Critic's Notebook: On 'The Walking Dead' Season 7 Premiere, Sadism and the 2016 Election

AMC's hit series killed off two popular characters, but where does it go from here?
Gene Page/AMC
'The Walking Dead'
[This article discusses Sunday's season seven premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead with spoilers. And pizza rolls.] 

The thing about pizza rolls is that they lack the structural integrity required to cook them properly. If you cook them for the time suggested on the package, they're raw and the cheese stays lumpy and congealed. If you cook them long enough to make them hot and crispy, their insides spew out everywhere, leaving sizzling piles of delicious viscera clinging to your oven tray — stains that never can be fully removed, no matter how hard you scrub. Out, damn'd cheese-and-sauce spot, indeed.

For that reason, it was wholly appropriate that after perhaps the grossest moment in the series' run — six seasons characterized by the eating of flesh, the tearing of sinew and the progressive decomposing of human tissue — The Walking Dead cut away to a run of commercials highlighted by an ad for Totinos. 

And they say this is a show you shouldn't watch while eating! 

Sunday's Walking Dead premiere was both a commercial for the appetizing joy of forcibly ejected, gooey innards and also for the artistic act of leaving things in the oven for far longer than common sense or instructions would dictate.

Common sense would dictate that after an April finale promising the death of at least one character at the hands of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan and his wire-wrapped bat Lucille, Walking Dead would attempt to resolve its cliffhanger with relative expediency. After all, most of the endless speculation from the past six months was built around the assumption that more than just one character was going to be offed in the premiere. But that's not the way The Walking Dead works. 

Rewatching the season six finale before Sunday's premiere, I was reminded that the episode concluded with seemingly 30 minutes of Negan monologuing about how evil he was and about how our intrepid band of survivors were about to be consumed into his vast empire, but only after somebody got beat up by a baseball bat. No matter how good Morgan is at being bad, nobody needed that much monologuing to prove his badness. (So says the writer who began this recap with an extended analogy involving pizza rolls. Unlike The Walking Dead, I'm well aware of my own hypocrisy.) Anybody who thought the premiere was going to be quick with the reveal just doesn't watch the show, which doesn't mean I didn't laugh extensively when we got to the first commercial break knowing no more than when we started and when the show made it 16 minutes in before we learned that the first victim of Negan's anger management issues was …

Abraham.

Farewell to the talented Michael Cudlitz, who will now certainly move on to meatier parts, or at least to a well-paid run as the most likely suspect on CBS procedurals, before he gets his next series role. Abraham was the perfect person for Walking Dead to kill and the perfect person for Negan to kill. For Negan, it was a bully taking out the biggest kid in the school yard to assert his alpha status. For the show, it was killing a character whom the audience had enough affection for to make some impact, but not enough affection for viewers to revolt. Like if you kill Daryl? Viewers stop watching. You kill Aaron? Viewers say, "Who is that guy they keep cutting to who I barely remember?" A couple onscreen characters will be somewhat unhappy about Abraham dying, but it's probably only a "5" on the grief scale.

Abraham got to be defiant, he got to be strong enough to require roughly eight gory kisses from Lucille and he got to depart with the tremendous send-off, "Suck my nuts."

What more could anyone ask for?

Totinos? An end to the violence? 

Ha!

Instead, we waited through commercials and Negan decided he hadn't made his point well enough, so he introduced Lucille to …

Glenn.

Obviously, this one hurt. Emotionally, I mean. Sure, the show already killed Glenn off last fall and some fans freaked out and other fans were more skeptical and then it turned out that Glenn wasn't really dead at all, so killing Glenn for a second time was nothing if not anticlimactic in concept — again, The Walking Dead left the pizza rolls in the oven too long — but the first time we thought he died, it wasn't accompanied by minutes of his pregnant wife screaming, wailing and sobbing. And the first time we thought he died, he didn't have the indignity of his eye popping out and a crushed skull and macerated brains rendering him unable to even say something as clever as "Suck my nuts."

Glenn's death, even presaged by Glenn's previous death, will impact everybody on the show on a "9" or "10" level, even if my own reaction was muted by the repetition.

Basically, Negan took away two of Rick's lieutenants, or as he more coarsely put it, he lopped off Rick's balls, rendering him a blubbering eunuch. In this scenario, is Rick himself the penis? Is Daryl the penis? What is the final point of emasculation that Negan could inflict if he chooses to? Or was that what Negan was hoping to symbolize when he demanded Rick chop Carl's left arm off? (Did you also hope that Walking Dead was going to top its Totinos plug by cutting from Carl pleading "Just do it!" to a Nike commercial?) Or was Negan making a reference to the binding of Isaac and forcing Rick to have Rosh Hashanah Torah portion flashbacks? 

