And so ends the reign of Rick Grimes.
Rick spent six seasons as the leader and conscience of The Walking Dead’s band of survivors. (Spoilers ahead!) He has been a fierce defender of his charges with both a survival instinct and the consent of the governed, which is not an easy combo in the zombie apocalypse.
Rick and the group ran up against a sadistic group known as the Saviors, led by Negan, played with impish delight and brutal control by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Negan showed his smarts and manpower by maneuvering Rick’s group into a series of dead ends that gave them—and viewers—a false sense that things could still turn out OK. By the end of Sunday night’s Season 7 premiere, Rick was broken.
That state of affairs is probably not going to change soon. Negan is going to be around for a while. He’s still a character in the comics, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan told Playboy in his 20Q interview that he is signed to continue in the role for multiple seasons. Negan is the most powerful leader we’ve seen on The Walking Dead to date, he has a large and unfailingly loyal group and he has a bat wrapped in barbed wire that he calls Lucille, which he uses as a signal of his totalitarian control.
Throughout the run of the series, Robert Kirkman, who writes The Walking Dead comics, and series showrunner Scott M. Gimple have taken a deliberate and considered approach to adapting the source material. They rigorously recreate the broad story from the comics—often down to the dialogue and visuals—but have added characters who aren’t in the comics (like fan favorite Daryl, played by Norman Reedus) and moved deaths forward or backward in time to preserve suspense.
The introduction of Negan at the end of last season and continuing into Sunday night’s Season 7 premiere was straight from Issue 100 of the comics, right down to lines like, “It’s going to be pee pee pants city here real soon.” Right down to his creepy “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” selection process for whose head to smash that led to the summer-long cliffhanger.
Who did Negan beat to a pulp? As it turns out, it was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), a burly, ginger-bearded military type and peripheral series regular. Negan beat Abraham’s head flatter than beef carpaccio, and it was a disgusting thing to watch.
And it was Glenn (Steve Yeun), one of the show’s few remaining original characters. The first whack on Glenn’s noggin nearly popped an eye right out of his head, another firm nod to Issue 100. (In the comics, there was only one bashing. Abraham had actually died two issues earlier and in different circumstances.)
A lot of viewers took to Twitter as the premiere was airing to bemoan the macabre turn of events—not the killing of two of the show’s leads, but the grotesquery and sheer spectacle of it. (I would note here that The Walking Dead is closing in on its 100th episode, and the purported haters snarking online, including a lot of TV writers, are still watching.) It was brutal, but the brutality was the point. Rick & Co. have seen it all, and it is inconceivable they would have submitted to Negan short of of proof that he is too dangerous to cross.
The premiere delayed the resolution of the cliffhanger until flashbacks midway through the episode, but that was harmless ponytail-pulling that merely denied the reveal a little while longer and didn’t disrupt the main story of the episode, which was about convincing Rick to give up all hope of upsetting Negan’s power structure.
My gripe was that Kirkman and Gimple couldn’t leave well enough alone. Negan had already skillfully manipulated Rick and his followers into complete vulnerability and killed two of them while the rest were on their knees hoping not to get whacked next. The situation was already as dire for them as it could get. Negan taking Rick for a ride in the RV, making him go fetch his ax, threatening to cut his son’s arm off, etc., were a too-blunt telegraphing of Season 7 as a mano a mano between a supremely confident Negan and a thoroughly outsmarted and outmanned Rick.
The course that The Walking Dead’s Sunday night’s premiere charted for Season 7, though, is encouraging. One of the long-running themes of the series has been the trial and error of self-governance. We’ve seen Rick’s group figure out its own leadership structure and mesh with other groups. We’ve seen The Governor’s corruption lead to the fall of Woodbury. We’ve seen Alexandria’s naiveté lead to its collapse.
Now, and probably for the next few seasons, we’re going to see what things look like when a charismatic and deadly dictator is in charge.