I’ll admit, it’s been hard to sit down and write this recap. The episode itself was brutal to watch, and I understand why several people I’ve spoken to (even my esteemed colleague on this very site) say they can no longer watch. It’s easier to watch people off zombies, because even though they look vaguely human, zombies are no longer people. They can’t be reasoned with and they can only be killed with a headshot. Even in past seasons, when Rick and the others have had to kill other humans, it’s been established that they were doing so in self-defense or to protect their loved ones. The people who died were all pretty much vile, deserving of their demise in one way or another. All of this makes the gore a little easier to stomach.
But in the seventh season premiere of The Walking Dead, we had to watch as new baddie Negan (played to the absolute hilt by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beat to death with a baseball bat not one but two of our most beloved characters. He also tested and ultimately broke down the most alpha of alpha males, Rick Grimes, with a series of psychological tests. The episode was constructed in a way that created the most possible tension; starting with a prolonged section that indicated Negan had chosen his victim but making the audience wait until nearly the halfway point of the hour to reveal his identity, choosing to spend time with just Negan and Rick squaring off. Before we get to that, let’s talk about the gruesome scenes that made this one almost impossible to sit through more than once; at least for me.
I guess I’m proud of myself for successfully predicting that Abraham was going to be the one to die. I really think my rationale made sense; his place in the story gave him the right amount of emotional capital with the audience and the show’s characters to die right now. Plus, for Negan as a character, it makes more sense to take out a big tough guy than an obvious wuss like Eugene or any of the females. And there was simply no way Daryl was going at this point in the story. I’m of the mind that, for the foreseeable future, both Daryl and Rick are virtually untouchable. The impact of Abraham’s death will make Sasha, Rosita and Eugene all infinitely more interesting, at least potentially. It’s up to the writers (and the actors) to up the stakes there.
Glenn’s death, then, was clearly designed as more of a gotcha moment. Fans of the graphic novel, as well as most of those fans who only watch the show at this point, knew he’d been Negan’s victim in the comic, and were perhaps relieved when Lucille swung on Abraham first. But then, a wrinkle arrived in the form of Daryl freakin’ Dixon. When Negan taunted a distraught Rosita with his bat covered in Abraham’s blood and grey matter (so gross), Daryl lunged forward to protect her. Negan didn’t aim for Daryl, though, perhaps impressed by his guts and seeing someone he could use going forward. No, he hit Glenn so hard that one of his eyes literally popped out of his skull, and with his dying breath he struggled to tell Maggie, “I’ll find you” before Negan ultimately bashed his skull into hamburger while his body twitched on the ground. That last bit is what has left many saying they’re done with the show. And, believe me, I get it. I was crying with everyone else. But the acting by Lauren Cohan in that scene and the ones that followed are what will make me stick around. This entire cast is severely under appreciated when it comes to awards, and that should change. This stuff was both appalling and completely riveting. It can only be both of those because, after seven seasons, we are invested with these folks and their pain is ours. If this was Episode One of this show, it wouldn’t work. The deaths were extremely difficult to watch, but it was what we spent all summer preparing for, knowing it would be gruesome. I’m not desensitized to violence, believe me, and I definitely don’t condone kids or even teenagers watching this. It really should upset you, and it simply won’t be for everyone.
The other part of the hour was what was most significant going forward. Negan recognized Rick as the leader here, and whatever this man’s background, he knows he simply must break this guy in order to get him to do his bidding. It’s clear he’s done that many times before. He also feels he owes Rick for taking out so many of his people. His motivations are clear. Rick has yet to meet a villain he can’t overtake some way, some how, but Negan is different. He’s as smart as he is scary and he’s also charismatic in a way that is hard to describe. The guy is a classic sociopath.
Following both murders, Negan dragged Rick off to the RV with the axe he’d brought along as his weapon, and planted the axe in a table once they were aboard. He sat Rick down and explained he wasn’t going to be “King Shit” anymore, and even dared him to grab the axe and kill him. Rick took the bait, and Negan wheeled on him swiftly, the demoralization well underway. He then took the axe and threw it into a throng of walkers surrounding the vehicle, ordering him to “go get me my axe.” It was a nightmare scenario that only a survivor the caliber of Rick Grimes could manage to get through. He almost didn’t, though, lying on the roof of the RV and contemplating what could happen to the rest of his people if he didn’t do Negan’s bidding. He was finally spurred by enough adrenaline to take a running leap and hang onto the walker we’d seen in the finale swinging from a bridge, using him as a shield when he fell to the ground and rebounded as only Rick can.
Once he’d made his point, sending Rick through the ultimate walker gauntlet to retrieve the axe, Negan brought a visibly shaken Rick back to the group. And then he made something happen that we’ve only seen a couple of times before in this series, and never in the face of a rival: he made Rick Grimes cry. How, you ask? He dragged Rick’s son Carl out of the lineup and asked him if he was a lefty or righty. When Carl answered righty, Negan asked him to give him his left arm. He then tied a belt around it like a tourniquet, marked a spot on it with a pen and instructed Rick to cut his son’s arm off to prove his loyalty.
Now I am far from a biblical scholar, but this was straight out of the Old Testament. I think many people are familiar with the story of Abraham being asked by The Lord to bring his son Isaac to be sacrificed to prove he was loyal. Abraham felt he had to do this, because he was the leader of the Jewish people and he was being commanded to do this by God. Ultimately, The Lord stopped him before he killed Isaac, and Negan did the same before Rick could maim his son. The loyalty had been proven. The job was done. The Ricktator is no more.
The end of the episode was predictably devastating. Negan and his band of merry men leave these people whose lives they’ve just changed forever to pick up the pieces, taking Daryl away with them in a van. Finally able to exhale and try to comprehend what has happened, the group must first tend to their dead, which is an even more monumental task than usual. Sasha decides to escort Maggie to The Hilltop in search of medical care for her and the baby. And everyone insists Maggie is not responsible for what happened (If anyone is to blame for Glenn’s demise, it’s Daryl), since they were all out on the road to help her. Her guilt may overwhelm her, but then again, it might fuel her motivation to keep her baby strong as well. The hour ends with a flash forward into a future that will never be; one where many of our survivors, Glenn and Abraham among them, are gathered around a picnic table, enjoying a delicious feast. Everyone is clean and bright and looks at peace, especially Glenn, who is holding his and Maggie’s little boy.
How do we recover from this, fellow viewers? I’m not sure, but I believe The Kingdom might have something to do with it!