The Walking Dead Might Be Its Own Villain

The hit AMC show ended its sixth season on a cheap cliffhanger. Its seventh-season premiere messily tried to regain momentum.


Lenika Cruz and David Sims discuss the first episode of the new season of The Walking Dead. While they won’t be reviewing weekly episodes this season, they will be covering any noteworthy developments, so stay tuned.

David Sims: There’s a simple way to figure out when a popular TV show has gone bad, and that’s when it seems to exist only to punish its audience. The Walking Dead spent the entirety of its last season building up the arrival of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a baseball bat-wielding villain who promised to tear the show’s group of heroes asunder. The show spent months promising at least one major death at his hands. Characters we met spoke of him in portentous tones; Chris Hardwick, the energetic host of the show’s propaganda organ Talking Dead, helped tease fan excitement; and writers online made elaborate predictions about who would survive.

Negan finally arrived in the show’s April finale, kidnapping many of the main characters and killing one of them with his barbed-wire bat after a drawn-out game of eeny meeny miny moe. Viewers didn’t find out who; Negan simply struck the camera until blood ran down the screen, an eerily apt metaphor for the show’s treatment of its audience. Sunday night, in the episode “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” fans finally found out who his victim was, after 20 further minutes of further drawn-out tension. The episode flashed forward to a traumatized Rick (Andrew Lincoln), watched Negan’s theatrical build-up to the murders two more times, and then finally, revealed the truth. Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) was the first to go, serving almost as a misdirect, since Negan then beat the fan-favorite character Glenn (Steven Yeun) to death as well.

Both murders were horrifically gory, with Negan pausing to behold his deformed victims after one strike of the bat, before then furiously mashing their head into paste. Just as in the comics, Glenn’s eye popped out of his skull—his death mirrored the notorious 100th issue of the comics almost exactly, with Negan using the murder to demonstrate his supremacy over Rick’s group. But it’s hard to know where the show can go from here. If the idea is to build Negan into a grand villain you want to see toppled, then mission accomplished. But given The Walking Dead’s history of dragging out such stories, it’s likely we’ll get a whole season or more of Negan dominating and brutalizing the group while they devise plans to strike back.

In essence, it all seems far too obvious. This is forgivable in a pulpy comic book, which is just 22 pages per month; story arcs can be forgivably slow, since they come in such short, intense bursts. But even one hour-long episode of Negan proved too much for me—I don’t know that I’d really want to check back in with him for 60 minutes every week. There’s not much to his character outside of his sheer cruelty. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a grade-A ham who can turn the thinnest antagonist into a magnetic screen presence just by playing him with gusto, but that doesn’t forgive the inherent weakness of Negan’s character. He’s a bully, the leader of a grand protection racket who takes care of zombies and in return demands food and goods from nearby communities. If people step out of line, he beats them to death.

The Walking Dead has long been interested in exploring man’s inhumanity. Even though it’s set in the zombie apocalypse, its chief villains have always been people, tyrants who turn the new world to their advantage. Negan is just another one of those, someone you’d like to see dispatched in three episodes. But the entire point of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” was that his character isn’t going anywhere. The ritualized murder of Glenn and Abraham was part of a larger scheme to convince Rick never to rebel against him. One assumes Rick will eventually regain his nerve, but after this week’s nightmarish violence, that will likely take a whole season. Lenika, you’ve been watching and reviewing The Walking Dead with me for years now—do you have the stomach to stay on board for this upcoming season?

Lenika Cruz: If I’m being honest, it’s hard to say definitively. Yes, even after declaring in April that we were fed up with this show, we both tuned in to find out what happened. How could we not? It’s hard to quit watching a show solely on principle, or out of righteous anger, after sticking with it for six seasons through good and bad. Though I was still incensed about the way The Walking Dead left things off in the season-six finale, I wanted to find out whether the new story arc would indeed justify the show’s disastrous cliffhanger (as the show’s executives had insisted it would).

Like you David, I don’t think it did. The season-seven premiere answered the central question—who will Negan kill?—but gave already disgruntled viewers plenty else to be frustrated by. The episode dragged out the reveal of Negan’s first victim, Abraham, for a full 22 minutes. The emotional impact of watching Glenn later get his skull bashed in was diminished by the messiness of the moments leading up to that moment, plus the finale cliffhanger, plus the dumpster fakeout. I felt as though I had already grieved Glenn back in season six and couldn’t bring myself to do that again. (Unfortunately, I had heard about Jeffrey Dean Morgan confirming that Negan would kill more than one person in the premiere, so the Abraham death wasn’t much of a misdirect for me.)

I recognize that the purpose of the episode was to break Rick Grimes, to extinguish any remaining belief in him that he was the alpha. But unlike in a more decentralized but comparable violent show such as Game of Thrones—where few heroes are safe, and where the power dynamics can always shift dramatically—The Walking Dead is limited in terms of plot reversals. While it could be interesting to explore how the group deals with living in total submission to Negan and his Saviors, it’s hard to imagine a future for the show in which Negan doesn’t get his comeuppance and Rick’s rule is restored in some form or another. Sunday’s episode did very little to sell me on the idea that a smart, complex season lies ahead.

Let’s be real—no one still watching this show today has a weak tolerance for violence. So the fact that so many people (judging from social media) were disgusted by the sheer gore on display suggests that The Walking Dead veered into something much darker; call it torture porn or sadism or cruelty for cruelty’s sake. There’s nothing stopping bloodshed from coinciding with or even amplifying good storytelling (the comics handled the bat-bashing scene much differently and more elegantly, even if it was still graphic). But the grisly theatrics, combined with the awkward momentum, were difficult to accept as a necessary cost in service of some higher-minded, novel idea.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t watch The Walking Dead because I think it’s a holistically great series (even though it has had many moments of brilliance). On some level I regret all the hours I could have invested in a different, better show—but I keep coming back out of habit, out of hope that something will change, because I still genuinely care about many of the characters. I’m far from the only person who feels this way, and AMC and the show’s executives know that all too well. Which is why they can take advantage of the show’s massive viewership and pull stunts that defy narrative integrity in the name of artistry. The show doesn’t really need to tell a consistently good story in order to get people to tune in (though I know there are fans who genuinely thought this was a terrific premiere episode that exceeded their expectations). If I keep paying attention, it’ll be out of something far closer to empty resignation than love.