Or was it just another point of sadism to push the edge of the envelope further and further in an episode that was essentially nonstop traumatization and nonstop sadism? Because we're smart enough to recognize which characters are heroes and which are villains in this particular zombie soap opera, we know that Negan's mistakes were pretty much nonstop. We know he underestimated with Rick. We know that his bringing Daryl with him into his fold can't possibly be smart. We know that whatever economic advantage Negan thinks he's going to get from our heroes, they're not going to be worth the tsuris he just brought upon himself. And now we've set ourselves up for a march to torturing and killing Negan that, knowing the show, is bound to be interminable. 

At this point, everything on Walking Dead has moved into the realm of the interminable. This episode was nonstop torture porn (and Totinos commercials) for 50 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of grief porn, but I'm not going to lie and say it wasn't effective, albeit perhaps not in exactly the way the show intended. Was I on the edge of my seat after 15 minutes? Sure, but I was champing at the bit for Negan to do something. And once he started the carnage by killing Abraham, I knew with certainty that this wasn't going to be the big death in the episode, because as much as I like Cudlitz, that wasn't going to be enough to slake the thanos-craving appetites of the viewers, so from there I wasn't dreading Negan's next move — I was hoping we'd get there already. 

The episode became a condensed version of the excruciating election coverage I've been watching on CNN for months, even though I know I probably shouldn't. The unrelenting misery of Walking Dead obviously hasn't turned off most of its audience, but I'm mostly watching now because I've put in so much time that I can't not watch. I know that when I root for the show to concentrate on survival or on character interactions that I'm not watching for the stuff that the creative team is writing for. They're writing to make everything hurt for as long as possible and to make sure that you fully understand Robert Kirkman's key themes of The Walking Dead and its far worse prequel Fear the Walking Dead: Surviving a zombie apocalypse is just the beginning and — brace yourself, because this is going to blow your mind — as bad as the zombies might be, the truest evil comes from the hearts of men.

Nobody watches The Walking Dead at this point because they want to witness the rebirth of civilized society, just as nobody watched the last Trump and Clinton debate to learn their respective policy positions, or to see democracy in action. We watch for a prolongation and elongation of misery. We watch for the torture. If we watch, I mean. Because this stupid election is going to end eventually, but Walking Dead isn't going anywhere for years to come and you wouldn't be wrong to wonder where the light at the end of the tunnel is and if an absence of light leaves viewers as powerless as Rick Grimes slapping away zombies in the smoke-filled dawn as Negan yells for him to retrieve his ax.

Morgan at least offers something that nothing on the show has offered for a long time, possibly since The Governor. The walkers are mechanical killing machines. They get no more pleasure out of what they're doing than I get from watching these days. But Negan? To paraphrase Mel Torme, he gets a kick out of goo. The reason why he monologizes at such monotonous lengths is that he's getting off on the inhumanity of it all and that's entertaining on a level that makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty, but a level that keeps my dulled eyes glued to his manic eyes. If you hate Hillary Clinton, you hate her for all of the reasons she's like the walkers. You think she's bent on world domination, but you think that her motives are robotic and represent a status quo that has taken over a world you once thought was yours. If you hate Donald Trump, you hate him for the reasons he's like Negan. Though he has done a stupid thing here, Negan's not stupid. He knows the world is lost and he probably wouldn't know what to do with his power if he fully took over, but he likes to make people suffer and to accumulate wealth that's meaningless to him. The walkers want power and control, but Negan just wants to watch the world burn. (Others have a different take on this political analogy.)

Morgan's performance in the season premiere was on point, but he was hardly the only actor to capitalize on things hitting rock bottom. Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan also were superb, as they tend to be, but just as the never-ending downward crawl ought to be exhausting for Walking Dead viewers, it has to be exhausting for the actors as well. In what way could these characters get hurt worse? Well, I guess one still has a kid — with one eye and two arms! — and the other may have one on the way. Ugh. And once you've watched multiple characters bludgeoned with a dripping crimson baseball bat, what slaughter could possibly have an impact?

The Walking Dead just is what it is at this point. And the way I figure it, I can't quit now. And the way I also figure it is that the success of the show has helped AMC justify multiple renewals for Halt and Catch Fire, a show whose ratings might have called for instant cancellation. So lurch on, The Walking Dead. Lurch on.

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