The Walking Dead returned in October to some of the highest ratings in the series’ history, with fans tuning in by droves to find out which character (or, as it turned out, characters) the smarmy Negan had clubbed to death with his barbed-wire bat. Since then, the buzz around the show has quieted considerably – which is too bad, because the first eight episodes of TWD‘s Season Seven have been really strong, introducing promising new characters and communities while establishing the uncommon threat that our heroes face.
So, for those of you who lost interest in the show after the bloody bludgeoning of the season premiere, but who might be interested in jumping back on board – or who want to reflect on the drama of the past few months – here are some key takeaways from the first half of this new batch.
1. Negan has weaknesses
Showrunner Scott M. Gimple has insisted that the reason Season Six ended on a cliffhanger this past spring was that the arc had been all about Rick’s journey from defiant arrogance to complete capitulation. Wrapping up the year with Abraham and Glenn’s death, he suggested, would’ve made the story all about them. That choice may have been a miscalculation, given that fans spent all summer semi-angrily obsessing over the mystery murder, rather than saying, “Boy, that Rick’s really learned his lesson!” Still, it’s probably a good idea to keep the writers’ preferred thematic structure in mind when looking at this latest block of episodes, which have been primarily focused on Negan and his seemingly unbeatable gang, the Saviors.
It may be that Negan is now taking his own Rick-like trip from cockiness to comeuppance, however. He started out as a thoroughly dominant super-villain; by last night’s midseason finale, we’ve begun to see some cracks in the façade. The Saviors – and in particular the scarred-but-proud soldier, Dwight – are clearly serving their boss out of a sense of fearful pragmatism, not because they necessarily buy into his vision. One of the bat-wielding bad giy’s big problems is that he’d like to have their love unconditionally. His misunderstanding of just how much his people believe in his program could be his undoing.
2. Even when Rick can’t be the hero, there are plenty of alternatives
The Walking Dead is always going to be the story of Rick Grimes and how he handles the mantle of leadership during the impossibility of life on a zombie-infested planet. But the character has spent much of this season on the sidelines, resigned to his new role as Negan’s whipping boy. During that time, the vacuum he left did not go unfilled. Carl took action on his own, going after the Saviors himself (and killing several in the process). Michonne did a bit of training on her own, while covertly investigating the enemy’s operation. Rosita made an ill-fated attempt to have Eugene manufacture a bullet for her, which she then spent too quickly in a botched assassination attempt – thus tipping off their archenemy that the Alexandrians have a useful fellow who can make him ammo.
The biggest rival to Rick for the role of the show’s primary protagonist, however, has been Maggie. Within hours of seeing her husband get his brains bashed in, she was gearing up to take action. Later, once she and Sasha arrived at the Hilltop Colony, they essentially became the locals’ new favoured protectors, turning the community’s actual leader into an embarrassed figurehead. As she carries Glenn’s baby in her belly, Maggie has become a fierce mama, ready to fight to save the world for the next generation.
3. There’s still a lot of this post-apocalyptic landscape to explore
On balance, very little of this season so far has been about Rick or his panicked, demoralised constituency back in the Safe Zone. Instead, we spent two episodes exploring the Saviors’ grim, totalitarian Sanctuary; one episode with the weak-willed Gregory at the Hilltop; one episode amid the fiercely secretive matriarchy of Oceanside; and one super-awesome episode meeting Ezekiel and his tiger (!) in the Kingdom. The latter two locales in particular were so exciting and new that they’re due for a proper revisit – if only because Ezekiel is such an awesome character that he deserves to be on the show at least as much as Lucille’s owner.
To put it another way: At the same time that we’ve been reminded of Negan’s formidable strength, we’ve also seen indications that his plan to control his territory may be undone by the sheer number and variety of settlements that have sprung up since the end of the world began. What happens when these pockets of survivors start uniting, as they did at the end of the midseason finale? Which brings us to ….
4. We’re heading for all-out war
Week to week, Season Seven has seemed pretty slow-paced. But in terms of where the TV version of The Walking Dead is in comparison to what’s happened in the comic books, the show’s writers have been moving pretty quickly, barrelling ahead to the next major hunk of plot after Negan kills Glenn. We’ve been watching episodes that have been more like character vignettes than big action-adventures, yet we reached the end of last night’s episode with the heroes reuniting and plotting rebellion … which is exactly where they should be right about now. One of the longest story arcs in the comics involves a war against the Saviors, and while the particulars of that conflict will undoubtedly be changed considerably between the page and the screen, the fight itself is bound to happen. The only question is whether we’ll have to wait until Season Eight for the battle to commence in earnest, of if there will be eight episodes of prepping and strategising to get through first.
5. There are apparently limits to what fans will endure
How many lovable major characters have died on TWD over the course of its first six seasons? Heck, how many times has Glenn appeared to be dead during the run of the series? What was so special about Negan’s season-opening batting practice that led to so many viewers saying they were done with this show forever?
Maybe it was that Gimple and his writers made us wait too long to see that beloved character die – not just all summer, but through a good chunk of the premiere. Or maybe it was because the villain killed off Abraham first, and then clobbered a fan-favorite almost as an afterthought. Whatever the reason, a lot of the show’s stalwart viewers got to the end of that kick-off episode and wondered why they were putting themselves through this misery week after week.
Don’t misunderstand: The Walking Dead is still the most popular original drama on cable, and frequently one of the most watched weekly telecasts of any kind. The show has already been renewed for an eighth season, and the producers have talked about having arcs planned out for through Season 12, should U.S. network AMC (or somebody else) want them. But the pronounced drop-off in viewership this fall had to be at least mildly alarming for a creative team that’s used to phenomenal growth, not dramatic retreat. If the promise of seeing RIck lead an action-packed revolt doesn’t bring the old audience back, the producers and writers may need to take a cue from their characters and start adjusting to a new reality.