I’d been trying to come up with the right metaphor for living through the past few months of the presidential campaign, and on Sunday night, The Walking Dead suddenly provided it: Sitting through this election season has been like being pounded in the head over and over by Negan’s barbed-wire-covered baseball bat, until our brains turn to mush. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE SEASON 7 PREMIERE OF THE WALKING DEAD.
Typical of the low stakes that come with watching The Walking Dead, the previous season’s cliffhanger left us hanging about who would be Negan’s promised victim, because the only way TWD can generate suspense is by leaving its viewers wondering which of the show’s cast will be offed next. To the credit of comics-creator Robert Kirkman and showrunner Scott Gimple, they have apparently (from what I’ve heard and read, not being a consumer of these comics) found ways to ring changes in the comics’ narrative so as to both surprise and yet not enrage the hardcore fan base.
But in killing off not one but two major characters — Steve Yuen’s Glenn and Michael Cudlitz’s Abraham — TWD felt free to engage in a nearly pornographic violence, just to show you that it could up the brutality stakes on a show whose entire narrative is shaped around killing zombie-walkers ceaselessly. The first half-hour was a shameless tease. We flashed back to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan strutting back and forth as the cast assembled before him on their knees, playing Eeny Meeny Miney Moe as a delaying tactic to allow AMC to cram in many commercial ads before finally dispatching both victims.
As Steve Yeun and Michael Cudlitz each said in the super-expanded Talking Dead that followed the episode, their characters were living on borrowed time anyway; the only true suspense was whether good ol’ Sheriff Rick was going to chop off the left arm of his son, Carl, under the order of Negan, who provided a helpful Magic Marker line on the kid’s arm to show where the ax should land.
That bit of sadism was forestalled, probably because the producers decided two big character deaths complete with elaborately disgusting, disfiguring makeup and gallons of fake brain matter was sufficient to slake the audience’s blood lust for one season opener. The rest of the episode was about Negan breaking down Rick — and by extension, the viewing audience — psychologically. Negan’s speeches to Rick when they took off on what the villain called “a little trip” were meant to isolate Rick from the rest of the gang and put the fear of — well, does Rick believe in God? It’s likely Negan doesn’t — into the formerly bold leader.
Rick returned to the group a broken man, and Negan proclaimed, “Things have changed!” and “Whatever you had going for you, that is over now!” and “Welcome to a new beginning, you sorry sh**s!” It was TWD’s way of saying that seven seasons in, it’s still got a lotta killin’ to do, to hang in there. On some level, the cynicism of this is as audaciously nauseating as the deaths portrayed onscreen.
I don’t usually watch all of the Talking Dead episodes, but this expanded version on Sunday night was well worth it. As always, Chris Hardwick provides the earnestness — the soulfulness — that The Walking Dead itself lacks, and this week, it was in an outdoor setting that resembled a Survivor season finale, under a light Los Angeles rain. He quizzed the cast on its reaction before a sea of assembled, damp fans. There were the usual awkward actor interpretations of their own characters’ psychology — really, who cares what they think; it’s Kirkman, to all appearances a very thoughtful fellow, whose take we wanted, and he couldn’t say much without spoiling future episodes.
But it was fascinating to see how the cast related to one another. Did I misread the rather stiff body language between Yuen and the woman who plays Maggie, Lauren Cohan, as being a tad chilly? Certainly Cohan had very little to say when asked what she remembered most fondly of her now-former cast member and his character. Contrast that to the actor sitting on the other side of Yuen — Norman Reedus, who has striven to make Daryl only about three degrees different from the actor’s public personality. Reedus and Yuen greeted each other with warm bear hugs and revealed some genuine emotion over the death of Glenn. As for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, well, he seemed delighted as only a new cast member can that he’d walked into what will probably be the most popular role of his career (sorry, Good Wife fans, of whom I am one) and got to be the narrative force that has turned the show in a new direction.
All in all, not a great episode, but a savage and a useful one. The next time I see Donald Trump deliver his stump speech, I won’t be able to not think of him metaphorically pounding the heads of his rally-goers with the barbed-wire baseball bat of his rhetoric.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.