The wait is over. We finally know who died at the hands of The Walking Dead’s newest villain Jeffery Dean Morgan’s grandstanding Negan, and love it or hate it, it'll be a television event that's talked about for years to come.
In the television Hall of Fame there sits a handful of TV moments that changed the way televisual entertainment is considered, that caused debate, that sparked a charged reaction from the home audience. The 'black screen' finale of The Sopranos, the murder of J.R. in Dallas, the 'Red Wedding' in Game of Thrones, the final episode of M.A.S.H, the moving last scene in Blackadder Goes Forth. AMC can rest easy that The Walking Dead's place amongst these classics is now assured.
FilmsFilmsFilms’ previous article on who might be for the chop was correct, with Glenn and Abraham scoring the highest on our probability rating. But that’s not to say we were confident going in to last night’s season seven premiere; far from it, we were still clueless and fearful as to what the outcome might be.
From the off we searched the screen for clues. Was that Daryl’s blanket laying blood stained in the dirt? Who was sat directly opposite the RV door? Was that Maggie Rick was looking back at as he was dragged away? No, it was the defiant Abraham, the clues littered throughout the season six finale coming true, “Just asking if you could do that. If you're doing something as big as that... if that's living”. Shocking but by no means unexpected.
But as Negan taunted a devastated Rosita, Daryl erupted and landed a fist on Negan’s jaw. Considering Negan had already given the group their ‘freebie’ it was time to “shut that shit down, no exceptions”. They wouldn’t kill Daryl would they, fan favourite, shifter of much AMC Walking Dead merchandise? No, Negan admired his gumption too much; Daryl was no ‘pussy’. It was Glenn that would meet Lucille head on, as it was in that most infamous issue of the Walking Dead comic, issue 100.
The writers had to offer something truly shocking to justify the unfair tease that was the season six finale and the resulting six month wait to find out who got killed. In the end the shock wasn’t so much who died, but how many of them, two deaths rather than the expected single casualty. But cleverly the writers haven’t actually deviated from the comic here at all. At this stage on the page Abraham had already died, two issues earlier via the arrow-in-the-head death the show gave to Denise. Scriptwriter Scott Gimple should be applauded for sticking to the comic storyline so closely but still making what happened on the screen a surprise.
The central device for this was the bait-and-switch they pulled with Glenn halfway through season six. ‘Dumpstergate’ may have felt like a cop-out at the time, but there was no other way to pull attention away from Glenn in the run up to Negan’s introduction; they wouldn’t kill Glenn after already teasing his death so blatantly, would they? In the end it was a smart misdirection which worked well.
The majority of critics were less than impressed with The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be. Despite teasing for months that Negan was going to crack skulls come October, the fact that we actually got to see skulls cracked seemed to surprise some reviewers. The events of the season seven premiere, right down to Glenn’s eyeball popping out of his head, had already been set down in print in the comic. This also seemed to escape most critics. Labelling the show gratuitous when it was already clear to anyone with a passing interest in The Walking Dead what was about to happen is absurd.
Was the episode gratuitous? Absolutely. Unnecessarily so? Absolutely not. For the wait to be justified this episode had to pack a punch. Fans discussed whether the show would live up to the impact of the comic by showing the cracked skull/loose eyeball violence of Negan’s kill; most believed AMC wouldn’t go that far, especially if it involved the story’s resident good guy Glenn. But they did, and thanks to the amazing effects work Glenn’s shattered skull looked shockingly real. The guttural splutterings and broken moans of Glenn's last words only added to the horror. Full credit to the practical effects, make-up, and sound departments.
It was a tough watch, but that was the point. Straw Dogs (1971), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), they are all difficult to watch, because that’s what they were designed to be; they are still masterpieces of horror though. If used sparingly, this sort of emotional bombardment can be stunningly effective. The Walking Dead picks its moments well, and of all the moments in the six seasons to date, this was the time for the producers to go all in. No punches were pulled, there were no cut aways, Negan didn’t stop swinging, even after there was nothing left to break. The viewer is left as psychologically shattered as Rick and his cohorts.
If used week in, week out, this tactic does indeed become needlessly gratuitous. Worse than that it loses its power. But used sparingly, its brutally effective. More impressive is Negan’s justification for his actions. It was Rick who made the first move, taking out scores of Negan’s men, without so much as trying to talk to the man behind the Saviours to hear his side of things. To Negan cracking the skulls of two of Rick’s gang is simply payback for something he started. In fact it could be argued that Rick got off lightly when looking at a simple body count. The barbed wire wrapped baseball bat (revealed this summer in a comic mini-series to be named after Negan’s dead wife, who died from cancer at the outset of the apocalypse) could have found even more skulls if Negan really wanted to even the score.
Negan has set the bar now though, and Rick is a truly broken man. The acting all round during episode was outstanding from everyone, including Andrew Lincoln who continues to maintain an exceptional level of performance. As such, his Rick looks even more shattered than the Rick that survived issue 100 of the comic. Whether this changes the story going forward, whether Rick’s acceptance of his new role beneath Negan really is an act (as it was on the page) remains to be seen. If it is, then Rick Grimes is an even better actor than Andrew Lincoln is. The road to ‘All Our War’ starts here.