Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” titled “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.”
Oh my god! They killed Glenny!
Perhaps it’s not appropriate to greet the death of one of “The Walking Dead’s” oldest and most beloved characters with a cheap “South Park” pun, but after an episode as grotesquely gory and as cynically contrived as “They Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” laughter is the only sane response.
As if spending half a season building to the iconic moment from the 100th issue of Robert Kirkman’s comic book when the Saviors’ menacing leader, Negan, smashes in a character’s head with his trusty barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat wasn’t enough, showrunner Scott M. Gimple left viewers hanging over the break between seasons as to exactly whose melon went splat — and kept it up for 20 minutes into the new season. Glenn wasn’t even the first to be introduced to the wrong end of Lucille: that was Abraham, who managed to spit out a final word of defiance before Negan turned his skull into pulp. But after Daryl lunged at Negan, he decided the submissive spirit he aimed to instill in Rick’s band of survivors needed to be underlined once more, and without warning, he split Glenn’s head as well.
On a purely mechanical level, Abraham’s death was an effective bit of misdirection: Glenn died on TV just as he does in the comic book, right down to the final image of his dislodged eye twitching in a pile of bone and meat. (The episode instantly took its place as one of, if not the, goriest in the history of television.) By killing Abraham first, the show managed to surprise even diehard fans. But it did so at a profound cost to the bond between the show’s creators and its fans. By tricking viewers into believing for several episodes in the previous season that Glenn was dead, even removing actor Steven Yeun’s name from the opening credits, Gimple and co. showed they were more concerned with continually shocking their audience than keeping faith with them. Repeating that trick in reverse, making us think Glenn would survive Negan’s deadly game of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” until that fatal thwack, confirmed that the “The Walking Dead” isn’t taking its viewers by the hand so much as jerking us around. It’s increasingly difficult to escape the idea that this is a show that gets off on torturing its audience.
Negan wasn’t even done. First, he drove Rick way out into walker territory and made him to fight his way back to his own RV with only a hatchet to protect himself, and then he nearly forced Rick to cut off his own son’s arm with that same axe, relenting only when it became clear that Rick’s spirit had been definitively broken. During their chat in the RV, during which Rick slowly allowed himself to come to terms with what had happened — the show’s excuse for pushing the cliffhanger’s resolution back by several commercial breaks — Negan likened the deaths to Rick’s emasculation, with one body dropped for each castrating snip, and after Abraham’s death, Negan stood over his former lover, Rosita, with his glistening bat extended none-too-subtly from his hips. There’s no doubt who’s got the biggest one in town.
Maggie, who is pregnant with Glenn’s child, was the first to rise from her knees after Negan and the Saviors departed, and she was immediately determined to avenge his death. But Rick, for the first time in the show’s history, is beaten, and he knows it. Negan has an army at his disposal and he’s holding Daryl captive, but it’s not the practical details that keep Rick from rising to Maggie’s challenge. He’s held to the idea of himself as a protector since the beginning, the former country sheriff turned ruthless field commander, but that’s been ripped from him, and without it, there’s nothing left to grab onto.
With Rick speechless, at times near-catatonic, Negan had a good three-quarters of the episode’s dialogue, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan made the most of it, strutting amid the corpses with the cocky swagger of a high-school quarterback who knows he can have anyone he wants. (His tossed-off statement that his henchmen shouldn’t kill Daryl before they at least “try a little” suggests that he and his band are at least opportunistically bisexual, which is treacherous territory for a show that’s only introduced a handful of LGBT characters in 80-odd episodes.) He styles himself as realist who’s merely helping Rick and co. see the world the way it is now. “I bet you thought you were all going to grow old together,” he says, “sitting around the table at Sunday dinner.” But surely at this point, none of them think that, nor does anyone watching the show harbors the illusion that there’s a happily ever after on the horizon. It’s mildly astonishing that after six seasons of arbitrary deaths and lovingly calibrated cruelty that anyone involved with “The Walking Dead” thinks that this is still a point that needs to be made — or that there’s anything interest in continuing to make it.
Negan proclaimed more than once that this was a “new beginning,” and “The Walking Dead” seems to be counting on the arrival of a fan-favorite villain to juice up a show that’s spent its last couple of seasons shuffling in circles. But we already know this world is mean and heartless, that (almost) anyone can die at any moment. It always comes back to survival of the fittest, with one tentative attempt at rebuilding society after another reduced to blood-smeared rubble. How often will “The Walking Dead” pull the same trick before we conclude it’s got nothing else up its sleeve?