This review is based off the season premiere.
The nightmarish vision of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) swinging his barbed wire baseball bat Lucille back and forth, our band of grizzled heroes spread out before him, on their knees, at his mercy, haunted The Walking Dead fans all summer, and on Sunday the show returned to pay off one of the most intense, divisive, high-stakes television cliffhangers in memory. Who met their untimely demise at the end of Negan’s deathstick?
If the suspense didn’t kill you over these past few months, the season 7 premiere, titled “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” likely finished the job. It’s the most emotionally devastating episode in the series yet, sinking to the lowest levels of despair, degradation and tragedy while also vaulting the show’s larger narrative forward with more momentum than ever.
The premiere picks up moments after the bloody beating that closed last season, with the blood of Negan’s victim splashed across Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) right cheek. The episode holds onto the big reveal a little longer (to the infuriation of many, to be sure), as Negan throws Rick into the group’s RV to go on a little “joy ride.”
As the morning sun begins to rise, they arrive at a mysterious location shrouded in fog, and in yet another sick game of intimidation, Rick is ordered by the leather-clad Big Bad to fetch an ax that he’s thrown on the roof of the camper, which is (of course) surrounded by a crowd of walkers. With a gun to his head and the lives of his group hanging in the balance, Rick obliges.
“You are mine,” Negan growls, inches away from Rick’s trembling chin. Brilliantly, the episode continues the idea that anchored the season 6 finale, “Last Day On Earth,” following further the psychological deconstruction of the once-mighty leader of men.
In an artful shuffle of chronology, we’re taken back to Negan’s deadly game of “eeny meeny miny moe,” where it’s revealed that it was Abraham’s (Michael Cudlitz) eyes that filled with blood in that cliffhanger POV shot. As if that weren’t enough, as a result of fan-favorite Daryl (Norman Reedus) landing a vengeful fist on Neegan’s mug, the equally beloved Glenn (Steven Yeun) meets his maker as well, in a gruesome re-creation of the iconic death from issue #100 of the comic book.
The gore is as unsightly as one would expect from the infamously stomach-turning series, but what makes the death of Glenn in particular so devastating is the fact that we’ve come to know him intimately, over a long period of time. Therein lies the beauty and the curse of The Walking Dead: Never before have we followed zombie-apocalypse survivors for this long, and never before have such bloody, brutal deaths been so deeply felt. “I’ll find you” says Glenn in his final message to Maggie (Lauren Cohan), a vow to continue searching for her (like he has for the past five seasons, it seems) for all eternity. If that line doesn’t do you in, I don’t know what will.
Mercilessly, the episode doesn’t end with the death of Glenn, instead facing Rick with an impossible decision: cut Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) arm off “like salami” or he, the rest of the group, and the denizens of Alexandria all die. It should come as a relief when Negan stops Rick just short of amputating his own son’s limb, but what resonates truer is the look on Lincoln’s face.
The pain, the tears, the desperation – it all looks eerily real, which is a testament to the British actor’s ever-evolving talent. The rest of the cast match his intensity, with Reedus’ Daryl seething as he’s thrown in the back of a van to be taken prisoner by Negan, and Cohan’s Maggie racked with grief and rage as she stands over her dead lover. A lot has been made of the rough conditions the cast endures when making the show, and in this episode more than any other, you can see the real-life sacrifice on each and every one of their faces.
As challenging as it is, if you take a look at the premiere clear-headedly, tears wiped away, you’ll find a carefully constructed, terrific episode of television that takes the series to new heights. Never before have we seen Rick and the group look this helpless and utterly defeated, and the loose ends we’re left with are endlessly intriguing.
By season 7, most series begin to lose steam or lose their identity, but The Walking Dead somehow feels as fresh, thrilling, dramatic, and exciting as it did in its early days, if not more so. The showrunners are pushing the envelope the right way, and they can get away with showing us the most disgusting, disturbing things imaginable because after seven years, frankly, they’ve earned it.
The most devastating episode in the history of The Walking Dead also vaults the show forward with more momentum than ever before.