Sooner or later, we were going to get the episode “The Walking Dead” has been spinning its wheels all season to set up, and “Sing Me a Song,” the penultimate episode of the first half of the show’s seventh season—blame AMC’s cockamamie scheduling practices for the cumbersome terminology—is almost it. Things don’t happen as much as they threaten to imminently do so, but after five long weeks of table-setting, it’s a relief when the appetizers start showing up.
Like the Negan-centric “Service” before it, “Sing Me a Song” runs over an hour without commercials, yet another indicator of how much stock the show is placing in its bat-wielding Big Bad. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple and co. don’t seem to realize—or don’t care, given the opportunity to sell additional commercial time—that Negan becomes less frightening the more time we spend with him, like a movie monster that once it moves into the light looks more and more like a man in a rubber suit.
This week, it’s Carl quivering in the face of his menacing presence, after his not-especially-thought-out plan to infiltrate the Saviors’ compound goes pear-shaped. Carl does manage to take out two of the Saviors from his hiding place in the back of a supply truck, but Dwight gets a hold of his pilfered assault rifle before he can put a bullet in the man he’s come to kill.
Negan has smashed people’s skulls for far less, but for no apparent reason, he chooses to torment Carl rather than execute him, a move so corny you expect him to follow it by telling Carl his secret plan and leaving him tied up in a room with a ticking time bomb. Negan spends a lot of time in “Sing Me a Song” talking about the rules of the Saviors’ existence: Play along, and you get fresh vegetables at dinner; disobey, and your face has a date with a hot iron. “There are rules for a reason,” he explains. “Nothing matters when you’re dead.”
But Carl has broken those rules, and while he suggests that breaking him may be more “fun” and more useful than killing him, it hardly seems like a move someone as reliant as Negan on keeping his subjects in constant fear can afford to let slide. Instead, he settles for forcing Carl to unwrap his gauzy eyepatch and show him the gaping hole where his eye once was, at which point Carl’s adolescent bravado gives way to the vulnerable boy he still is underneath.
Back at Alexandria, there’s a running debate about whether to play by Negan’s rules. Eugene and Spencer, the safe zone’s resident cowards, are inclined to produce as ordered: Keep scavenging for the Saviors, and they’ll live another day. Spencer’s even considering fragging Rick, as he confesses to Father Gabriel during a supply run. Although he’s not required to keep the secret, Gabriel seems to give Spencer another chance, but he lets him know he’s stepped over the line. “What you’re saying doesn’t make you a sinner,” he tells him. “It does make you a tremendous shit.” Spencer goes on to luck into a treasure trove, deciphering the Latin instructions left in a zombie hoarder’s pocket. (“Someday this pain will be useful to you,” his mother’s favorite Ovid quote, is still paying off after her death.)
While that’s happening, Rosita forces Eugene to follow through on his promise to manufacture a bullet for her, and Michonne builds a roadblock out of walkers’ bodies in order to hijack one of the Saviors’ trucks. Dwight and Sherry have another clandestine smoke in the stairwell, and she asks him how he manages to sleep at night. “I don’t,” he replies. A few minutes later, a note slides under the door to Daryl’s cell that reads “Go Now,” with a key attached, although there’s no way of knowing whether one of his captors has had a change of heart or it’s another test like the one he failed before, and the consequences might be more severe this time. Rick and Aaron, out scavenging, stumble into territory marked off by a still-unseen protector with a penchant for scrawling menacing signs. And Negan makes his way back to Alexandria, threatens Olivia with rape and cuddles up to baby Judith on Rick’s porch. Oh, and Carl sings “You Are My Sunshine.”
So much is almost happening!
“Sing Me a Song” is a classic pre-finale setup, moving all the pieces into place for what’s likely to be an action-packed midseason finale. (Copies of next week’s finale will not be provided in advance, so the recap will follow an hour or so after the East Coast airing.) But much like the string of contrivances that led the various members of Rick’s group into Negan’s clutches at the end of last season, this concatenation of happenings is ungainly and crude, especially given how much time “The Walking Dead’s” writers have had to set the board.
This season has sidelined many of the show’s best characters—we haven’t seen Carol in five episodes!—while taking us on the scenic route and introducing us to a slew of new communities, all of which may pay off in the seventh season’s second half. But with one more episode before the break, we’ve spent a lot of time slogging through uninspired apocalypse tourism with very little to show for it, and not much time left to make it worth our while.