Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for the season premiere of The Walking Dead! Proceed with caution, survivors. For reals, if you haven’t yet watched tonight’s episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” we highly suggest you do so before proceeding. Okay? We good? Let’s go.
Well, that was certainly an emotionally draining hour of commercial television.
The season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead had a lot riding on it, more so than perhaps any of the show’s season premieres to date. Sure, the series was recently renewed for an eighth season, and its future was never in doubt. But the goodwill it had built up with its audience took two major hits in season 6. The first was the infamous Dumpstergate storyline, in which we were told Glenn was dead, only to be told several weeks later he was not. The second, even more problematic moment was season 6’s finale, which was built almost entirely around the suspense of finding out who Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan would kill in his first appearance on screen. That we did not find out, and that the finale simply faded to black after keeping us on the edge of our seats for so long violated the kind of contract that The Walking Dead, or any series for that matter, makes with its audience.
“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” addresses both of these narrative violations. More importantly, it renews that contract.
Since the day Robert Kirkman’s comic book began its run, The Walking Dead has had a great relationship with its fans. And as the first successful weekly drama set within the zombie genre, it’s made damn sure to keep the folks it holds most responsible for its success as happy as possible. So in hindsight it’s perhaps unsurprising that the season premiere takes such careful steps to restore the goodwill of its audience. What is surprising is the way in which it so gruesomely and quite cannily does so.
We begin the moment we left Rick and co., on their knees before Negan and his men, one of their own beaten to death by his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat Lucille. Rick then shows the first bit of honest, relatable backbone we’ve seen him exhibit in forever, when he tells Negan he will kill him one day. This prompts Negan to drag him off in his camper to teach him a lesson in obedience, during which Rick recalls Negan’s murder of his friends–both of them.
I had suspicions that Abraham wasn’t long for this world when he found happiness with Sasha. It completed the emotional journey he’d been on since we first met him. He was at peace, and the absolute worst thing for any character on The Walking Dead is peace. That didn’t make his death any easier, for us or for Sasha. I’m glad he went out with a “Suck my nuts” to Negan, though the profanity restrictions under which the show is placed by AMC did have me wishing for something a little stronger from the battle-hardened warrior.
Glenn’s death, however, is a complete surprise, which is a big credit to the show’s writers as well as to director Greg Nicotero. (The makeup-effects-maestro-turned-producer’s storytelling has never been better than it is in the scene where Rick’s memories of his friends flash through his mind as he frantically searches through a blue walker-filled fog for Negan’s axe.) Of course, Glenn’s death shouldn’t be a surprise to comic book fans, since he was indeed killed by Negan in the first issue of The Walking Dead in which the villain appeared. And there’s a part of me that wonders if his death would have more impact if we hadn’t, in a sense, already experienced it last season, but the devastation in both his and a pregnant Maggie’s eyes as she witnesses it firsthand makes it as tragic as can be.
When Rick finally does retrieve Negan’s axe and is taken back to his friends, I can imagine the episode starts to lose some viewers–as the leather-jacketed sadist almost forces Rick to cut his son’s arm off. (Carl, to his credit, is the member of the group who’s least afraid of the madman.) But by that point, we’ve been so emotionally drained that The Walking Dead has earned once more the right to torture us.
Similarly, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” finds the show breaking its characters down in order to, we hope, rebuild them into something that can survive many seasons of horror to come. As for whether or not the show itself will continue to make good on the restoration of its storytelling, that remains to be seen. This season’s premiere is such a raw, caustic bolt of passion and fury that it’s impossible to imagine every episode maintaining its level of intensity. But damned if I’m not once more curious as all hell to see if The Walking Dead tries.
— Jeffrey Dean Morgan really delivers a Heath Ledger-Joker level portrait of villainy. He gets into Rick’s head just as much as he does his emotions, and makes us hate him and ourselves for seeing a twisted logic in his actions.
— “Dawn is breaking. It’s a brand new day, Rick.”
— Kudos to the show for acknowledging what Abraham meant to Rosita as well as Sasha.
— Maggie at this point is the successor to Rick, should anything happen to him. She’s lost everyone she’s every loved, and she’s on the verge of losing her first child, yet she’s the first to stand and commit to fighting. Damn straight she’s a leader!
Next week: Here’s hoping we finally get to see Carol and Morgan again. I’m missing my favorite dysfunctional couple.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).
Image Credit: AMC