After a controversial cliffhanger and more than a summer full of hype, The Walking Dead’s seventh season premiere “The Day will Come When You Won’t Be” (penned by Scott Gimple) flooded our TV screens with the bloodiest, most gruesome episode the series has ever produced, leaving viewers shocked and emotionally devastated – all while stirring up more controversy in the process.
Major Spoilers ahead.
The episode begins after the (unseen) horrific act, with Rick in shock, yet still threatening to kill Negan. Given the circumstances, this was an absurd move on Rick’s part, especially when its later revealed the price the group paid when Daryl lashed out at Negan. Rick’s defiance leads Negan to drag Rick into the RV, drive into a horde of walkers, then proceed to toy with Rick and force him to retrieve his ax from the roof. This scene prolonged the wait to reveal Lucille’s victim (s), but it did allow us to spend some time with Rick in his zoned-out, mournful state. The only problem was, it wasn’t that fascinating a place to be, and Rick’s quandary with the hanging walker was predictable and uninspired.
It was only later, after a repeat of Negan’s “Eeny, meeny…” taunt, that we saw who Negan’s (first) victim was – Abraham. Was this a huge surprise? Well, not really. Fans sites around the globe spent months speculating (some with impressive intel) about who might be killed, and Abraham’s name certainly came up quite frequently. Yet, this was supposed to be the so-called “spin” the writers told us was coming from the comic book death which, as basically everyone in the world now knows – was perpetrated onto Glenn. But again, with internet rumors running rampant that there was more than one victim, it wasn’t hard to guess Glenn wouldn’t escape his fate. Even if taken alone, Abraham’s beating was horrendously brutal, and very, very hard to watch. The one highlight, though, was even after taking a hit, Abraham boldly tells Negan to “suck my nuts.” If anyone could get away with that kind of a line during such a grave moment, it’s the character of Abraham.
But things would get much, much worse. When Negan started harassing Rosita to look at her ex-boyfriend’s massacred remains, Daryl had to go and clock Negan. Even though Daryl’s rage momentarily getting the best of him was understandable, Negan had already warned the group to stay in line, and so it became inevitable that comic book fans would get what they expected – the death of Glenn Rhee
So, Glenn – the show’s heart and biggest ray of hope – was mercilessly beaten to death. It was gratuitous, grotesque, and heartbreaking. What made it more so was that even with his brains already bashed in and his eyeball protruding from his skull, Glenn still managed to sputter out his final words to Maggie, gurgling “I’ll find you.” This has been his mantra since the two met, so it was appropriate Glenn would spend his last moments thinking of the love of his life.
We need to remember, Glenn already had a “death” least season, and that one was painful in and of itself to watch. Viewers were made to wait weeks for a confirmation, and Steven Yeun’s name was removed from the opening credits. But with a conveniently well-placed and open-bottomed dumpster, he survived, and the writers elicited their emotional “gotcha” moment from the audience. To have put viewers through all that, only to have Glenn so horrifically murdered seems almost perverse. The counter-argument to that is Glenn’s death is the defining moment in Kirkman’s comics, and so one way or another, it had to play out. In that sense, the show was being “true” to its source material. But the whole things leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, and it’s starting to feel like Scot Gimple and the gang will go to any manipulative lengths to get a rise out of its audience, instead of focusing on telling the very best story possible.
The emotional manipulation of this episode wasn’t over, though, because Rick hadn’t been completely broken, and Negan needed to see Rick in total submission. So, the audience was then shown Rick being tormented when Negan ordered him to cut his own son’s arm off. Of course, Carl has grown up in the zombie apocalypse and knows how rough things can get, so he was resigned to his fate, telling his father to “just do it.” Carl was admirably brave, but the scene was disgusting, and what made it worse was Rick begging for his own arm to be taken instead. I know the writers wanted to make it very clear how bad Negan is, but wasn’t graphically crushing the skulls of two characters enough? At this point, it was all just too much.
