Death wasn’t the only painful part of the season premiere.
Much like the pointless ride Negan and Rick took after Lucille’s rampage, the Season Seven premiere of The Walking Dead was a long-winded meandering gimmick that only offered a sliver of brilliance during the last gasps of a drawn out episode.
The entire first half of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” could have been a stand-in for the finale recap that topped the beginning of the episode. As Negan drags a shell-shocked Rick off into his RV, we slowly relive the events at the end of Season Six, twice. First, through quick flashes of each member of Rick’s group trembling before Negan’s bat, as well as a blink and miss it montage of memories from past seasons. And then finally by rewatching the event again, this time from Rick’s perspective.
Although Rick is obviously shaken and truly broken by the events he has witness, it is difficult to tap into his grief without knowing whom he is grieving for. The decision to delay the big reveal doesn’t just alienate viewers from these emotions, it also fails to create the suspense that could have elevated this episode from heartless to the fresh start this show has been searching for. Instead of taught tension, each commercial break was a groan of frustration; another ten minutes of thankless devotion as the show toyed with viewers with the bullying bravado of Negan.
Finally, as Rick lies atop the RV smothered in fog and snarling walkers, his memory colors in the missing details. It was Abraham who caught the brunt of Lucille’s impact. But before we can truly process this, Daryl crawls out and slugs Negan. A small victory for our broken emotions and one that would be repaid in full with another unexpected but very expected death.
Admittedly, the misdirection was masterful. While we’re still reeling from the revelation of Abraham’s brutal death, here comes Negan swinging away like Merrill from Signs and connecting with the crown of Glenn’s skull. The death that was the most expected, that was anxiously anticipated and dreaded by fans who had either read the comic or heard about the outcome of Lucille vs. Glenn, still managed to elicit genuine surprise. It was one of the few triumphs in an incredibly difficult episode.
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Throughout the episode, Negan taunts and continuously breaks Rick into submission. First, by forcing him out into a roadblock swarming with walkers and thick with fog, and demanding he retrieve an axe. Eventually, Rick does this, although more than once Negan’s well-timed hails of gunfire save him from being swallowed by walkers. But this heavy-fisted (and painfully obvious) display of dominance doesn’t quite satisfy Negan and he drags Rick back in front of his people, threatening to kill them all unless Rick agrees to chop off Carl’s left hand. Rick finally breaks down and lifts the axe but, to no one’s surprise, Negan stops him, satisfied that he has Rick’s total submission. Perhaps to drive home the point for viewers who fell asleep during the episode’s first half, Negan is now in charge.
Finally, in the episode’s final moments, as the group sits silently reeling in the aftermath of grief and shock, we feel the depth of these losses and the true toll they have taken on the group. As Maggie staggers to her feet, inconsolable, she demands revenge from Rick, but he knows (as do we) that this is impossible. For now, they can only bury their dead and hope to hold together the haphazard remains of their very broken family.
Undoubtedly, the premiere, as well as Negan and The Saviors, brought a swift change to the status quo, not just by displacing Rick as de facto leader, but in destabilizing the relationships and alliances forged over time. Just as friends inevitably drift apart and families slowly splinter after unexpected deaths, these characters will not be able to recoup and soldier on as they’ve done for the past six seasons.
The true payoff of these deaths will come over the course of Season Seven and the newly announced Season Eight. Hopefully, with these events now finally revealed, the future episodes can ground themselves in the intricate group dynamics and the lingering damage left by grief that were hinted at in the episode’s final moments, rather than the cheap ratings-driven tricks it resorted to in the finale.