Warning: major spoilers ahead!
We’re halfway through Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead and already we’ve been gifted with one of the best small-screen villains in living memory, a baseball bat you’d be hard-struck to forget, a goddamn tiger and some of the most emotional deaths the show has offered its loyal viewership thus far. The question remains then: has this been the best season of TV’s seminal zombie series to date?
The Walking Dead has perhaps rightly been criticised by many for seeming to follow a season-by-season formula: Rick’s group finds a new safe-haven away from the ‘walker’ hordes; the safe-haven isn’t everything they thought it would be; the safe-haven is destroyed somehow and the group ventures off in search of their next ‘we promise it’s safe this time’ hideout. This trend began with the CDC compound back in Season 1, followed in Season 2 by Hershel’s farm; Seasons 3 and 4 revolved around the prison,;Season 5 saw the very short appearance of Terminus, and Season 6 gave its viewership Alexandria. Following a largely disjointed sixth season which threw up more questions than it answered and saw Alexandria briefly fall to the ‘walker’ hordes, one might have been forgiven for expecting this formula to be blandly repeated in the show’s foreseeable future.
However, the Season 6 finale, as well as offering a cliff-hanger of the ‘pull-your-own-hair-out’ variety, set up Season 7 with what the show had undoubtedly been missing since the demise of the Governor almost 50 episodes prior: a great antagonist. And they don’t come much greater than Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s superbly acted Negan.
From Season 7’s very first episode, fans knew they were in for something special. The usually stalwart Rick reduced to tears of resignation; fan-favourite Daryl carted off to be imprisoned for the following seven episodes, and the shockingly brutal executions of two of the group’s key players: Glenn and Abraham. The latter produced perhaps one of the greatest last words ever performed (sorry Hamlet!) with “Suck my nuts”. All of this, topped off by the wickedly menacing presence of Dean Morgan’s Negan, not only set up a captivating and fresh premise for the show’s newest season, but also made believable the capitulation of a group of survivors which until then had seemingly been able to take on anything the show’s plethora of writers could throw their way. Negan and the Saviours aren’t merely trying to destroy The Walking Dead’s established cast either – a stale threat which the show’s fans know will never truly be seen to its end. Their threat of effectively vassalising the group in a mafia-style trade of ‘protection’ for resources feels far more real, tense and, crucially, believable.
“I would often find myself perking up with renewed interest when he entered (and inevitably stole) a scene”
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether such a fresh and interesting premise for Season 7’s conflict would have been so expertly put into practice without the mesmerising and terrifying presence of Dean Morgan’s Negan. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, the character is actually incredibly likeable, as far as a charismatic baseball-bat-wielding thug can be considered likeable. I would often find myself perking up with renewed interest when he entered (and inevitably stole) a scene. And for good reason. Negan seems to bring out new and interesting sides to already established characters, most notably in the case of Carl in episode seven. Every character Negan comes into contact with sparks up a unique and interesting relationship, the likes of which has taken entire seasons to develop in the past.
Negan is not the only memorable character Season 7 has introduced or fleshed-out, however, despite being the standout: I’ve found myself particularly interested in King Ezekiel, the Kingdom’s tiger-owning, somewhat duplicitous leader, as well as Dwight (or ‘D’), a converted foot-soldier within Negan’s Saviours and part-time jailor to Daryl. I even enjoyed watching the timely aspirations and comeuppance of Spencer in the last episode before the mid-season break. In all, Season 7 has done an excellent job at bringing to the forefront an array of colourful new characters which I hope the show can deliver on by providing entertaining arcs. That being said, it would be nice to see more time spent on promising B-list characters such as the apparently Houdini-like Jesus or Alexandria’s resident priest Gabriel when the show returns on February 12th.
In terms of episodes, Season 7 hasn’t quite provided the perfect showing. Indeed, the show became particularly lacklustre in following Maggie’s experience on the Hilltop colony, as well as during stretches of an arguably overly-dramatic opening episode. Nevertheless, with these small exceptions, the vast majority of this season’s episodes thus far have largely been of the highest quality. Even the ever-present ‘filler’ episodes, such as Carl’s tour around the Saviour base, ‘the Sanctuary’, and Rick and Aaron’s supply run in episode eight, have been excellent in providing enough exposition whilst remaining thoroughly entertaining. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in The Walking Dead!
Even in the sense of an over-arching plotline, the arrival of the seemingly ubiquitous Saviours has helped to expand the extent of the world the show has been able to reveal to its audience like never before. Notable standout episodes to this world-building cause are ‘The Cell’, which offers our first look at the Sanctuary, and ‘Swear’, a seemingly out-of-place foray into a secret all-female community which doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the season until the allusion to an inter-community uprising against the Saviours by the end of the mid-season finale.
Verdict: Overall, Season 7 has been an exceptional break from The Walking Dead’s traditional formula, introducing an intriguing cast of new characters whilst keeping the show’s death-count high in the process. Although it remains to be seen whether this momentum can be continued when the show returns from its mid-season break in February, as well as whether it will become reliant on Negan as a source of drama, the mid-season finale ought to have left viewers brimming with anticipation as to the upcoming conflict a rejuvenated Rick has seemingly promised.
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Media courtesy of DenofGeek, CheatSheet and Gamespot