After forcing fans to wait all summer find out who died via the spiked bat of The Walking Dead‘s new super-villain Negan, the first episode of the new season – “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” – spent its initial half-hour teasing us some more. The bad guy waved his bloody bat, nicknamed “Lucille,” at Rick Grimes. We saw bloody cranial mush on the ground as Negan dragged him into the Alexandrians’ RV. And then, as the show’s main hero was asked to reflect on what had just happened – and what could still happen – he had flashbacks to the lives of everybody who might’ve died. Was it Glenn? Sasha? Eugene? Aaron? Abraham? Rosita? Maggie? Daryl? Michonne? Carl?
As it turned out, it was Abraham. And also Glenn, whom Negan clobbered almost as an afterthought. Okay.
Did we need to wait until halfway through the episode to find that out? For the past several months, showrunner Scott Gimple and creator Robert Kirkman have been promising that when we saw this week’s episode, we’d understand why they put their fanbase through the wringer with a “somebody’s just been slaughtered … but who?” cliffhanger. Did they keep their promise? Not so much. Did they deliver some gripping television regardless? Fan opinion will likely be split. (Honestly, with this show, when is it not?) But for the most part, absolutely.
Really, this is the tale of two Walking Deads. On the one hand, we have “Last Day on Earth,” the much-derided Season Six finale: a slow-paced, circuitous exercise in existential horror, with no immediate narrative payoff. And then we have the Season Seven premiere, in which two major characters are bludgeoned to death, and Rick is forced – over and over, in excessively gory fashion – to understand that he’s no longer a leader. He’s merely an employee.
Both of these versions of the show have their merits. Last year’s finale, divorced from the context of the show’s larger story, was a nerve-wracking 90 minutes, depicting a miserable universe where every choice makes a bad situation worse. Fans are likely to be more satisfied – albeit in a queasy way – with what happened tonight, if only because it was no tease. Want to see multiple folks get their brains splattered all over the ground with a club wrapped in barbed wire? Here ya go. (And next time, be careful what you wish for.)
In the week ahead, we’ll absorb the ramifications of these two big deaths on The Walking Dead. For now, let’s consider what “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” suggests for this season.
The title is a callback to the Season One finale, wherein Edwin Jenner answered Rick’s insistence that he was “grateful” to the CDC scientist for helping him survive by saying … well, y’know. So this is apparently that day, when Rick will wish that Jenner had just kept him and his friends locked inside a building that was rigged to explode. And by just about anyone’s measure, this has been one miserable 24 hours for Mr. Grimes. Taking into account what happened, Rick has spent the past two episodes failing to get the pregnant and ailing Maggie some medical assistance, and then watching helplessly as the leader of the Saviors – a group he thought he’d vanquished – ruthlessly ends the lives of two good, capable men.
In fact, if there’s any credence to Gimple and Kirkman’s argument that this episode had to be the second part of a cliffhanger, it’s that this premiere episode effectively crushes what’s left of Rick’s optimism. Pretty much the entire hour consists of the aftermath of Abraham and Glenn’s murder, following Negan as he tries to make the surviving Alexandrians understand that there’s no wriggle-room or push-back to his demands that they become part of his supply-chain. We don’t cut back to Carol and Morgan, or to anyone back at the Safe Zone or the Hilltop; at no point do we get a sense that maybe there’s still hope. Aside from Maggie at the end promising that they can still fight, this premiere is mostly just Negan psychologically torturing Rick, until the show’s main protagonist finally stops saying, “I’m gonna kill you.” Even at the end, the Saviors grab Daryl before they drive away, depriving our gang of one of their best soldiers.
In an abstract sense, this does explain why The Walking Dead‘s creators essentially cut their big “everything’s different now” pivot-point into two parts, spread across two-and-a-half hours, with a five-month intermission. As long as we didn’t know who Negan killed, we could enjoy the possibility that our favorite might make it. Fans could be like Rick at the start of this episode, ready to find an angle and press an advantage. But after this brutal, costly episode, all we can really say is, “Welp.”
That’s not entirely a “welp” of resigned disgust, though. As with last spring’s finale, this premiere works well as a nail-biting piece of action-horror, with several masterfully staged sequences. It’s going to be tough to shake the image of Rick atop his RV, leaping onto a snarling, hanging zombie while surrounded by the undead. Nor will it be easy to forget Rick almost being forced to hack his own son’s arm off to save the lives of the rest of his crew, before Negan decides that he’s learned his lesson and lets him off the hook. And however awful he may be as a human being, it’s also hard to deny that the show’s main antagonist is perversely charismatic, as he swats away walkers like insects, uses vivid metaphors like “cold as a warlock’s ballsack,” and holds Lucille in such a way that the gore and viscera hangs down ominously in silhouette.
Could the show have compressed this episode and the previous one into a single chapter, and aired the whole thing back in April? Probably. This episode cruelly toys with the audience’s expectations too much in the early going – with Rick pondering who might’ve died in such a way that we’re left to wonder a little longer – and leaves us with no sense of what to expect next week in terms of what everyone’s going to do next. But when Negan snickers at the notion of, “I bet you thought you were all gonna grow old together,” he does re-establish the parameters of this story. Regardless of what anyone may have hoped, there’s not going to be any return to pre-zombie normalcy any time soon. There will be toil, trouble, and blood. So, so much blood.