We had to learn how to break Rick, showrunner Scott Gimple said on Talking Dead after the seventh season premiere of The Walking Dead. Everything that happened to Rick in the episode was in the comics, he continued, so for the show, “we had to figure out how to break the audience.”
In that respect, the return of The Walking Dead was a huge success. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has watched the series for six seasons and invested themselves in these characters who was not broken by the episode. Or devastated. Or angry. Or grossed out. Or completely over The Walking Dead. Not because of who died — but maybe that, too — but in how it was executed. For some fans, it was heartbreaking. For other fans, it was hard to feel heartbreak because it was so agonizing, so brutal, so repulsive. It’s hard to experience the loss of a television character when his eyeballs are popping out of his head.
It’s also difficult to grieve lost characters when the sadness is overwhelmed by the burning hatred we feel for another character. If the goal of the episode — beyond showing how broken Rick is now — was to make viewers hate Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character, Gimple and Co. again were wildly successful. In the episodes to come, we may warm up to Negan’s charms and he may someday show a human side, but for now? He’s the most despised character on all of television, not just because he killed Abraham and Glenn, but because he did it in such a vicious fashion. And then he put Rick through the psychological wringer, culminating in the moment when Rick was asked to — and nearly did — cut off his own son’s arm.
For many viewers, cutting off Carl’s arm in that fashion might have actually gone too far. For everyone else, I think The Walking Dead took us to the precipice and thankfully pulled back before it was too late. A lot of viewers threatened to quit The Walking Dead last night. If Rick had actually cut off Carl’s arm, many of them would have actually followed through on the threat.
Ultimately, I think the show wrote itself into a corner that was nearly impossible to escape with last season’s finale. With a cliffhanger that huge, The Walking Dead had to pay it off. They needed a big premiere. It wasn’t enough to kill Abraham. It wasn’t enough to kill Glenn. It wasn’t enough to break our hearts. They had to rip out our hearts and stomp on them until they were unrecognizable. They had to move us beyond “OH NO NO NO NO” and straight into “Oh GOD. Ew. I can’t look. That’s disgusting.” In that respect, The Walking Dead may have gone too far in simply robbing us of our moment of sadness. That said, this is the nature of the graphic novels. The comics are brutal and graphic, so kudos to AMC for not holding back
For the millions of viewers who will continue on this season, however, we have a few questions.
Were the deaths of Abraham and Glenn a surprise?
After waiting for 202 days, we finally learned the identity of Negan’s victims: Abraham Ford and Glenn Rhee (RIP). Was it a surprise? Only to those of us who had talked ourselves out of believing that Abraham and Glenn were the most obvious choices. Abraham died in the graphic novels when Denise died. He was living on borrowed time. Denise took Abraham’s death, Abraham took Glenn’s death, and then Glenn died as he did in the comics. Robert Kirkman told us this would happen a year and a half ago. It was only a surprise in that it was the expected path.
That being said, the fact that millions “called it” didn’t diminish its impact. Knowing what’s going to happen is different than seeing what happens. They could have revealed the identity of Negan’s victims six months ago and it wouldn’t have prepared us for what we saw on commercial television: Two men having their heads smashed into hamburger meat by by a barbed-wire baseball bat was unsettling as hell.
How broken is Rick?
The title of the episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” is a reference to a season one episode where the CDC’s Dr. Edwin Jenner told Rick that the day would come when he wouldn’t be happy to be alive. That day came in last night’s episode. Negan was right about Rick, too. After Abraham was killed, after Glenn was killed, and even after Rick nearly died retrieving the hatchet, Rick still had a look about him that said, “I am down, but I will get back up and I will end you.” After Negan nearly forced Rick to cut off his son’s arm, that look of defiance disappeared. It’s going to take a long time before Rick works up the nerve to even consider going after Negan again. After a season in which Rick took the fight to the Saviors, expect to see him in full retreat mode for at least a few episodes. He’s not going to be rallying the troops behind him. As a leader, Rick is done for the foreseeable future.
How broken is everyone else?
The final moments of the episode illustrated that they may be down, but there is power in their solidarity. The way that they rallied behind Maggie’s resolve to go to war against Negan was heartening. But then, Maggie probably believes at this moment that she has nothing to lose. She’s lost her husband, and I’d be very surprised if the stress of the experience with Negan doesn’t cause a miscarriage. I suspect all that she’s living for at the moment is revenge, and she’s willing to die to get it. Beyond Maggie, Carl also seemed to leave the experience more determined than defeated, and he nearly lost an arm (and was willing to lose it for everyone else’s sake). There’s definitely some fight left in them, but they’re going to need a lot more than themselves to take on Negan.
When did the episode actually break the audience?
It wasn’t the death of Abraham or Glenn. It wasn’t the moment Carl nearly lost his arm. It wasn’t even seeing how much pain Maggie was in after the entire experience. It was that imagined dinner table scene with Glenn holding his would-be baby. It was when Glenn smiled at Abraham. That was the true moment of devastation, seeing that which will never be.
How good is Negan?
Again, Negan may be the most hated character on television right now, and we may never be able to look at him without thinking about the death of Glenn, but he will be beloved, all the same. Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings incredible charm and presence to the character. In one episode, Negan may have managed to build up as much hatred as King Joffrey did in four seasons on Game of Thrones, but like Walter White, there’s a glimmer in his eye, a way in which he carries himself that makes it hard not to root for him just a little. He has a code, after all. He does not kill indiscriminately, and the brutality of his actions serves a purpose. He’s not the “star” of the show, and he will never be able to redeem himself for these actions, so at some point, Negan will leave The Walking Dead. That’s going to be a sad day for viewers and for the series. The show may never be able to replace him.
Beyond the introduction of The Kingdon next week, the series is going to have to figure out how to make the Alexandrians compelling underdogs. It actually puts The Walking Dead in a very good position. It reminds me of what Friday Night Lights did in season four. After accomplishing everything he could with the Dillon Panthers, therefore making it impossible for them to be seen as underdogs, Coach Taylor got busted to East Dillon, where he had to start all over from scratch, rebuild his team from the ground up, and focus not on winning a state championship, but on simply winning one game. Last year was essentially Rick’s championship season: He took control of Alexandria. He vanquished the zombie horde. He negotiated the Hilltop Colony into a demeaning position, and he killed a large number of Saviors. Negan, however, has busted Rick back down to East Dillon, a broken man coaching a broken Alexandria.
A couple of underdog seasons is just what The Walking Dead needs right now. That, I think, is reason enough for wavering fans of the series to continue watching.