For a show that established where the line should be then gleefully crossed it many, many episodes ago, it’s hard to believe The Walking Dead was capable of shocking us any further.
But, for viewers of the season 7 premiere, any semblance of preparation for the events about to unfold were summarily smashed and ground into the dirt in horrifyingly emphatic fashion.
It’s not as though fans of the series are unused to genuinely shocking moments. After all, over the seasons, the writers have developed an uncanny ability to play to the viewers’ fears whilst tugging on their heartstrings in an almost mocking fashion.
We’ve witnessed the much-loved Herschel beheaded at the hands of The Governor; endured Rick’s descent into madness as his wife, Lori, died during childbirth (and was subsequently eaten); watched Carol shoot twelve-year-old Lizzie following the murder of her own sister; and perhaps, most begrudgingly of all, sit through poor Sam Anderson’s grisly dismemberment at the hands of a horde of ravenous zombies.
So, despite the introduction of Negan and the promise that season 7 would begin in the most spectacular of fashion, Walking Dead viewers were ready, right?
The Walking Dead played on our fears — and then some
One of our beloved main characters was set to feel the bite of Lucille, Negan’s trusty wire-clad baseball bat — that much was abundantly clear, and the months leading up to last night’s unveiling have been rife with speculation as to who.
Would it be Glenn, who’d already suffered a rather ignominious fake death earlier in the season? Could it be his wife, Maggie, who has the added emotional weight of pregnancy? What about Carl? That’s guaranteed to fuck Rick up. Or how about Daryl, the all-action, arse-kicking anti-hero?
In the end, The Walking Dead did what it does best; it drew out our fears, dangling the tantalising fruits of six months of speculation right before our eyes, before exploding them in much the same way as poor Abraham’s head did when it was he who fell victim to Negan’s ruthlessness.
Yet, even as we watched in horror as Negan beat Abraham to a blood pulp, you couldn’t help but feel like the show was simply warming up. Abraham had his fans, for sure, but he wasn’t the “big character” the show’s creators had promised.
And yet there never felt like there was even a whiff of hope. No indication that perhaps our most beloved characters, some of whom have been on the journey since the very beginning, were going to escape.
In an hour of television that transitioned masterfully from one scene of utter dejection to the next, you couldn’t help but watch. It was quite possibly the most harrowing hour that’s ever graced the small screen, but it was never not compelling at its very core.
Thus, the viewer was rewarded for his or her resilience when Daryl invoked the wrath of Negan, striking him across the face following the murder of Abraham.
It transpires lightning can strike twice
It was poor Glenn who paid the price. Glenn, who first saved Rick back in the very first episode; Glenn, the guy who’s saved the group from utter annihilation countless times; Glenn, who’s relationship with Maggie was one of the few genuinely touching things to come out of the post-apocalyptic shit storm that is The Walking Dead.
Many thought he would escape Negan’s punishment (even though his character does meet his end at Negan’s hand in the comics) thanks to his “death” in the alleyway, that later turned out to only be a cruel red herring.
Instead, his presumed earlier demise appeared to be more a case of foreshadowing.
In that moment, when Glenn was beaten to death with such vicious indignity, you really felt like there was nothing left The Walking Dead could do to rob you off hope. Not only was Glenn dead, he left behind Maggie — who’s already seen her father beheaded and her sister shot. Glenn was all she had left.
But there was one final trick in store for us.
We finally saw Rick break — and it was gut-wrenching to witness
Rick, who’s served as a paragon of authority, the pinnacle of survival instinct, the man who’s fought off countless adversaries and dragged his friends and family through every mess they’ve found themselves in, was reduced to a snivelling, hollow shell of a man at the hands of Negan.
Accustomed as we are to so often seeing Rick in control of a situation, it was anathema to see him broken by Negan. It felt worse than the deaths of Abraham and Glenn. They paid with their lives, but Rick, the perennial and proverbial beacon of hope, was extinguished — and that light was doused when Negan gave him one final choice: cut off your son’s arm or see everyone you know and love perish.
If you’d considered the previous forty-five minutes a masterclass in how to rob an audience of hope and instil in them a sense of complete and utter dejection, then The Waking Dead managed to outdo itself again.
With Rick broken, it feels like nothing will ever be right again.
There is finally a worthwhile adversary again
If there’s one thing the writers of the show can execute flawlessly, it’s making the viewer loathe a villain. And it’s what the show has needed once more.
However, while Negan has left a generation of fans distraught, his introduction makes perfect sense in narrative terms. The show craves that antithesis to Rick and all that he’s fighting for. The Governor provided it, Terminus threatened to restore it; and now Negan has resurrected it.
In Negan, The Walking Dead has established a villain with whom there is absolutely no empathy. The Governor was terrifying, but there was an understanding to him: he’d lost his family, seen everything he had burn, but with Negan, on the back of this episode alone, there feels like there’s no limit to his malice.
His character supplies the much-needed antagonist of thoroughly terrifying proportions that stops the show from becoming a bunch of people wandering about in the woods killing zombies.
He didn’t just kill a few of the show’s favourite characters, he stripped the show’s driving force of its principles; he took any wisp of hope and crushed it.
Season 7 of The Walking Dead is going to make for some horrendously difficult viewing.