AMC’s resounding smash hit has had several buzz-worthy moments through the years, but perhaps none more so than the cliffhanger of its sixth season. With Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of our survivors lined up on their knees and confronted by the barbwire-wrapped baseball bat-wielding Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his acolytes known as the Saviors, we hear Negan bash one of our heroes to death.
For months the internet was on fire, fueled by trepidation and speculation. Who died? Would the show follow the comics? They’ve deviated before….
This buzz culminated in October when at long last The Walking Dead’s seventh season premiered.
The season opened with a divisively explicit exercise in merciless brutality as both Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) meet their makers by way of the ugly implement dubbed “Lucille” by the man who swings it. That’s the aforementioned Negan. The premiere was a drastic reset button that perhaps the series needed, but the way forward was a perilous one. To render Rick and the others entirely impotent is an interesting dramatic framework. However, these characters have been developed over the course of six full seasons to react in specific ways to threats. So, even when the odds seem insurmountable, not reacting at all is a nonstarter. Right?
Other than Daryl (Norman Reedus), who’s now a captive of the Saviors, and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) who hides out at Hilltop, our heroes go back to Alexandria placated and willing to scavenge supplies for Negan lest more of them end up with a splattered brain diagnosis. And that’s about it. In fact, this season has made clear a looming problem for The Walking Dead. Namely, the fact that aside from the premieres and finales of each semi-season—a total of four episodes—not much happens during the remaining 12 episodes.
As has been the case over the past two seasons, there are a couple one-off episodes dotting the narrative here. One of these introduces us to The Kingdom, another stronghold structured like (you guessed it!), a kingdom, complete with a tiger-owning, royal-speaking King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and knights on horseback. Another episode introduces us to a hidden encampment of women survivors—all the men had been killed by Negan and his guys.
The Kingdom in particular is full of interesting possibilities, some of which will certainly manifest later on, but for now these episodes function as filler and it’s not as if we have a shortage of characters to keep track of.
More than anything else plaguing the show right now, though, The Walking Dead has a huge antagonist problem. Or, more specifically, a Negan problem.
Negan’s mere presence compels his hundreds of followers to kneel before him. Badass Daryl is now basically Reek from Game of Thrones. Rick is a nervous, bumbling, eager-to-please supplicant. There’s no hope. And these characters, all of whom we’ve watched develop into ruthless survivors, are now making choices that are entirely unmotivated.
Remember when Rick and the others obliterated an entire fortress full of cannibals that were armed with assault rifles?
To stack up, Negan would need to be the very embodiment of malice. A figure so dangerous, so imposing, that perhaps we could buy the fact that Rick Grimes is now a yes-man. But Jeffrey Dean Morgan portrays Negan more like your uncle’s smarmy mechanic friend who will fix your car for cheap, but it’s probably worth paying a little more so you don’t have to interact with him. It’s like the writing staff has conflated being a douchebag with being a monster. He’s all Eddy Haskell and very little Captain Kurtz. The leaning, smiling, posturing Morgan is much more annoying in his portrayal than threatening. All of this renders Negan’s power over so many people, some of whom we know will go to great lengths to protect themselves and those they care about, incredibly implausible.
So far, it just isn’t working.
The premiere was a hopeless, graphic, and disturbing spectacle, and as such it was impactful. But it was also difficult to consider it entertaining. Conversely, the following six episodes were equal parts frustrating and dull.
So what’s the big coup de gras?
Well, after slogging through those offensively inconsequential six episodes featuring an ensemble of passive protagonists being…well, passive, Michonne (Danai Gurira) channels the great Packers football coach Vince Lombardi and essentially gives Rick an impassioned halftime speech imploring him to get out there and win the game. Rick agrees that he should probably do something because doing something is better than, you know, doing NOTHING. At all. For six Long episodes.
And that’s it. No knock-down, drag out battle. No major character deaths. No cliffhanger at all. Just a reluctant agreement from Rick to start moving the plot forward again. We shall see.
Midterm grade: D