I’m watching tonight’s Walking Dead season premiere live—no screeners, for reasons I think we can all understand—and my standard approach when reviewing something live is to try and write as much of the review as I can during the commercial breaks. Nothing final, and obviously if a criticism I make of the first twenty minutes is corrected or transcended in the back half, I’m gonna do some edits. But I’ve found you can at least start summing up the plot and getting into details as things play out. The only reason I’m telling you this is that we’re on the second commercial break of tonight’s episode, and we still don’t know who died yet. I find that funny, and I thought I should record the moment for posterity.

Aaaand now that’s over with. Credit where it’s due: Negan murdering Abraham seemed like the weakest sauce imaginable, and a decision that would inevitably rob the show of what little power it had left. If Abraham had been the only victim, it would’ve been a clear signal that the real heroes were safe. Abraham was likeable enough, but he’s a relatively new addition, and a man who hadn’t had much of a purpose last season beyond romantic worries isn’t someone we’re going to miss that much. This, then, is a legitimately solid fake-out, one that even (although I assume this is inadvertent) plays off the show’s reputation for fucking up the big moments.

Glenn’s death is the one that matters, and putting it second, after we were all convinced the real violence was done, was a clever piece of showmanship. I’m not sure how comfortable I am using such a twee term for a visceral, disturbing sequence, but it’s accurate. The Walking Dead doesn’t have much narrative point anymore. Any themes it was trying to explore have been long since beaten into the ground (heh), and without complex characters or a strong narrative throughline beyond “hey, who’s still alive?” the show is having to rely more and more on shocks. I mean, it always did, but at least for a few years there was a chance those shocks might be part of something larger than themselves.

Not so much anymore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally get a sudden twist that manages to live up to expectations. Sure, the cliffhanger from last season that drew this out a whole summer robbed this moment of most of the power it might have had, but hey, it caught me off guard, and I’m trying to play fair here. And I was hoping in spite of myself that Glenn might make it through, so kudos to the writers for finding one of the few remaining characters that don’t bore me to tears to kill.

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I suppose I can also give credit to the resolution of the “let’s cut off Carl’s arm” scene, if only because once again, I feared the show was about to make a horrible mistake (in this case, wallowing in misery so much that the despair became camp), and once again, it pulled itself back from the brink—this time by having Negan show a little mercy. So that’s smart. I continue to enjoy Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance; his character’s a monster, but Morgan is clearly having fun. So much of the series is spent on abject mopery that seeing someone goofing around is something of a relief, even if that goofing has a sociopathic edge.

But praise for structure aside… What was the point? Look, you can have your crazy intense post-apocalypse gore fest, or you can have your somber, introspective narrative about the cost of survival in a merciless world, but you can’t really have both at the same time. If we’re supposed to get a thrill out of watching a dude beat two other dudes to death (including loving close-ups of the gore), how are we then supposed to mourn either character when the inevitable, score-heavy grieving montage arrives? If we take any of this seriously, it’s a slow slog to hell without any of the insight or catharsis that would make the trek worthwhile. And if we take it as a lark, then the endless fucking shots of Andrew Lincoln looking scared out of his mind aren’t even goofy enough to be worth snickering at.

This is how stupid the show has become: After six seasons of endless death, after years of repeatedly reminding us that anyone (who isn’t Rick or Carl) can die, after going through the same “We have hope now! Oh wait” cycle over and over and over again without any real variation or insight, it still expects us to care when it trots out the same trick again. God, the effort of it—not one death, but two! And this guy has an evil baseball bat! And no, seriously, he’s really scary, I think Rick and the others might actually be in over their heads this time. The show is so stupid that it thinks we’re stupid, prays we’re stupid; cross its fingers and hopes like hell that its legion of loyal, obsessive followers will rend their garments at the horrible demise of a fan favorite, but still be back next week for another round of spin the murder bottle.

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Do I sound annoyed? I guess I am, but more than anything, I’m just bored. The only reason Glenn’s death meant more than Abraham’s is that Glenn has been around longer. He was a nice guy (and Steven Yeun did a fine job with the little he was given), but I’d be hard pressed to say much more about him. He earned our loyalty with longevity and not much else. He died because he’s been a regular since the second episode, which means, in theory, his death should be a surprise. It’s not organic writing, or a slow-building tragedy, or even an attempt to mimic the painful suddenness of real life catastrophe. It’s math. And it’s a horrible indication of the little creative energy the series has left. Subtlety, nuance, perspective—these have never been Walking Dead touchstones. But at least at the show’s best, it could offer something more than hitting the numbers and rubbing our faces in the damage.

I appreciate that someone made an effort to surprise us. Negan is easy to watch (if it wasn’t for all the brutal killing, he’d be more likable than the rest of the cast), and Morgan and Carol might still have some surprises for us. But this is a low point, and it’s the sort of low point that serves to underscore the miserable emptiness where the series’ heart should be. If all The Walking Dead has left is the slow massacre of our empathy for its world, make Negan the lead and be done with it. I’d rather be laughing than bored.

Stray observations

  • It almost feels like they did tests to see just how long they could hold off showing the deaths before people changed the channel.
  • Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in the opening credits now.
  • Abraham dies, and later, Negan re-enacts something like the story of Abraham and Isaac with Rick and Carl. Coincidence? Probably!
  • I bet Glenn wishes he’d stayed under that dumpster now. (He really had a rough last week or two, didn’t he.)
  • The grief montage near the end was bad, but probably necessary. The fantasy of everyone sitting around a table enjoying dinner was idiotic.

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