Inevitability doesn’t make for great TV. That’s what fans of “The Walking Dead” are finding out in this seventh season (which will resume Feb. 12). It began with a masterful (if utterly harrowing) episode: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) viciously kills Glenn and Abraham. It was a carefully executed – no pun intended – episode that has informed every millisecond of Negan’s screen time since then, especially when he has his barb-wire-laced baseball bat in hand: We wonder if he will cut loose again.
On one hand, this was a brilliant play on the part of the “Walking Dead” showrunners. Every Negan scene is tense, yet they don’t have to spend money on fight choreography or special effects; they can just let Morgan channel this totally on-point psychopath. On the other hand, these scenes are so emotionally draining that I have found the first half of Season 7 to be the exact opposite of fun to watch; my facial expression throughout this season has been the same as Eugene’s. And shouldn’t TV – even emotionally and intellectually challenging TV like “The Walking Dead” – be fun to watch? Apparently viewers think so, as a lot of folks have bailed on the show.
It’s a relief now when a non-Negan episode pops up, such as episode 2, “The Well” (Carol and Morgan meet King Ezekiel), episode 5, “Go Getters” (Maggie and Sasha go to Hilltop), and episode 6, “Swear” (Tara meets a community of tough women in the woods). But these tend to not be classic episodes; indeed, one critic called “Go Getters” the series’ worst episode, and it’s tough to argue with that.
The pieces are being put in place for these various communities – as well as some of Negan’s people, such as Dwight – to team up and “rise up” (Season 7’s tagline) against Negan by season’s end. The libertarian “bring your own subtext” elements that have always made “Walking Dead” ripe for blog posts are still there, and – for better or worse – more overt: In episode 7, “Sing Me a Song,” Spencer tells Rosita that collecting stuff for Negan is like “paying taxes,” and Negan tells his followers that his rules are necessary for the return of “civilization.”
But the storytelling is an exercise in inexorability, which is why these episodes have even less re-watch value than the similarly sluggish “Lost,” which was drenched in enough literary references to reward an obsessive person, and which wasn’t quite so telegraphed. This is capital-G Good TV, but it’s also bad TV. We’re slogging toward the arc’s conclusion another eight episodes from now, and any savvy TV watcher can figure out what will happen. The good guys will flip the tables on Negan, putting him in a position where he doesn’t hold all the cards for the first time. In a mirror of the season premiere, they’ll psychologically and physically torture him, and ultimately kill him. It will be viscerally satisfying.
But I’m here to make the case that “The Walking Dead” should’ve surprised us with a twist by now. Yes, the killing of Negan has to be viciously commiserate with the deaths of Glenn and Abraham in order to be fulfilling. But it didn’t have to be so dragged out. In episode 4, “Service,” Negan hands his bat to Rick, and he does the same with Carl in “Sing Me a Song.” In the latter case, Carl and Negan are on a platform with none of Negan’s men nearby. Earlier in that episode, Carl hesitates and misses a golden opportunity to gun down Negan with a machine gun. I understand that the point of these scenes is to show that Negan has psychologically broken our heroes to the point where they are overthinking the act of taking him out (They’re thinking: “If I fail, will I see another of my friends’ brains bashed in?”).
But I submit that it would be satisfying – and still good storytelling – if our heroes actually had taken those opportunities to kill Negan — or at least turn the tables somehow, thus changing the trajectory of the arc. (Rosita does try to use her one bullet on Negan in episode 8, “Hearts Still Beating,” but right after the commercial break, we learn that she missed. Of course.)
For successful examples of undercutting clichés, “Indiana Jones” and “Buffy” come to my mind. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we’re poised for a sword fight scene. Amid an action-packed movie, yet another action scene could be tiresome. So Indy just shoots the swordsman. It’s funny, and we are spared a clichéd scene. (The joke gets more mileage in “Temple of Doom,” when Indy’s gun is missing from its holster, and he has to run from the swordsmen.)
In “Buffy” Season 3’s “Bad Girls”/“Consequences,” Faith tells Giles that Buffy killed the deputy mayor. We’re spared the clichéd scene of Buffy making her case to Giles when Giles immediately tells Buffy he knows Faith is lying. And later that season, in “Enemies,” the cliché of Angel again turning into Angelus is undercut when it turns out he’s faking it in order to trap Faith.
These moments have something in common: We brace ourselves for a familiar TV plotline, and then we are spared from it in a clever twist, and a different (and less inevitable) storyline branches off from there.
“The Walking Dead” could’ve greatly benefited from such a moment. Season 7 is hard to watch partly because of the utter success with which the writers and Morgan have brought Negan to life. I don’t hesitate to rank him as the most genuinely scary TV villain of all time. I am emotionally drained after watching every Negan episode, particularly the extra-long “Sing Me a Song,” where he smoothly mixes psychological torture (having Carl remove his head-wrap and sing a song) and physical torture (burning the face of one of the rule-breakers with an iron). I get: He’s a monster, and he needs to be taken out. And the common folk are collectively working up the nerve and the strategy for overthrowing him.
It’s reminiscent of “Buffy’s” seventh and worst season, most of which was spent gearing up for the final fight against the First Evil. While Negan is human, he’s metaphorically the purest form of evil; he has no layers or backstory, and there are no signs so far that the writers intend to make him a deeper character — and I don’t necessarily disagree with that choice. (Granted, it would be fun to see how a young Negan’s psychopathy manifested itself pre-apocalypse, but “The Walking Dead” tends to not do “Lost”-style flashbacks.)
But there’s something to be said about speeding up a narrative rather than wallowing in it. As Buffy said to that same trash-talking First Evil in Season 3’s “Amends”: “I get it. You’re evil. Do we have to chat about it all day?”