Last year, The Walking Dead strained the patience of fans with one ratings gimmick after another. First, there was the incredulous dumpster incident where Glenn survived (because zombies never go for the face?), then there was Daryl getting shot with his own crossbow. And finally, the coup de grâce, the cliffhanger of “Who did Negan kill?” that gave audiences 202 days to both speculate on the victim’s identity and become desensitized to the inevitability. Things became so dire that HitFix’s own Alan Sepinwall washed his hands of the show completely.
WARNING: SPOILERS FROM SEASON 7 OF THE WALKING DEAD BEYOND THIS POINT.
I was still tentatively on board. The Walking Dead has pulled itself out of bad decisions in the past and after sinking six years into this relationship, I wasn’t willing to walk away just yet. Until after the Season 7 premiere. Now it’s official. I’m breaking up with The Walking Dead.
On its face, Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) true introduction to the series should’ve worked. Part of the appeal of the show has always been the effects. The zombies have always been a make-up marvel and watching their decomposition over the seasons has been captivating. Past character deaths have been gruesome; Noah (Taylor James Williams) and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) immediately spring to mind. Beating Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) to a mushy pulp on-camera is beyond the pale, but in a show of increasing violence, not unexpected. So at first I thought maybe it was the six-month hiatus between swings of Lucille that kept me from feeling emotionally invested in their death scene. Even the alternate-reality fantasy where everyone was happy and eating Thanksgiving dinner — clearly intended to tug at fan heartstrings — left me feeling numb and…dare I say it…bored.
Then it hit me. I didn’t care about the deaths of Abraham and Glenn because the show didn’t seem to care either. “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” isn’t about Negan’s victims. It’s about the pain of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Which, considering who died, is pretty damn insulting. At its best, The Walking Dead can be a gut-wrenching drama about loss. Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyrese (Chad Coleman) agonizing over what to do with Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) in “The Grove” is one of the best examples of this. If you’d asked me how I thought the Season 7 premiere was going to shake out, I’d have assumed something similar. Negan would take his swings, the Group would be broken and shell-shocked, the Saviors would leave them to mourn, and we’d get an emotionally charged episode of character development. If you’d revealed the deaths were indeed Abraham and Glenn, I’d have extrapolated a lot of screen time would be devoted to how Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Rosita (Christian Serratos) — three women who have suffered loss over and over again — process this turn of events. Instead, we got 50+ minutes of Rick’s goggle-eye pain as he shivers and shakes under the torrent of Negan’s monologues.
Overlooking the fact that based on Negan’s actions he’d have just killed Rick for mouthing off and tried again with another one of The Group (think an inverse of Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly punting a villain into the engine of his spaceship in “The Train Job”), what was the narrative point of spending a full hour breaking Rick? This while Maggie and Sasha are given perhaps two minutes of script to vow vengeance on the Saviors (two minutes which were more emotionally powerful than the entire runtime up to that point). The obvious answer is “Men’s pain is more important” which while ever-present in society is still a slap in the face to this viewer. Yes, Rick just lost friends but the women lost their lovers, their husband, their future hope of a modicum of happiness in this nihilistic hellscape.
Focusing on Rick instead of the immediate carnage and emotional devastation created by the horrific loss of Glenn and Abraham creates a connective dissonance with the audience. A problem that could’ve been easily rectified by not focusing on Rick for ten seconds. Or, if a time machine was available, I’m a fan of Jeremy Egner’s suggestion in his review of the episode, which would’ve left time for Rick’s navel-gazing and the anguish of those most affected by the loss:
As Sunday’s episode revealed, any number of moments immediately following the bludgeoning would have allowed last season to end on a chilling, suspenseful note after also providing the payoff that had been teased for months. (One idea: Rick says, “I’m gonna kill you,” Negan yanks him into the R.V., door slams, roll credits.)
I’ve seen several arguments on social media already that Game of Thrones did the same thing as this with the Red Wedding, but I’d argue it is comparing apples and llamas. A more accurate comparison would be if the Red Wedding had ended with the Boltons and the Freys pulling their weapons on the Starks and then cutting to black, making us wait almost a year for the emotional payoff. It wasn’t the gore that caused my break-up with The Walking Dead, it was the crystal clear signaling that it was ONLY about the gore. At the end of the day, I prefer a little hope and character development with my nihilism.
This post originally ran on HitFix on October 24.