This isn’t so much going to be a review as a quick rant. I’m trying to make this quick in part because I have a lot to do and in part because I don’t care enough to go on at length. I’m pretty negative on the season premiere. But not for the reason a lot of people are. Not that it wasn’t sadistic and nihilistic. The show, and certainly the comics, are not that overall, which is important. That the episode was is less on indictment on that score than it is an indictment of the show for basic failures of storytelling. Big dang SPOILERS below the fold (including for the comic).
I won’t go back and dig it up or recheck now, but after the season six finale I pulled out my compendium and counted the number of pages they adapted into a 90-minute episode of television. This episode didn’t really cover any more ground. So they turned about a dozen pages of a comic into two and a half hours of television. Yeah, that’s going to cause some issues.
At least we got to find out who dies, though! I would have been only mildly surprised if the show had made us cool our heels for an entire week more. And that—with one significant exception I will get to later—is the issue. The basic failure of storytelling is taking something that should have been done quickly and dragging it out.
Take the two deaths (remember what I said about SPOILERS?). After a months-long wait, the show still makes us wait to find out who Negan picks. Contrast this with Abraham’s death in the comics (again, SPOILERS). One panel he’s standing outside, minding his own business, the next he’s minding his own business. It’s realistic—a successful sneak attack has to start with a couple quick fatalities—and it doesn’t jerk us around. Bang! A main character is dead, and the rest of the characters have to move PDQ to avoid joining him.
But of course the show couldn’t stop with Abraham. They just had to really shock us. So even after that season finale, even after many minutes of pointless wheel-turning to draw things out, only then do we see that there is a second death. (Or, at least, some people got to see. Fuck you, Sling TV.) Killing Glenn was a ballsy choice in the comics. Not only did a main character go down, but one of the OGs and quick, without a chance to fight back. It let us know Negan was for real. And, after all, isn’t it good writing to not just kill your own darlings but to kill those of your fans as well? Sure, but maybe don’t wear it on your sleeve so openly. After the long, silly dumpster sequence from last season, sneaking in Glenn’s death for additional shock value is more insult than injury at this point.
It also shows that the writers are struggling to do one of the things they’ve traditionally done well. In the early seasons, the way the show flitted with the plot of the comics was a strength. They could add in new storylines where they had good material, they could keep the core that made the story so great in the first place, they could introduce characters already well loved by a portion of the audience, and they could keep those fans guessing about what would happen. It worked in part because they weren’t too obvious or heavy-handed about it. In the last couple episodes they’ve been too obvious and heavy-handed about it. Of course it couldn’t be Glenn that Negan picks because he picked him in the comic. But of course they still had to kill him, because they couldn’t have people getting too complacent. Of course this is crappy storytelling.
And too often writers simply change something because it seems cool at the time, or for whatever reason, without considering the implications for the story down the road. As over the top brutal as Negan introduction has been, the show earlier weirdly chucked most of the brutality between the Governor and Michonne. And in doing so I think screwed up the arc of both characters, although Michonne has finally—FINALLY—gotten interesting as a character in the show. The problem here is that the conflict between Rick et al. and the Saviors starts very differently than it did in the comics. There, it was a run of the mill confrontation. Negan’s capture of a group and murder of Glenn escalates things. In the show, though, things are already pretty well escalated by Rick wiping out a few dozen Saviours without much thought. This causes a few issues. One, it breaks down the contrast between the groups, so they have to work hard to make the Saviors seem super evil. Two, it makes the events of the finale look kind of stupid. You just killed 30 of their men? You think they’re going to pussyfoot around now? Hence the contrivance of a desperate need to get Maggie to the Hilltop. Three, it creates a need to escalate the violence by Negan for another reason. He was stupid in the comics to let Rick off so easily. His basic disadvantage is that he wanted dominion over his enemies while Rick was satisfied to kill them. But he wasn’t crazy to think that, because Rick hadn’t just killed 30 of his men. But he did, so the lesson had to be that much more abject.
I’m not all down on the episode though. I wasn’t sold on Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan from the finale, but I am after a season premiere in which he gets most of the lines. The allusions with the hatchet were more in line with the way the show was once able to use the comic to its benefit, although it works much better earlier in the episode when it’s subtler. And Negan’s choice of victims—again driven in reaction to the earlier high death toll—sets up what may become an interesting dynamic. He wasn’t picking at random. He picked out Abraham as obviously one of the stronger members. He then kills one of the other men, and takes another hostage. He dealt Rick et al. a grievous blow, but he also badly underestimated them. It’s not entirely Rick’s game. Other, especially Maggie, are influential as well. All of the remaining characters can hold their own—Michonne, in particular, is Abraham’s and Daryl’s equal. And Eugene holds the key to a massive advantage—replacement ammo.
Even after that caveat, you might ask why I still watch The Walking Dead. There are a few, diverse reasons: I’m a fan of the comic, I’m invested in the characters, it’s the only show that my wife and I can agree on sufficiently to make it appointment viewing (Designated Survivor came and went pretty quickly). And it continues to show flashes of brilliance. To be sure, those flashes have come to appear further and farther between, but they’re there. And what is life in the zombie apocalypse without hope?
(Things are hectic, so I don’t plan on posting tomorrow. Thursday’s SF Throwback post will be on Frankenstein (the book, this time), which I finished rereading over the weekend.)