Still catching your breath? Eyes bloodshot? Hands shaking? Heading into what was arguably The Walking Dead’s most anticipated season premiere, there were plenty of questions about what the new world would look like under Negan’s control. But let’s be honest: All we really cared about was knowing which character met the business end of that barbed-wire-bejeweled baseball bat.
My money had been on Glenn all along, considering how devastating it would be to Maggie, and how cruel it would be for the character to die at Negan’s hand after surviving Glenngate. My very unscientific polling suggested Abraham was the leading runner-up in the death pool. But no one saw this one coming — a one-two gut-punch that turned the premiere into TWD’s very own Red Wedding.
The episode begins post-headbashing, with Rick warning Negan that he’d kill him — not today, not tomorrow, but eventually. It’s such a Rick thing to say, and such a bad idea. His threat leads Negan to take him on a mini road trip that culminates with a game of “Get My Axe.” (Negan really enjoys turning mundane tasks like murder and psychological torture into fun activities. He’s basically the world’s worst camp counselor.) It’s bad enough that Rick is thrown into a fog-shrouded mob of walkers; what’s worse is hearing Negan’s words: “Bet you thought you were all going to grow old together. Sitting around the table at Sunday dinner and the happily ever after.” (That’s exactly the future Rick had envisioned.) “No. It doesn’t work like that, Rick. Not anymore. Think about what happened.” Yes, all the talk today will be about those ultra-violent beatings. But this episode is also about Rick, Negan, and a most unpeaceful transfer of power.
We’re a solid 20 minutes into the episode before Rick is on the roof of the RV, flashing back to the moment when Negan sizes up his group for execution. We see the scene from Rick’s eyes and feel his horror as the camera finally pans to reveal who’s “it” — the Sarge himself. Sasha gasps; Rosita cries. Abraham takes a brutal shot square to the head, falls to the ground, and then rises up defiantly to say, as only the Sarge could, “Suck. My. Nuts.” That’s when Negan unloads, swinging Lucille like he’s trying to ring the bell on a “Test Your Strength” carnival game. By the time he’s finished, there’s nothing left of Abraham’s head. It’s another one of those moments when we’re reminded that the human violence is far more shocking and repulsive than anything a zombie might do.
To risk speaking even remotely ill of the dead, Abraham was great — along with Eugene, he’d become the show’s most quotable character and provided the group with much-needed grit (along with love-triangle drama). But no one’s taking a sick day to mourn his passing; he just wasn’t around long enough. So just as we’re beginning to accept his demise, TWD goes straight GOT. Daryl can’t bear to watch Negan torment Rosita and manages to land a haymaker on that sumbitch. Like Rick’s backtalk, it proves to be a bad move. As Negan explains, he gave them one free pass — when Glenn cried out to defend Maggie in the last episode — and Negan is a man of his word. Next time someone acts up, he warned, he’ll “shut that shit down.” So without warning, he spins and cracks Glenn twice, as everyone (including us) watches in complete horror. What we see next is, for me, perhaps the most unsettling scene in the show’s history — Glenn’s mangled and bloody face, his left eye bulging out of the socket from the force of Negan’s blows, as he struggles to look at Maggie and sputters, “I’ll find you.” I’ve had a night to sleep on it and still can’t shake that image.
Negan’s monologue to end the season-six finale framed him as a villain you can’t help but enjoy, with his devilish charisma and a Sarge-esque way with words (those two probably would have been drinking buddies in the old world). This episode changes that. As if it wasn’t enough to bludgeon two of his captives, Negan isn’t convinced that Rick fully understands who’s boss. So it’s time for another game, this one involving a Sharpie and confusing Carl with the term “southpaw.” Rick is given a choice — chop off his son’s right arm (“Like a salami slice,” advises Negan, “give us something to fold over”) or else everyone gets shot point-blank in face, except for Rick, who’ll get to live for a few years and think about what he’s done. Andrew Lincoln said that he slept for a week after shooting this episode, and no wonder — in this scene alone, he’s crying and spitting and snotting and barely able to speak. Carl tells his daddy to do it, and just before Rick buries the hatchet, Negan stops him. Rick affirms that he — and by extension, all of Alexandria — belongs to Negan now.
By the hour’s end, I was emotionally drained. I barely enjoyed Rick’s foggy walker battle with the gross goiter-zombie, the hanged man’s neck stretching like putty, or his head chattering away on the ground. This episode feels like a series changer, for better or worse. The Governor was a rival who needed to be dealt with, a rabid dog to be put down, but Negan and the Saviors are fully in control. We’re also left with so many questions: How will this massacre affect everyone who witnessed it, particularly the pregnant Maggie? What’s Daryl’s fate, now that he’s become Negan’s plaything? How will Daryl cope with the fact that his outburst led to Glenn’s death? How will Rick get his mojo back? Is Carl destined to be the postapocalyptic Charles Manson, as Negan predicted? Can Alexandria team up with Hilltop and those body-armored dudes that Morgan met to dethrone the Saviors?
We’re left to watch the heartbreaking scene as Maggie cries out for retribution, then finally breaks down. Earlier, Rick imagined the dinner scene that Negan teased, with Glenn and his baby breaking bread with Abraham and the rest of the gang. Now they’re carrying away what’s left of their friends and their hope for the future. As Rick drives away in the RV, he sees a walker stumble over and feast on the gore. Rick doesn’t blink. Zombies are the least of his worries.