Monkeys Fighting Robots

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ‘THE WALKING DEAD’ S07E01, ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’

The day has finally come. Fans of The Walking Dead have been anxiously awaiting the return of the show. Theories and spoilers flew left and right, as people tried to decipher last season’s cliffhanger ending. And now, ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’ has aired on AMC. The premiere caused shock and awe amongst many fans, as the show reveals the deaths. We were finally exposed to the true villainy of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s sadistic Negan. However, despite all of this, the show failed in one crucial way. With all the elements of a good episode, The Walking Dead somehow found a way to make nothing work the way it should.

Many people have been comparing this episode to the infamous Game of Thrones “Red Wedding” episode. This comparison doesn’t work, however, because these deaths are not the episode’s high point. It is shocking to see such big names die, make no mistake. But the season six cliffhanger blew the potential shock & surprise of the reveal. Since then, many people have theorized who Negan took the life of (including us here at MFR). The cliffhanger took the steam out of the shock, making the deaths more about confirming fan theories. Game of Thrones made the Red Wedding work because it came out of nowhere, made sense in the plot, and had several contained deaths. The Walking Dead missed its opportunity to make these deaths memorable, opting instead for the cliffhanger, and therefore crippled itself for this episode.

For better or for worse, the characters that died – AND HERE IS THE SPOILER, FOLKS – were Abraham and Glenn. Now to be fair, Abraham is a relatively strong choice. He wasn’t major enough to justify such a huge cliffhanger, by any means. However, his arc was coming to a natural conclusion, and so his death felt well deserved. The death of Glenn, on the other hand, could only be justified by the events of the comics. Glenn’s death has been teased so often over the years, notably with the dumpster last season. He was a central character, with a root in the show’s primary action, and a baby on the way. Glenn’s death, like the deaths of many The Walking Dead characters, is an attention-grabber first and foremost. When it comes to good storytelling, it’s one of the weakest decisions the show could make.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan NeganWe can’t properly discuss the big deaths without bringing up their perpetrator. Negan has cemented himself in the show’s universe, for better or worse. He’s all action, no reason, and it works – but only to a degree. In such a savage, violent world, no character has matched the world’s ruthlessness until now. Even characters like The Governor or Dawn had a rhyme or reason to them. All Negan knows is violence and cruelty, and he has the power in this new world. The reason that it works is the only reason to Negan is his thirst for power. He is intent on ruling the new world, and that involves leaning into the madness. He’s done what Rick has constantly come close to doing, and makes Negan the perfect rival. Not to say Negan is perfect in this episode, but he is a shining star.

Unfortunately, where Negan shines, Rick falls flat. Rick has been one of the few constants in The Walking Dead, so it makes sense we’d spend so much time on him this episode. We want to see how he reacts to these deaths, and what comes next. We see glimpses of this development for Rick, but the show never gets it right. Seeing every group member die in his mind (which further explains why they filmed all those death scenes) worked as a moment. But beyond that, The Walking Dead challenged Rick’s role at every turn. Daryl inciting Glenn’s execution took away Rick’s agency. Carl giving Rick his blessing to chop his arm off lessened that moment’s impact. Rick is supposed to be an engaging anchor and protagonist. But the show fails Rick by making him too inconsequential.

The Walking Dead AMCOn top of these weak principal character choices, the side characters are rendered useless. Maggie, for the umpteenth time, is reduced to a mourner, with a cry that weakens after so many deaths in the family. So many characters are clearly meant to matter – Aaron, Rosita, even Sasha – but in the wake of all this, their irrelevance is quadrupled. They exist to give The Walking Dead a potential ratings boost, and nothing more. You can show me whatever stupid dinner table fantasy you want. It doesn’t change the fact that the show has never bothered to properly define characters, and never will. That’s why these deaths don’t matter – because The Walking Dead has no patience to put in the necessary legwork. And considering how much of this show is spent walking around the woods, that’s really saying something.

It might seem outlandish to throw such hate on this episode. The hype online about it has been never-ending since it aired. It’s understandable hype, but all that The Walking Dead provides in this is relative relief from the unknown. The biggest problem with this episode is that it’s too little, too late. This extremely dark tone is new and interesting, but much like Negan himself, it’s too messy in execution. The reason this type of death works for Game of Thrones is how the deaths are consistently handled with care. Everything about this episode focuses on garnering views – and from a business perspective, this episode is an assured success.

The Walking Dead clearly knows what it should be focusing on, but can’t actually do it. Many elements of good television are there, but they are improperly utilized. Negan takes too long to talk a big, evil game, but all he delivers is a silver lining to a disappointing premiere. The show tries to throw its grittiness and sadness into your face, hoping it distracts from the absence of quality.All The Walking Dead knows how to do is pretend like these deaths matter. But without proper emotional stakes, character motivation, pacing – or even the general rules of television storytelling – it flounders for a reaction from the masses.

(And just to wrap this up, how did the hatchet end up on the roof, exactly? Negan threw it out the door of the RV – OUT, not UP – and it ends up on the roof? How the Hell does that make any sense? GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER, KIRKMAN).