Recurring Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Stephen Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Lennie James, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira, Michael Cudlitz, Josh McDermitt, Sonequa Martin-Green, Chandler Riggs, Christian Serratos, Alanna Masterson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan
To get away with dropping a frustratingly vague cliffhanger like Season Six did, a few rules must be put in place for Season Seven. The main one is that the wait must be worth it. We left off with Rick hopeless outnumbered and outplayed by the monstrous Negan and his Saviours. Negan rounds them all up and promises he is going to be smash one of their skulls in with Lucille. Someone is dying. There is no more running from the answers; the television show has to commit and that wait has to make up for the evasive writing Season Six bowed out with. The good news is that the very first episode of Season Seven is probably one of the best episodes we have seen from the Walking Dead. Yes, it is more than worth it, an hour’s television of thick, dripping tension, suspense oozing from every angle. Usually the writers open a season with a giant sprawling set-piece: the gang taking on Walkers in a gridlock of broken down cars, breaking out of Terminus in a bloody firefight… But there is no need here, the show finding a much comfortable slice of fun with Negan’s taunting of the gang. No one is safe and as the episode goes from shock to shock, the producers cement their latest bad guy as both the worst and the best thing to happen to the Walking Dead. The episode plays out unpredictably brutal, Rick’s resolve crumbling into dust. The most hardened audience member will probably have their heart in their mouth along with him.
And then it is business as usual. The show, reeling from another brutal shock, continues the trend of taking as long as possible to answer questions. Episode Two abandons Rick and picks up with Carol and Morgan, meeting another anticipated character to the comics. Clue: he has a pet tiger. Episode Three dances from answers as well, spending time with our new villains and building up who the Saviours are and why they are so devoted to Negan’s reign of cruelty. But there is a major difference to this season. There is an undeniable sense that now, with Negan at the helm of the show, the writers now have the permission to lead us down these rabbit holes now. Negan, a fat spider at the centre of the web that is this show, benefits from the slowed down, stripped back style of story-telling that the Walking Dead has decided to make its game plan. The show has all the time to build the character and the audience are more than happy to sit there, watching in dread for Negan to play out his next act of horrific tyranny. He is a superb villain, a heartless dictator who acts out his every whim. He is the very essence of a childhood bully, a man who torments his followers, making them give up their weapons, girlfriends and lives to please him. There is a sense that his more stomach-turning acts of violence are done in the spur of the moment. It makes for some great scenes, especially between Negan and Rick (but really anyone that slightly stands up to him), as we have no idea what the punishment will be. Anything and everything is possible. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has the time of his life in a role that any actor would kill to have. It is the kind of villain, where the writers do the heavy-lifting and the actor just has to step in and have fun. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has never played anyone with the kind of notoriety that Negan has, but he fills the role from the very first quip with the confidence of a man born to fill those boots. He is both despicable, but captivating. While the things he does to characters we have grown to love, should put him up there with the characters we next want to see in a body bag, it is impossible to deny that he has improved the show tenfold. His tyranny is fascinating, the series bouncing from settlement to settlement showing how everyone copes with his rule.
The season doesn’t even really have much more of a game plan than tracking the fallout from the first bloody episode. Rick is now in Negan’s pocket and has to provide for him with regular supply runs. The show charts how the group copes with their leader’s willingness to play along with Negan’s rules. It is clear that we are sitting on a powder keg of a situation and the fun comes in trying to figure out from which angle it will explode and who else is going to get caught in the crossfire? As several characters start their own vendettas against Negan, the season literally has endless opportunities to deliver a pulse-pounding shock, not just for the mid-season finale, but at any point it chooses. In taking its time to tell the story and set up all the players in this situation, a lot of the supporting cast get their time in the spotlight. The Walking Dead was feeling a little bloated with a stacked character list, but now, as we slow down the story and get episodes designed to look at another group of survivors, side characters like Gabriel and Tara (there are many others, but in saying who I will spoil who doesn’t get Neganed in the opening gambit), benefit from an extended exploration of their depths. Alanna Masterson’s Tara’s episode is almost hurt by the fact that Tara now boasts a nervous brand of sarcasm that the series has never really got to explore before. It feels like making up for lost time. To really compare Walking Dead to the heights of television, this season felt like it was setting up a Game of Thrones style of story-telling, where it keeps its supporting characters in the wings, but never feels compelled to have to spend time with, merely bringing them out where necessary. As the mid-season finale hits with another fresh barrage of Negan related shocks, the Walking Dead shows off something it arguably never had before: control.
Final Verdict: Negan gives the Walking Dead the tension and drama it needs to be able to fuel its slow-paced narrative, suddenly making it compelling television. Top marks.