Tonight, we witnessed the other side of a cliffhanger — nearly seven months in the making. For better or worse, people will be both stunned or not surprised at all. I was sickened, but not for the reasons you’d think.
(SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE SERIES FOLLOW!)
(Author’s Note: I go into huge detail about the series as a whole. To get into my nitty gritty complaints about the season 7 premiere, skip to “THE GRIPE.”)
Cut to the late 2000s. After a nasty usurping of show creator Frank Darabont, the show fell into the lap of writer Glen Mazzara; a competent scribe on his own, but a writer that struggled to nail down a consistent tone for his first season as total showrunner (season 3). Don’t get me wrong. I love genre-bending. The Evil Dead series proved it can be done to perfect effect, and later horror films emulated that kind of genre subversion (see Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and The Cabin in the Woods). But for The Walking Dead, it became downright campy. We had Lori Grimes devoured entirely by a walker, an entire episode dedicated to a conversation at a table, and the season itself ended with a mind-numbing cop out battle between Woodbury and the Prison survivors (an event that received its own soft reboot in season 4). Mazzara and AMC split amicably over “disagreements about the show’s future”. However, there were a few standout moments in season 3 — glimmers of brilliance that foreshadowed where the show would be next year.
That glimmer was Scott Gimple.
A staff writer for the show since season 2, Gimple rocketed to critical prominence with excellently penned episodes; the Morgan-focused “Clear” was an excellent character study highlighted by its restraint in a smaller, bottled cast and “This Sorrowful Life”, highlighted a criminally underdeveloped Daryl Dixon and skyrocketed his brother Merle to martyrdom. (Arguably, that episode should’ve ended the season.) Following Mazzara’s departure, Gimple was named showrunner for season 4.
Gimple’s episodes focused greatly on the smaller, more intimate moments. The moments that some fans refer to as “soap opera scenes.” Those scenes have always been the draw for me (I was never a fan of zombies on television until The Walking Dead). I love serialized drama of all sorts. It’s an addiction, really. The show seemed to “course correct” to what made me love it in the first place with Gimple’s outstanding season 4 premiere, “30 Days Without An Accident”.
In this episode, entire characters were introduced and killed in a way that hadn’t been seen since the first season’s finale with Dr. Jenner. Everyone had a place. Everyone had a role to play in the overarching narrative. Season 4 was the most consistent in terms of the “drama to gorehound” golden ratio — and the most satisfied I ever felt calling myself a fan of the show. However, season 4 introduced a strange blueprint for the show going forward:
Hard-stop mid-season finales.
The mid-season format was introduced to the show during its second season out of necessity; the firing of Darabont and the general disarray behind the scenes required the show to meander as the crew reassessed how to move forward. Budget cuts led the show to cut costs for locations, extras, and plans made by Darabont. There was also the saga of Sophia; the mother of Madison Lintz (the actress who played Sophia) pulled her from the show because of her zombie-related nightmares (thus her early show death compared to her fate in the comics). In simple terms, the show was in trouble. Not in terms of ratings or risk of cancellation, but at risk of crumbling from the inside out. Instead of eschewing this required break for later seasons, season 3 had a minor plot break in the gaps between episode 8 and 9. There was no time jump or shifts in location.
The first half of season 4 was effectively season 3.5 — the Governor/Prison arc had to be reassessed and “solved”. A true fourth season didn’t start until the Prison fell… and the season ended with the best cliffhanger in series history. It was a cliffhanger that didn’t rob us of an emotional reaction. It left us wanting more for the right reasons.
This is where things might get confusing.The first half of season 5 (4.5?) “ended” season 4 (the Terminus arc). The second half of season 5 was our introduction to Alexandria. Season 6 (5.5?) ended the previous landscape of Alexandria and the second half of season 6 was our build up to the presence of Negan. Some of these “hard stops” are softer than others, but there’s a clear bookmark at the mid-seasons.
We’ve been watching off-season arcs for years, so it may not come as a shock or surprise to most. But thinking about it in terms of scope, it’s allowed the show to become slower while maintaining the action expected around the end of the eight episode arcs. It’s allowed for more drama, but having three seasons worth of plodding plot has shown me that the very person who was my beacon of hope for the show is running it into the ground. The things I loved about the show are now the things that keep it from being better — and that’s a terrible realization to have as a fan.
Before, I felt like Gimple honored the source material, bringing many comic arcs to life brilliantly and expanding them to fit within the constraints of the world Darabont and Mazzara shaped. Now, Gimple speaks of “remixing the comic” as if it’s last summer’s breakout pop song with a fresh coat of musical paint. This has been mildly frustrating in the past, particularly the emasculation of Tyreese; changing him from the hardened, football-playing father to the softened version we saw onscreen. Nothing compares to the rage I felt seeing Denise receive Abraham’s comic book death. There we so many cool moments intersecting to make this moment even more impactful than the book, similar to Gimple’s Terminus (Dwight having Daryl’s crossbow was an amazing touch and would’ve made Abraham’s death even more tragic). But… remix!
