[Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 7 premiere follow. If you haven't watched the episode or have somehow avoided the identity of Negan's victim, maybe click on over to somewhere else?]
I'm shocked, SHOCKED I tell you! But maybe not in the way I'd like to be. In its return to television on Sunday night, AMC's The Walking Dead answered the question of who Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) killed. The same question it agonizingly refused to answer in the Season 6 premiere, leaving us all to wonder with bated breath about who became a makeshift tee-ball stand for Negan.
Okay, maybe not bated breath for all, maybe more like an annoyed huff.
For a show that has had so many last straws, the Season 6 finale was the lastest of those straws for many, a final reason to escape from the clutches of the biggest show on television. But the pull of The Walking Dead is strong, and I'd bet that many who said they'd never watch the show again after the frustrating Season 6 finale were right back on their couches watching the Season 7 premiere to see who Negan killed.
By the time the brain matter had dried on that forest floor, it wasn't just one person who got treated to a farewell cast dinner somewhere in Georgia, it was two: Michael Cudlitz (Abraham) and Steven Yeun (Glenn). Their character's heads were the watermelons, and Negan was Gallagher.
But "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" won't be remembered for offing Abraham and Glenn, it will be remembered for its 20-minute tease to tell us who died and its excessive (and impressive!) gore. And you'd all better get used to it, because teases and shock value are all The Walking Dead has left.
In fact, shock value is all The Walking Dead has had for a while, and it's worked out quite well for the show (17.3 million viewers for the Season 5 premiere at its peak). But sensing a downturn in the ratings, it appears that The Walking Dead needed to dial up the shock in order to try and drum up interest once again. The visual of Glenn's face broken and bulging is not one that will leave our heads anytime soon.
We couldn't take our eyes off Abraham's skull looking very much like the pumpkin I carved this weekend had been filled with a warm sour cream/Jell-O mold and tipped over. The pain on the faces of Rick's group will be on the back of your eyelids as you try to sleep. This was a nasty episode of The Walking Dead, taking gruesome violence once reserved for the undead and bringing it to the once-living.
I don't know what people expected, but judging from the reaction online (admittedly not the most scientific) it wasn't this. Many were horrified by the episode, even though we all knew what was coming. But again, this is all The Walking Dead has left. Something terrible has to happen in order to give these characters something to do, and thanks to some of the best makeup and effects on television, it can look really good doing it. Aside from the occasional great episode or arc — like Carol's run in Seasons 4 and 5 — brutal violence is what this show has banked on after it ran out of interesting questions to ask.
Here's the thing: in my opinion, The Walking Dead has been dramatically inert ever since Shane died. Once the zombies became more of an annoyance than a real threat, the show thought introducing a new villain each season who had all-new sick and twisted ideas was good enough. One had an eyepatch and hosted a fighting pit! One ate people (still trying to figure that one out)! Some had a "W" carved into their foreheads (I guess we're done with them?)! This new one has a bat (and talks a lot)! I'm sure one down the line will dress like a clown and another will tickle his victims to death.
Along the way, each villain has taken down characters we've come to recognize — I wouldn't go as far to say "characters we know" since character development is not the show's strong suit — allowing Rick to do that sweaty, shaking thing he does with his face before he or someone else kills the villain and we move on to the next season. It's lather, kill a character, kill a villain, repeat.
All that's left to see with this show is how much it shocks or disturbs us, and "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" did both, quite well, I may add. But it's an empty feeling to sit around watching a show just to see who dies next, and how gruesome the death can be. The Walking Dead was designed to not have a story but have a rotating, expendable cast of characters who are marked for death for a finale or a midseason sag — depending on their importance. And because it's riding the rails of the source comics, it can't even be too surprising. (Glenn was also killed by Negan in the drawn version of the show and Abraham died earlier in the comics, so most knew who the likely victims were.)
To draw out that surprise, The Walking Dead is now resorting to cliffhangers and playing games with its audience. The Season 6 cliffhanger, was a new tactic — and low — for the show, and one that we'll have to accept will probably happen again. Glenn's teased death in Season 6 was cheap and never served the story, but stoked internet fires for more publicity. And the final reveal of Negan's first victim took 20 minutes and two commercial breaks.
Ratings were down in Season 6, and I suspect they'll be even further down in Season 7. So like the characters on screen, The Walking Dead is doing what it has to do in order to survive. Turn up the gore! Increase the fake-outs! Because without an actual story in place or the characters to carry it, The Walking Dead only has these options left. Now we have to subject ourselves to another one of the show's unfortunate traits: the long wait until the next big shock.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.