* * * WARNING – SPOILERS ABOUND * * *
Season 7 of ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered last October with the audience held in the palm of its’ hand. Although much derided for its’ blatant manipulation of fan emotion, the season premiere accomplished what it meant, to leave the cast of characters and the viewers exhausted and broken. This hour plus of television was one of, if not, the most brutally punishing hours ever inflicted on a mainstream audience, and it had some very unfortunate consequences on the quality of a once compelling series that is threatening to devolve after this disappointing cycle of episodes.
The premiere was structured to show the brutal murders of key characters Abraham and Glenn in flashback, a pacing error that plagued many of the episodes that would follow, including the uneven, if partially redeeming finale episode this past Sunday. Sadistic villain Negan was introduced, fully formed in Jeffery Dean Morgan’s polarizing performance, as a force of barbaric, alpha-male rule. His putrid cloud hovered over the plot and character beats for both halves of the season. The overbearing weight of his presence, felt over the communities introduced (The Hilltop, The Kingdom, The Sanctuary, Oceanside, and The Junkyard, all various examples of rebuilding society in different ways), could have represented a rallying cry for unification, but the plodding, drawn-out, and unbelievable scripts of this season tested even the most patient viewer.
While it may not be a stretch that Rick (Andrew Lincoln, really only shining in scenes of intensity) would defer to the new subservient paradigm in public, it should not have taken him a full half season to reject it privately amongst his confidants. Once he decided to start figuring out how to fight back, the show took a drastic, almost light-hearted tonal shift in its’ second half. While this may have worked for one-off episodes like last year’s entertaining road-trip episode starring Rick and Daryl, it’s best served in small doses, and not at a time when the crew needed to be readying for all-out war with Negan and his Saviors.
There were some great character beats and inspired macabre set-ups that stood out this season, peppered in amongst the tedium. Daryl’s incarceration and reintegration into the group provided some emotional heft (nice job, Norman Reedus). Rosita’s defiance and vital, if sometimes fallible, skills with ordinance was welcome characterization. Rick’s internal doubts about continuing to lead, shared with Michonne, provided real humanism. The same for Michonne’s rejection of Rick’s fealty to Negan. Eugene’s apparent defection to the Saviors was a surprising turn. The complicated relationship between Dwight and Negan made for some new drama. The junkyard arena zombie was a kick-ass design. Ezekiel’s unconventional cosplay method of leadership was illustrated in a positive light. The introduction of tiger Shiva didn’t equate to the Fonz jumping the shark on ‘Happy Days’. And of course, there was the great Jerry and his cobbler.
Despite these welcome additions to the burgeoning saga of TWD, the season was plagued by inaction, indecision, ridiculous moments, and false character choices. A healthy suspension of disbelief is required for a show about the zombie apocalypse, but this series always prided itself on presenting a ridiculous notion in a more grounded way; a veritable, “What would you do?” in a similar survival situation. Normally measured characters took chances that betrayed logic, all in service to catapulting the plot to the next inevitable point. Whole episodes were dedicated to side characters, which served only to grind any momentum building to a halt and did little to enrich the overall tapestry as these vignettes have done in seasons past.
When ‘The Walking Dead’ works, it can be a heart-stopping thrill-ride, an effective character driven drama, and a new world-building showcase. When it doesn’t, it can be a slogging chore of an experience. The season finale leaves the show with an opportunity – the core leaders of the communities, united in battle against a repressive regime. If the minds behind the program can craft compelling episodes around the various battles that may come to define the future of this local civilization and the emergence of a new set of ‘founding fathers’ per se, TWD might be able to redefine and redeem itself. If it continues on the path of rinse and repeat, this season may herald the decline of once great serial television . . .
* * (out of 4 stars) -OR- C