The masters of comedy understand the importance of timing. A good joke can be elevated by landing at just the right time, not a beat sooner or later. This is far from a secret and far from exclusive to comedy—it's a rule that extends to all storytelling—yet few people are able to fully grasp it. And the minds behind The Walking Dead: they are not those few.
The Walking Dead season 7 premiere finally arrived last night, and with it the answer to whose head was tenderized by Negan’s bat, 202 days, 23 hours, and 30 minutes after the single finger of a cliffhanger in the season 6 finale. The writers, producers, actors, and showrunnner Scott M. Gimple insisted through the near year-long hiatus that the wait would be worth it, that the premiere would make up for the fan outrage of being left with a bloody, obfuscating point-of-view shot from the perspective of Negan’s victim.
They were, no pun intended, dead wrong.
Spoiler alert: both Abraham and Glenn were bludgeoned to bits. On paper, that may seem shocking and emotional, but the route we were forced to take to get there stripped the moment of any impact. This episode wasn't satisfying, it was brutal and largely gratuitous. As if the break hadn’t been arduous enough, Negan had to spend nearly half the episode tormenting Rick further before we learned via flashback that our new villain beat the shit out of Abraham and then gave Glenn the same treatment as punishment for Daryl’s retaliation. Watching a fan favorite and another character who spent the last season soul searching his way through a love triangle and evening out the power balance with Eugene getting pulverized was objectively uncomfortable, but its impact was weakened by that pesky thing called timing.
There was simply no reason The Big Reveal needed to be held over our heads for that long. The narrative wasn’t any better for it. A fine line separates building suspense and manipulation, and The Walking Dead continually falls on the wrong side of it. As long as that season 6 finale was, it managed to build a real sense of dread by the end. The endless dead ends, Rick’s doomed assurances to Maggie, Abraham finally understanding Glenn’s desire to bring life into such a fucked up world, Eugene’s sacrifice and goodbye, and Negan’s excellent, menacing monologue had the show ready for its emotional peak, but TWD squandered that momentum by letting it remain dormant for six months. If one or both of the latest death’s came back in April, it would have been devastating. But now, and after the diversion that was Rick and Negan’s demented road trip, it was more like, “Oh yeah, hey, that sucks.”
Let’s say TWD showed Abraham getting murked and then left it at that for the summer. We would have been lulled into a false sense of security, expecting only for the Alexandrians to mourn and fall in line with the Saviors. If the show picked up right after that first pummeling, only to surprise us with Glenn’s death and Rick’s psychological torture, that would have been debilitating and brilliant. Instead we were presented with a series of false starts, fakeouts (were they really trying to convince us everyone but Rick got killed at one point), and missed opportunities.
At this point, The Walking Dead is nothing but an array of empty premises. What if the control you thought you had was violently ripped away from you? How do you recover from watching the father of your unborn child get beat to death? Is it even possible to get revenge on a man who exerted his power by murdering two of your friends and damn near made you cut your son’s arm off? I want to be intrigued by these questions, but how can I after watching the build up to what was supposed to be the show’s biggest moment turn into yet another letdown? The Walking Dead just hit the tonal reset, but how can that be interesting when the show has never been that great in the first place?
It's a damn shame because there were some legitimately great parts in the premiere. The whole cast turned in great performances, especially Lauren Cohan embodying Maggie's grief after the show barely let her react to the deaths of father or sister. Even Chandler Riggs, routinely the flattest actor on the show, nailed the resignation when he pleaded for Rick to go ahead and whack his arm off. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan is having all the fun and success in the world playing around with Negan, a truly charming and heinous motherfucker with a knack for prose. He broke Rick down like a dog, dragging him around, making him play fetch, and telling him when to speak in a detour that would have been captivating in a vacuum. Unfortunately, The Walking Dead doesn't have the sense of timing to make any of this work. And if you're not beset by the same problem, you'll know now's the time to walk away.