When you take a good hard look at TV’s most popular shows, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead occupy two of the top spots. Much of that revolves around a willingness of both shows, to kill off main characters to serve the larger story, and for the most part, it’s worked well. That strategy appeals to fans because it’s rooted in a level of brutality that seems sensible given the subject material. In the case of The Walking Dead, we expect danger to lurk around every corner, given the fact that our main characters live in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. But what happens when that’s taken too far?
That’s exactly what we saw take place in the Season 7 premiere, when the series finally revealed which character(s) bit the dust following Season 6’s controversial cliffhanger. The only problem is that it also represented a version of The Walking Dead that’s nigh unwatchable. Here’s why.
1. The premiere still tried to play coy with the reveal in the opening moments of the episode
If you’re going to close out a season with a heart-wrenching cliffhanger, you’d best be sure you’re ready to provide your audience with immediate answers the following season. What we got instead was a premiere that didn’t tell us anything until upwards of 20 minutes in, continuing to keep us in the dark until the show felt good and ready. We understand that suspense is oftentimes the thing that keeps people coming back. That said, fans waited an entire summer for answers, and to have them wait almost half the premiere to finally get them carries a boatload of thematic problems.
2. The Negan-run world of The Walking Dead is one that no one would conceivably live in
Part of the issue for any show set in a post-apocalyptic world is that it needs to give its characters a reason to live. Whether it’s to build a new, better world, or simply for a sense of community, you have to feel like survival is worth all the effort. So when Negan shows up, beats the ever-loving bejeezus out of Abraham and Glenn, takes Rick on the road trip from hell, and then, after all that, almost has Rick amputate his own son’s arm, you start to question why anyone would actually want to live in this world in the first place. It’s the same issue Game of Thrones had before finally killing off Ramsay Bolton, and with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan) firmly entrenched as an official regular cast member, it’s one that The Walking Dead will have for the foreseeable future.
3. The violence finally reached a point of diminishing returns
The Walking Dead has never been shy about graphic violence, and for the most part, that’s worked in its favor. Audiences today have become reasonably desensitized to TV violence. Even a recent episode of Chicago Fire, a widely-watched and far less controversial network series, recently showed someone getting half their face burnt off in an explosion. All that makes it pretty difficult to have The Walking Dead‘s audience feeling queasy over a couple of split skulls. Yet somehow, that’s exactly what the Season 7 premiere ended up doing. The violence crossed into overtly sadistic territory, and it wasn’t a good look.
The sum total of watching two characters get their heads bashed in, Negan’s emotional torture of Rick, and then finally, the aforementioned, “Dad almost forced into cutting his own son’s arm off with an axe” incident, was a brutal hellscape of blood and gore that proved difficult to watch. Or as The Mary Sue described it in their own review of the episode, “a seven-layer cake of sadism.”
4. When we finally did find out who died, it was hard to feel like it even mattered
When a major character dies on a popular TV show, it’s meant to land with a certain narrative weight. You’re supposed to truly mourn for that person, namely because the implications of their death dramatically alter the dynamic of a story you’ve gotten comfortable with over multiple seasons. It was tough to feel that way when Negan’s horrific game of “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe” singled out Abraham. By the time that Glenn ended up getting chosen as the second victim, the deaths of both characters were secondary to Negan’s endless monologuing.
So how will that change the dynamic of the group moving forward? Maggie will certainly be affected, and Rick is an entirely broken man at this point. But we never got to really feel any of that, with much of it getting drowned out entirely in the Season 7 premiere.
5. The Ramsay Bolton dilemma
This one stems from a self-created problem that began on Game of Thrones. The overarching issue is rooted in creating a villain so eminently despicable, that the longer you keep him around, the less your audience actually wants to see him at all. This in turn creates a dilemma, since that villain needs to be alive in order to push the story forward, while at the same time, viewers are simply biding their time until he kicks the bucket.
The Walking Dead created that problem for themselves with Negan, and it’s showing no sign of resolving itself anytime soon. To the Game of Thrones‘ credit, they shuffled Ramsay Bolton off with one of the best episodes in the show’s history. But given what we’ve seen so far from The Walking Dead, it’s difficult to have faith that it can do something similar with Negan. Simply put, the best villains aren’t the ones that feel like a chore to watch.
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