One of the luxuries afforded the producers of a long-running hit is the latitude to make the show they want to make, and you would think from the media attention that the writers and producers of The Walking Dead have wanted to make a show about head-bashing, face-ironing and sand zombies.
And, to a point, they have made that show this season. The scenes of visceral, can’t-watch-can’t-look-away grotesquery are part of The Walking Dead’s DNA, and the effects work this season has been as good as any the show has done. Those scenes have also been somewhat more sparing. The zombies are still there and they’re still pretty gross, but they’ve enjoyed less screen time as the core group has found some modicum of security.
Season 7, which had its outstanding midseason finale last night, has been the continuation of a hard flip from zombies to Negan as the chief antagonist that began at the end of last season. (Read our 20Q interview with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the man behind Negan, here.) The show has had great villains—Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Gareth the creepy cannibal (Andrew J. West) in particular—but Negan is an embodiment of the existential question the show has been building toward for seven seasons:
How much oppression will a society accept in exchange for security?
Rick & Co. have learned to have something like a pre-apocalypse life in Alexandria, the walled McMansion-ville near Washington, D.C., that has been the show’s home base the past two seasons. And other groups have found similar success in the Hilltop and the Kingdom and the colony by the ocean, but they’ve had to endure Negan and the Saviors making weekly stops to take their stuff in exchange for not killing them.
This season has been about learning to eat that shit sandwich. “There’s a peace now,” pacifist Morgan (Lennie James) says in Sunday’s episode. “I won’t be a part of changing that.” Rick (Andrew Lincoln) got to the same place in the season premiere—not because he’s a pacifist, but because Negan bashed in the skulls of two of his flock, threatened to cut his son into pieces and made clear that his group’s survival was wholly dependent upon adherence to his dictatorial rule.
Last night’s “Hearts Still Beating” marked a shift from taking it to pushing back that began last week with Carl (Chandler Riggs), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) all independently putting their own plans in motion to kill Negan. As we’ve seen with Negan’s season-long effort to break Daryl (Norman Reedus), Negan for practical reasons respects principled, willful people who are willing to stand up to him—qualities that make for loyal lieutenants—but there’s a moral and ethical method to Negan’s madness. When Spencer Monroe (Austin Nichols), Alexandria’s leading douchebag, presented himself as a trustworthy replacement for Rick, Negan gutted Spencer seppuku style. Then Rosita shot at Negan with the only bullet in Alexandria and hit Lucille, Negan’s beloved barbed-wire bat.
When Rick arrives after all of that, Negan recaps it for him like a CNN correspondent.
“Your kid—he hid in one of my trucks and machine-gunned a bunch of my men down,” Negan says. “And I brought him home safe and sound. And I fed him spaghetti. Another one of your people, well he wanted me to kill you and put him in charge. I took him out—for you. And another one—here—she shot Lucille trying to kill me.”
The shift, though, comes in the next scene, when Michonne returns from her excursion to find and kill Negan. (If only she had waited!) “We’re the ones who live,” she tells Rick in a quiet, compelling scene that echoed comments he had made in earlier seasons. “That’s why we have to fight. Not for us but for Judith, for Carl.” For his children. For generations who people who don’t live free unless he steps up. “For Alexandria, for the Hilltop. For all of us.”
The Walking Dead lives in the quieter moments. The zombie bravura and the frequent killing off of regular cast members may be what drives the ratings and the social-media attention, but showrunners Robert Kirkman (who also writes the comics) and Scott M. Gimple and a large group of longtime writers and producers have always used genre as a heightening device for character and story. This season, they’ve given their talented core group more than a challenge; they’ve given them a choice, a difficult decision about how to exist.
They are overwhelmingly outmanned and they don’t have a plan yet, but they have reached the point in every uprising when a committed core decides that enough is enough. Rick has has mentally checked back in from the shock and stupor of the Season 7 premiere, when Negan thoroughly broke his will, and he is at his best when leading the charge. The preview for the back half of the season, which starts in February, emphasizes his efforts to align Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom against Negan and Saviors.
This means war.