The Walking Dead Season 7, Episode 1: “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”
Oct 26, 2016
Spoiler alert: If you haven't watched this episode of The Walking Dead then we advise you to read no further unless you want spoilers.
There's a small moment in The Walking Dead's season one finale "TS-19," where Rick Grimes tells Dr. Edwin Jenner that he's "grateful" that he and his group have been allowed to enter the safety of the CDC. "The day will come when you won't be" is Jenner's grim reply. But as much adversity as Rick and his group of survivors have faced over the past six seasons, it doesn't seem that Jenner's prophecy had come true. Thus far, we have seen indecisive Rick (season two), confused and crazy Rick (season three), complacent Rick (season four), conflicted Rick (season five), and, finally, overconfident Rick (season six). Now, after what was arguably the most heart-wrenching episode in the show's history, we finally get to see the Rick that Jenner predicted.
After all of the gnashing of teeth that greeted the season six finale's cliffhanger-heard-'round-the-world, the writers of The Walking Dead have never had more to lose. For the first time in the show's history public opinion had settled into near-unanimous disapproval, even among the show's most devoted fans. After a season that felt like one long, calculated prelude to the death of a significant character, to end with a fade-to-black was a moment of near shark-jumping proportions. If you're going to make viewers wait six months for what is essentially the culmination of the previous season, nothing short of one of the most memorable episodes in the show's history will suffice.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the writers have provided just that. Proving that Robert Kirkman and the show's writers love nothing more than to torture the show's viewers, the episode doesn't begin with the moment that reveals Negan's victim (that would come an unbearably long 20 minutes later). Instead, the scene opens in the immediate aftermath, with a stunned Rick promising Negan that he will kill him someday. If this sounds familiar, it should be: Rick provided a more-or-less similar threat to Terminus leader Gareth in the season five premiere. We knew it would only be a matter of time until that happened, which it did a few episodes later. But, as Negan reminds Rick throughout the episode, this is a new reality.
From the start, we see that Negan is a different kind of villain with a different set of objectives. Where the Governor was a power-hungry sociopath with questionable judgment, and Gareth was a too-clever idealist with questionable morals, Negan appears to be nothing so much as a ruthless pragmatist. He smirks, he struts, he cracks jokes, and he uses violence the way a master painter uses pastels. As he stated in the season six finale, he doesn't want to kill Rick and the Alexandrians, because he wants them to work for him. In order to reach that goal, he needs to break Rick to bring him under heel. With a combination of clownish charm and genuine menace, we see him use the next 60 minutes to methodically reduce Rick to a humbled, scared, crying mess.
How he accomplishes that is a study in psychological warfare. After forcing him to watch his friends die, Negan humiliates Rick further by making him fight through a group of walkers for his hatchet. Once he has retrieved the weapon—which Negan makes sure to emphasize now belongs to him instead of Rick—he is forced to endure Negan's smug recitations on how Rick is now powerless to do anything but grovel. To illustrate this point further, in one of the episode's most stomach-churning sequences, Negan instructs Rick to hack off Carl's arm or watch everyone remaining in the group be murdered in front of him. It's a scene straight out of the Old Testament account of God asking Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, and by the end of it Rick is begging for the privilege of staying alive in one piece. The symbolism is no mistake; in this world Negan sees himself as God.
That alone would be enough for the episode to provide a suitable bridge into season seven, but that's not why it will be remembered. No, this episode will always be legendary for its death scenes and the sheer brutality with which they were presented. There were some tying together of loose ends that suggested that Abraham could be Negan's victim—his full reconciliation with Eugene, his desire to start a family with Sasha—but the viciousness with which he was killed was still disturbing. After knocking him flat on the ground with the first strike of his barbwire covered bat, Negan mockingly congratulates a bloodied Abraham for "taking it like a champ." Abe gets off one more one-liner ("suck my nuts") but soon crumbles under the barrage of blows to the head. By the time Negan is done, there's little of Abraham's head left.
That scene would have been enough for the episode to go down in Walking Dead history as the show's most gruesome death, but Negan isn't finished. After Daryl interrupts another mocking Negan monologue with an ill-timed sucker-punch, the season takes its first truly unexpected turn. As the scene turns eerily quiet, Negan unleashes his bat on Glenn just to prove how little he's willing to tolerate such acts of defiance. If season six had lulled us into a false sense of security that main characters—especially Glenn—were destined to always slip away from death at the last possible second, this is the moment that the new reality truly sinks in. Not only can Glenn not escape, he is killed in the most undignified manner imaginable, struggling to speak to Maggie as he chokes on blood, his left eye popping out of its mangled socket.