In the end, Negan sees the broken look he wants finally spread across Rick’s face, and stops Rick from cutting off Carl’s arm. Negan showed restraint here, and I’m wondering why. Do the writers want us to believe that Negan only uses violence as a means to an end? If so, why did he seem to take such pleasure – cracking jokes and making glib remarks – while he bashed in the brains of two helpless people? Seems to me he would have loved the irony of breaking Rick, only to make him still cut Carl’s arm off. Maybe there’s no rationale to Negan stopping, and the writers just didn’t want to deal with the visual effects that would be constantly needed to show Carl with an amputated arm.
Negan finally ends the terror, and kidnapping Daryl, tells what’s left of Rick’s group to be ready with supplies in a week. Maggie stumbles over to Glenn’s remains with words about fighting Negan and the Savors, but Rick knows they have no chance. The others gather the bodies and Sasha promises to get Maggie to Hilltop for medical care. But before viewers are put out of our emotional misery, we see a world that could have been, but will never be, with Rick imagining the group members sitting at a garden celebration, and our beloved Glenn holding his and Maggie’s baby. Only that won’t ever come to pass, because Glenn’s skull was crushed in front of his pregnant wife, and a walker came along and slurped up his brain matter.
Taking away any emotional reaction about the explicitness in the premiere, it just wasn’t that impressive. Negan is firmly in the picture, and two characters (one major, who has been around since the beginning) are now gone. At some point, other main characters will die. When all is said and done, will the entire core group of characters be replaced by a new set? What will their story have even meant?
From a practical standpoint, this premiere has been very controversial, and from social media reaction, it’s divided both the fandom and casual viewers alike. Some have decided to walk away, feeling like a line was crossed; Others loved it, and are excited about what Negan will bring to the series.
But in all this hubbub, some questions remain: Did the premiere deliver a compelling narrative? And, going forward, will this show deliver on its promise of a Season Seven reboot filled with exciting new characters and stories? Well, opinions vary of course, but I would have to say no to the first question. Watching two characters get brutally and graphically murdered while their loved ones recoil in agony was not compelling. Watching Rick in a daze for a good portion of the episode, only to be tormented and abused into submission did not make a compelling narrative. Regarding, the reboot, that remains to be seen. I’m not convinced, but I’m willing to see where it all goes from here.
Ultimately, I have no righteous indignation about this episode, or this series, for that matter, The Walking Dead TV show exists to make AMC money. From the viewer’s end, it’s purpose is to entertain us – whether that’s by bringing us into a totally different world, giving us interesting character studies to watch, or just distracting us from our everyday lives. For me, this premiere was not entertaining. But do I think Kirkman, Gimple, NIcotero, and the others involved with making this show are sadists, Hell-bent on taking their artistic cynicism out on adoring fans? No, I don’t. I think they care about the story they’re telling, Otherwise, they wouldn’t do what they do. They’re creating something they want people to watch. The choices they made in this premiere were due to what they most likely thought people wanted to see.
But from where it looks like this story is going, I’m concerned about the themes of this show. Kirkman has stated numerous times that this series is not a survival story; It’s a story about what happens to people when they get into a survival situation. Fair enough – I’m just not sure that I want to see a story depicting how low people can sink in terms of human cruelty.
I want my dramas to be focused on interesting characters who go through journeys – where the challenges they face spur them in certain directions. Those directions don’t always have to be positive, but they can’t be perpetually hopeless either. The Walking Dead has done a good job with character development in the past. But if the story they’re telling is less about how characters change and grow due to their circumstances, and more about showing them descend into a hopeless abyss until they’re all wiped out by evil humans or overrun by walkers, then I don’t want to watch that kind of story.
Only time will tell how this narrative unfolds. Right now, I’m willing to see how this season plays out. I do know that without Glenn, it won’t be quite the same. But The Walking Dead can tell a powerful, poignant, and exciting story. Let’s just hope its creators remember that.