Ghouls of Engagement.
By Matt Fowler
Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead: Season 7 follow…
The Walking Dead stormed into Season 7 with one of the most anticipated premieres of its run, thanks in large part to some summertme-long speculation about which character would fall to Negan’s barbed wire bat (surprise, it was two characters!). It wrapped up, however, with the lowest rated season finale since Season 2.
So what gives? What slowed this show’s roll so considerably? Well, it certainly didn’t help that Season 7 was Walking Dead’s most self-indulgent and turgidly-paced season to date. Being this many years into a zompocalypse story with no clear endgame, and taking into consideration a giant ensemble of characters that need to be serviced properly, Walking Dead began to crack and crumble under its own sheer weight and self-importance. Gone were most of the silly tricks and needlessly deceptive tactics of Season 6, but in their place was a rather plodding and ponderous season that slow-burned us into a rather flat payoff.
Basically, everything branched out of the tragedy and terror of an overcooked and bloated season premiere that saw both Glenn and Abraham get used as gimmicks for the buzz bin mystery that kept the conversation about the show going between seasons. For an hour and a half, the episode broke Rick down to a point of submission while stretching the misery out so that we, as viewers, could buy that Rick — a man who’d once been driven so mad that he imagined phone calls with his dead wife — was somehow now pushed to a breaking point.
From there, the rest of Season 7, the entirety of Season 7, was about picking up the pieces. So much so that the second half became one long bizarre and banal scavenger hunt for guns and goods so that all the action (and tiger attacks) could be saved for the finale. And because the cast is so big, and episodes would take turns checking in with characters and locations, we got to the point where we were six months out from the premiere and still dealing with Daryl’s guilt regarding Glenn – a point that no longer really resonated all that well simply due to the pacing and construct of the storytelling.
The best parts of Season 7 had to do with world building. The introduction of The Kingdom, King Ezekiel, and the entire shared delusion of that community was great. In fact, because Season 7 was such a morbid year (for an already dire and dour series), it was the moments of levity that really shined. Like with that first Kingdom episode, “The Well,” or “Say Yes,” where Rick and Michonne were off on their own, getting some quality couple time, and slaying walkers in a carnival. Also, for what it’s worth, I count watching Saviors and Trash People get mauled by a tiger as “good times.” So those beats in the season finale certainly made for some amusing carnage.
From a “new community” standpoint, seeing how the Saviors operate, rules and points and all, was a nice diversion. It’s just that, perhaps, we spent too much time there. After our first go around with Dwight and Daryl (“The Cell”), we returned to get a second tour with Carl (“Sing Me a Song”), and then, later on again with Eugene (“Hostiles and Calamities”). Each time, we repeated many of the same beats as before – on a show where many of the moral dilemmas and ethical quagmires already get recycled quite a bit (we’re seven years in now, the ground’s drying up). After a while, it became “more of the same.” Which is a good way to segue over to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan.
Morgan was great as Negan, creating a commanding, dominating, charismatic presence that oozed both sleaze and reason. The character was overused though and kept onscreen too much. Hell, he was overused just in the season premiere, but especially following that it began to stand out. The last thing you want to do with a villain like Negan is wear him out or make him too predictable. You don’t want him to feel like a novelty, or a catchphrase machine. You want to get the sense that he could talk your ear off, but you don’t actually want him to do it. This is one of the instances where some restraint, with regards to converting comic page to screen, would have worked wonders.
It was also a huge stretch to buy that there weren’t constant attacks on Negan’s life, from both outside and inside his organization. It was hard to believe that Rosita’s attempt to kill him was an outlier event. In the back half of the season, some of Negan’s “wives” conspired to see him dead, and that was a welcome turn, but you still had to wonder why Negan was, occasionally, coming off as too trusting – and a little dense, like when he believed Dwight’s story about Sherry, and subsequently the framing of Dr. Carson. To that extent too, did Negan really buy Eugene’s story about how Sasha died? We leave the season now with Negan — an adversary who was somehow clever enough to cut a surprise deal with the Scavengers — standing on a balcony, talking about war, with two secret traitors in his midst.
The season finale was a good episode, but a rather soft finale. Imagine if that episode had come a few weeks sooner and hadn’t been the one to take us out of the season. We could have left the story with a smidgen of momentum instead of it all just feeling like an okay ending to a sluggish spring run. Sasha’s death was well done, but she wasn’t a big enough character to hang your seasonal hat on. That’s not to discount that she’s been around since Season 3, but most of the time she was defined by who she’d just lost – be it Bob or Tyrese or Abraham. Rosita, on the flip side, sort of blossomed in the wake of the season premiere. With Abraham gone, she could rise up and be more of a force on the series. Sure, she was often a stubborn and frustrating force, but we now leave this season with a much clearer sense of who she is and what she can contribute.
Showrunner Scott Gimple has already come out saying that Season 8 will be a faster-moving, more intense season, which is great to know, and also fitting considering that we’re now on the precipice of war. Plus, with Alexandria, Hilltop, and The Kingdom now aligned in ideals, things might flow a bit smoother from an ensemble standpoint. Having the Scavengers over on the enemy side too helps matters since they’re a rather ridiculous gang who feels even more out of step with the actual world of the show than the purposefully obtuse Kingdom crew. I was happy to see Negan make fun of them a little bit there, in the season finale, because they’ve been slimy and questionably cartoonish from the get go.
Season 7 effectively expanded the world of the show, giving Walking Dead a much larger palette to paint on. However, the pacing and structure of the season, as a whole, made for an often lumbering and wallowing watch. For a long stretch, especially in the second half of the season, it felt like things never quite picked up or caught on, and that everything was being saved for the finale – which wound up not being quite meaty enough to justify the months of fasting. Jeffrey Dean Morgan brought a vibrant electricity to a fundamentally flat season, but Negan was overused to the point of becoming a one-trick pony.