We have seen our share gruesome deaths on The Walking Dead. This is, after all, a show that opened with a little girl zombie being shot in the head, but we have never seen anything quite so jarring as these two deaths. When Hershel was beheaded by the Governor, it was shocking but not entirely unexpected. The scene was set for something horrible, and something horrible happened. When season five opened with a lineup of men having their throats cut in front of a trough in preparation for being made into meat, it was shocking but easy to shake off, since no main characters received that fate. But Abraham and Glenn's deaths feel so much more traumatizing, so much more like seeing the situation unfold in front of you. With no sound or production touches in the background, the whole thing feels more like a snuff film (or an ISIS execution video) than a produced TV show. For the first time in the show's history, I don't feel disturbed or grossed out by what I've seen. In a strange way, I feel almost violated.
That, of course, is a testament to the way the writers have made us care about these characters, so much so that watching them die brutal deaths resonates in a strangely personal way. But it's also the manner of these deaths and how they were depicted so graphically. Knowing that someone was going to meet his demise in this episode, I had prepared myself to see it. But the actual deaths were so far beyond what I had imagined. In my mind, we would see Negan wind up and bring Lucille down on Glenn's head, and the rest of the scene would unfold through the eyes of the rest of the group. We'd see Maggie scream in horror, we'd see Daryl snarl defiantly, we'd see blood and a lifeless body. But I never dreamed we'd see a bludgeoned Glenn mumbling "I'll find you" to Maggie as Negan taunted him. I never thought we'd see his head smashed into hamburger as his fingers twitched and his life trickled out. I never thought we'd be shown all of that, and I'm still not sure we should have been.
In fact, it seems unlikely that any TV show has ever presented the deaths of main characters in such an unfiltered manner. We have seen gratuitous kill-of-the-week zombie kills before, but this is the first time we've seen a loved character die in such a downright undignified manner. Having spent so many hours—and, in Glenn's case, years—with these characters, it felt like watching a friend die. These were not cheap deaths—they were arguably the most emotionally costly ones in the show's history. But they also felt nearly pornographic in their explicitness, almost as if the writers were responding to the griping by the show's fans by saying, "You want violence? We'll give you violence."
Hopefully, that will not become the focal point of the show going forward. It's striking to watch the early seasons of the show and see how comparably restrained and almost poetic the death scenes were. They were still gory, yes, but when Dale died it was with terror and gasping for life. When Rick killed Shane it was like a ballet, two old friends struggling to do what they knew needed to be done. When Lori died we didn't even see it happen on camera. She just slipped away. The deaths of Abraham and Glenn were a spectacle, death for death's sake.
That said, the writers couldn't have written a better introduction to the character of Negan. Even diehard fans of the show have to admit that such a character was sorely needed after a season six that seemed to present too much low stakes drama and too many easily dispatched antagonists (remember The Wolves?). Though it's comforting to watch Rick and Carol mow down anyone who represents a threat to the group, it does get a little boring. The sense of danger—that anyone could die at any moment and no one was truly safe—has been gone for a long time, and it's essential for the health of the show to have it back. As most series are running on fumes and recycled plot points by their seventh season, The Walking Dead needed a game-changing moment to reboot the series, and, by killing both Abraham and Glenn, Negan has provided just that. If it's generally true that The Walking Dead is at its best when Rick and his group are the underdogs, we could have the show's best episodes ahead of us.
Questions for future episodes:
What will happen to Daryl?
Since Daryl has now been taken prisoner by Negan as a sort of collateral to ensure Rick's compliance, where does that leave Daryl's storyline? Will he be taken into The Saviors' fold and made a member? Readers of the comic have speculated that Daryl will assume the role taken by Carl in the comics and have Negan take him under his wing in a sort of mentorship relationship.
Where are Carol and Morgan?
Okay, so we know from the previews that Carol and Morgan have been taken by The Kingdom, a group of survivors who appear to have recreated a feudal society of sorts, with suits of armor and a king (who appears to have a pet tiger). Will they be accepted into the group? Could the people in The Kingdom end up being allies with the Alexandrians? Will the show be able to pull off using a CGI tiger that doesn't look stupid?
Author rating: 9/10
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