination in mind. A short follow-up scene with Rosita and Eugene shows that secret bullet-making hinted at earlier this season is now underway as well.
Carl and the father he could’ve had
In “Sing Me a Song” both major and minor characters make serious moves against The Saviors in their own ways, but the primary focus of the episode is on Carl. Last we saw him, Carl was riding in a supply truck with Jesus on his way to the Sanctuary. While Jesus appears to be doing some reconnaissance, Carl is effectively on a suicide mission. The boy abandons his companion, grabs a rifle, and shoots two Saviors as the truck is being unloaded. Negan makes an immediate appearance, but Dwight disarms Carl before he can get a shot off. It’s clear from the get-go that Negan takes a liking to Carl, seeing him as a “badass” in Negan’s words, whose father has failed him. He spares the boy, and decides to take him on a tour, instead.
The following scenes are perhaps the most harrowing depictions of Negan’s cruelty we’ve yet seen on the show, the season premiere murders excluded. We get a scene with Negan and his “wives,” which we learn are the former spouses of men he’s murdered or subjugated, like Dwight. “Why follow the same old rules?” he asks Carl, referring to the women he keeps enslaved. “Why not make life better?” We also see Negan punish one of the women’s husbands for daring to see his wife in secret. It’s a violent scene, with Negan branding the man’s face with a fire-hot iron. The point he makes to Carl: this is what respect looks like in the new world.
However, in the another scene, we see a fascinating exchange in which Negan forces Carl to remove his bandage, revealing his empty eye socket, and mocks him for his appearance. Carl breaks down crying, realizing he not only made a mistake in coming there, but is now at the mercy of a cruel maniac. In an unsettling twist, Negan sheds his persona. It appears that he realizes the reality of the circumstance and the extent of his own villainy. “It’s easy to forget you’re just a kid,” he says, offering our first glimpse at any shred of humanity underneath the dictator schtick. He doesn’t punish Carl, it turns out, but Negan does ask that Carl sing his baseball bat Lucille a lullaby. Keep the bandage off, he tells the boy, because nobody will think about messing with you.
Negan has been a lot of things this season: a perpetual bad guy, a violent psycho, a rapist, a sardonic jackass. One thing he hasn’t been is genuine. On “Sing Me a Song,” that begins to change. In meeting Carl, and for some yet-unexplained reason identifying with the boy, Negan is finally being fleshed out in the ways he needs to be if he’s to become a true and lasting villain. It’s unclear if it’s a paternalistic play — maybe Negan was once a father — or a way to further turn Rick’s defiant son against him. One thing is certain: Negan is a master manipulator, and even viewers are uncertain of where his priorities lie.
The minimizing of Rick and Daryl
A primary theme of season seven has been the reversal of power. No two characters embody this theme more than Rick and Daryl. In last night’s episode, we only saw a few short scenes with Rick, who is traveling with the underused and affable Aaron on a supply mission. The duo happen to come across a zombie-filled lake with a supply cache in the middle, but what’s clear is that we’re to think of Rick neither as a ticking time bomb nor a leader eager to take up the mantle again. He’s been defanged, and his role in next week’s inevitable face-off is largely up in the air.
Daryl, on the other hand, appears more willing to change his situation and defy his captors. He spends the episode worrying from the sidelines that Negan will execute Carl. He’s also been cultivating a kind of unspoken camaraderie with Dwight and his wife Sherry, who still feels indebted to Daryl for helping her sister last season. So when Negan packs up a truck of men and tells his crew he’ll be taking Carl back to Alexandria to face Rick, Daryl approaches the leader and threatens him. Daryl is sent back to his cell to face solitary confinement, only to discover a note under the door telling him to make his escape while Negan is absent.
If Daryl escapes, we could see some fireworks at the Sanctuary, especially if Michonne shows up and Dwight or Sherry join in the rebellion. Of course, next week’s episode will also feature another Rick vs. Negan showdown. In the final scene of “Sing Me a Song,” Carl fails to prevent Negan from finding his young sister Judith as the leader snoops around Alexandria. Negan then decides to wait for Rick’s return, holding Judith on his lap as a nefarious threat. How Rick reacts when he returns will probably form the foundation of the war to come.
Road To Redemption
It’s probably asking too much at this point for AMC to seriously consider trimming this season of The Walking Dead to just 10 or 12 episodes. After all, the show hitting its lowest ratings since season three still means nearly 11 million people tuned in to last week’s episode. But “Sing Me a Song” shows what TWD can accomplish when it sets out to make an episode of television that moves the plot forward every minute of its running time.
There are no wasted scenes, no throwaway bits of dialogue. Every major player starts in one place, and moves to a more perilous, or more interesting, situation by the episode’s end. It’s what a penultimate episode should do to set up an explosive finale — or in the case of this show, a mid-season finale. The question now is whether showrunner Scott Gimple and his team can pull off the big showdown next week, or if they’ll fumble it away for a cheap gimmick like they did with the season premiere.
I’ll be watching next weekend, Bryan, and here’s an idea I’m just going to throw out: why don’t you come back and join me? Together we can see whether this run of episodes has made any difference at all.