The problem with stories is that they end. The problem with successful TV shows is that they don’t. The challenge of setting up a story, exploring characters, and moving your world along and then closing it out and starting over is one that hangs over every kind of scripted drama. Soap operas have been doing it for decades; professional wrestling for at least as long.
But it’s scripted drama series, and specifically horror and dark fantasy shows, where the challenge of keeping a story going while keeping the premise viable is really front and center right now. Supernatural‘s bluntly astounding 12 years-and-counting run is a great example of what happens when a concept gains traction but, for me, the really interesting case here is The Walking Dead.
[Note: Spoiler warning for the first four episodes of TWD, S7 below]
As I write this, The Walking Dead is split across four plot lines; the survivors at Alexandria struggling to deal with the aftermath of their meeting with Negan, Maggie and Sasha at Hilltop, Morgan and Carol at the Kingdom, and Daryl in prison at Sanctuary. Much like the “Walker round up” of the last season, this gives most of the vast central cast some good, solid stuff to do. And, like that plotline, it also highlights the surprising weakness at the heart of the show.
That weakness is wrapped up in the law of diminishing returns, and it’s that law ties Rick Grimes and Negan together. After the initial, horrific first appearance of Negan, the show has seemed a little unsure what to do with him. The most recent episode, “Service,” labored under both a needlessly extended running time and the fundamental problem of having Negan onscreen for practically all of it. As he stands right now, he has two modes: jovial murderer and dead-eyed fury machine. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very good in the role, but even he seems to be struggling to find something else there at the moment. The fact that “Service” reduces a man who viciously beat two lead characters to death three weeks ago to making jokes about another character’s weight—the definition of a cheap shot—suggests the writers may be struggling, too.
Or that may be unfair. The Negan and Dwight we saw in “Service” were both a massive step down from the nuanced monsters of “The Cell” the previous week. There, Negan was revealed to be closer to a post-Cold War warlord than the preening southern gentleman bully of “Service.” He has a clear sense of ethics. They’re horrifying, but they’re his, and “The Cell” did a lot to show us that Negan really is the hero of his story, even as he’s the villain of Rick’s. Likewise, Dwight went from being a smug, perma-smirking right hand man to a broken, traumatized figure. He’s not quite Reek, but Negan’s destruction of Dwight’s spirit, and Sherry’s horrific sacrifice for him, give us greater understanding and a little sympathy for the guy.
The two men were far less interesting in “Service,” but it’s possible that’s the point. In “Service” we’re seeing who these men present themselves to be. In “The Cell” we’re seeing them as who they are. Still broken, still evil, still horrifying—but with the luxury of context. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes as the characters get to know their adversaries and the masks begin to slip.
But the real weakness at the heart of The Walking Dead isn’t Negan. It’s Rick.
Andrew Lincoln is doing fantastic work and always has done, but “Service” in particular did the character and Lincoln a disservice. Just as Negan flickflacked between monster and charmer, Rick went from broken to enraged and back again, over and over. This has two effects, neither good. The first is to undercut Lincoln’s extraordinary work in the season premiere. We see Rick come apart there and it’s as hard to watch as the murders themselves. It’s an ending, the moment where the occasionally unbalanced, fundamentally decent man who has held this group together through sheer force of will finally loses everything.
Two weeks later, he’s clenching his hand around the bat that killed his friends and is seconds from killing Negan.
Yes, it’s a trap. Negan handing Lucille over to Rick is clearly one more of his psychological games. But there’s no endgame here that the show hasn’t gone to before. If Rick brutally murders his groove back into place, then we’re right back where we were in Seasons 5 and 6. If he turns away from violence, as he seems to have done, we’re back to the peaceful man who lived at the prison. Both were valid developments for the character, but the demands of the format mean he’s forced to continue past these points in his life and, worse, revisit them over time. That means, much in the same way that Negan can only ever have that terrifying of an entrance once, the law of diminishing returns is in play. And that’s the second weakness. We can only go to this well with Rick so many times, and we may have gone there too often already.
But while that is a weakness, it’s looking increasingly like it’s a necessary one. The rest of the show has continued to not only explore new territory for the characters but move the show into the same settled, fascinating territory as the comic. Instead of ceaselessly wandering from place to place, the survivors have now formally settled in Alexandria and made it their home. That transition has been endlessly complex and difficult and is very much ongoing, but it’s also undeniable. The increasingly feral, nomadic survivors of the first few seasons have been replaced with something approaching a society.
That idea, that the world is worth fighting for and that rebuilding is inevitable, is what’s keeping me watching Season 7. We’ve now seen four different communities, all in a fairly small space and all clearly thriving in their varying ways. Alexandria, Hilltop, The Kingdom, and Sanctuary have all approached the apocalypse in wildly different ways and all survived comfortably on their own. That’s not a luxury any of them can afford anymore and, like the characters, each community has taken steps into a larger world. In the case of Sanctuary, those steps have been violent. Hilltop has kept itself to itself and largely survived while the Kingdom has had the furthest-reaching approach. Ezekiel’s eccentric character and love of chivalry and art plays as funny, but it’s also absolutely genuine. This is a man who has chosen something bigger than himself and people have flocked to his side to help. Where Alexandria and the Hilltop have survived and Sanctuary has rampaged, The Kingdom has not only rebuilt but improved on the original design.
That’s why the Sanctuary and Kingdom plots work so well this season: they take three of the show’s best characters and move them far outside their comfort zone. In Negan, Daryl is confronted with the worst excesses of the man his brother could have been. It’s not that this is new territory for Daryl, it’s that it’s familiar. It would be very easy for him to fall in line with Negan and become one of his pack of wolves. Or rather, it would have been easy five or six seasons ago. Now, Daryl is a man who believes in reaching out to others, who has literally and metaphorically come in from the cold. Having all of that taken away places him in an incredibly compelling position and Norman Reedus’ near silent work in “The Cell” should count amongst the best of his career to date.
The same is true of Lennie James and Melissa McBride. Season Six did some of its best work putting Morgan and Carol at cross-purposes with one another, and that really pays off here. “The Well” is one of the funniest episodes the show has ever done precisely because of how far it pushes the pair of them outside their usual roles. Morgan’s bemused, slightly self-conscious take on The Kingdom is fun, but it’s Carol’s combination of scorn and wide-eyed, barely straight-faced amusement that makes the episode such a joy. Her journey from total derision to accepting that Ezekiel’s approach is viable is poignant precisely because it’s her making that journey. It would have been all too easy for Carol to stay as the group’s pragmatic deathbringer forever. Having her face, recoil, and rebuild from that is much harder and much more interesting.
That constant, forced growth is the show at its best and it’s everywhere this season. Maggie and Sasha processing their grief and working at Hilltop looks to be next, and it’ll be interesting to see how two of the people most directly affected by Negan’s brutality are rebuilding. The fact that they’re doing so in a community other than their own just shows how wide the show’s scope is these days, and how much better it is for it.
This is why The Walking Dead fascinates me right now: the delicate balance being struck between the show’s traditional beats and breaking new ground. For me, the Negan and Rick plot is the least interesting one by a good distance, but I also recognize how necessary it is. That’s the engine that drives the show, the characters, and (as we’ve seen before) Rick himself towards the future of the show and the society depicted in it. Getting there is, and has been, a brutal ride this season in particular. But, for all the misery and horror, it’s a journey that’s both more interesting than it’s ever been before and absolutely worth taking.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.