Readers of the comic know that Denise ultimately dies anyway in her own memorable way. It was completely irresponsible to not only misuse this character and rob her of future stories, but “TV Abraham” stole the death of another character who deserved to have his crowning moment in the spotlight. Gimple’s The Walking Dead features a lot of diversion — a lot of nice diversion, but wasteful nonetheless. A lot of this comes from The Walking Dead’s willingness to explore various filmmaking techniques, no matter how ridiculous they seem in context. This experimentation comes from imitation auteur, Greg Nicotero — the makeup guru turned executive producer and director.
Much like Gimple’s rise up the Dead ladder, Nicotero’s influence has grown from “that guy that does the cool walker effects and cameos” to a true force in how the story is being told. He’s a film fan, obviously… referencing many “special” zombies in his walker designs and emulating the visual style of different directors for his episodes. For example, in season 5’s “What Happened and What’s Going On”, Nicotero carves a “Terrence Malick inspired” episode that is full of moody establishing shots indicative of a man trying desperately to inject high art into a show that doesn’t call for it. The episode was artistic, but juxtaposed against the rest of the season, it stands out for the wrong reasons.
I really wish I knew why I’ve become so bitter.
For starters, I really loathe how some of the characters have been handled in their translation — something that wouldn’t bother the fans who have never read the comic books. For example, Morgan no longer carries the mythological mystique he once had, and he’s outlived his comic counterpart to terrible effect. Hell, some characters just vanish without much reason at all. (‘Member Aaron’s husband? I ‘member.)
I understand the comic and the show are two separate beasts and should be seen as such. It’s futile to compare, but in instances where the source material is given the middle finger, it makes you wonder: why make an adaptation at all?
SPOILERS FOR LAST NIGHT’S SEASON 7 PREMIERE FOLLOW!
Last night’s episode was written and directed by Gimple and Nicotero respectively (a pairing we’ve seen numerous times). It opens with the scene AMC released to spur speculation as to who the pile of gunk was at the end of the clip. After the opening credits, we’re greeted with a continuation of the cold open, only to get our answer to the seven month wait a third into the episode. Ratings success? You betcha. Frustrated fans? You got it.
The show then makes the mistake of robbing Glenn of a triumphant, well-earned exit — the one he had in the graphic novel. The limelight is shamelessly stolen by Abraham at first, diminishing everything that follows. Steven Yeun (Glenn) later recalled in Talking Dead that he asked Robert Kirkman to not give that death to anyone else in the show. I find it terrible that such a request wasn’t respected, especially when Yeun made this request over four years ago when the comic celebrated its 100th issue.
Both of these deaths are later cheapened by Rick’s imagination as he sees nearly every other character “Lucilled” in superfluous visions. This feels incredibly artificial and it succeeds in making this episode feel more like a joke and less like the devastating experience it could’ve been.
Later, we’re treated to a heavenly dinner table sequence, reminiscent of Rick’s Lori hallucinations, Michonne’s dream sequence, and Tyreese’s death delusions. It all feels like something we’ve done before. Hell, things that the show has even done better. Nicotero goes on to aggressively shield himself from criticism in Talking Dead by stating the episode is not about “who is on the other side of Negan’s bat”, but rather the aftermath. If that’s truly the case, why did the cliffhanger exist?
I left this episode feeling exploited and disrespected. This cliffhanger was protected tooth and nail; both Gimple and Nicotero defending their choice citing the “integrity of their storytelling”. This was a clear ratings move. This was not a Terminus moment at all. I feel quite strongly that part of this episode could’ve been easily edited in the last season’s finale for a two hour powerhouse. There was so much wasted time; the one-on-one scenes between Negan and Rick had a simmering intensity, but it was overshadowed by an event that should’ve concluded months ago.
The series now has the chance to course correct after this episode. In fact, I feel as if Negan is the breath of fresh air the show has been gasping for since mid-season 5 began. The good news is we can finally stop worrying about the “who” and more about the “where do we go from here?” If the show doesn’t change soon, I feel like people will grow tired of the circular plots the comic relies heavily on; a new “big bad” versus Rick’s group can only go so far before it becomes grating (and the show has disposed of more villains that the comic had at this point). Thankfully, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s excellent performance has a death grip on my attention, so I can’t say goodbye to this show just yet.
The season 7 premiere will be remembered as the moment The Walking Dead could’ve properly served its source material and killed only Glenn, or derailed into killing another character entirely. Instead, we got the worst of both worlds — what everyone who has read the comic expected and a slap in the face to those same fans. The “Walking Dead Mantra” has always been “no one is safe”, but it feels more like “everyone is cannon fodder.” It doesn’t help that Gimple and Nicotero feel the need to pad these episodes with flash forwards, flashbacks, and dream sequences. If this continues, fans will get so fatigued by Gimple’s predictable storytelling style and Nicotero’s ambitious directorial dreams. By mincing their time, the team is falling back into the missteps of Mazzara (see Ghost Lori). Which… we’ll never know what kind of show we’d have had Darabont (and subsequently Mazzara) stayed on to steer the show. Unlike Darabont’s well documented firing, we’ll never know the reason behind Glen Mazzara’s season 3 exit until many years down the road once non-disclosure agreements expire and the show is long over. I’m anxious to know all the dirty laundry behind the scenes.
You see… I love the drama.
Read my full review of the season 7 premiere here.