39 years ago, Henry Winkler's Fonzie jumped over a shark on a pair of water-skis in Happy Days. It was the sitcom's Season 5 premiere, and writer Fred Fox Jr. thought that having Fonzie ski over a shark would bring in millions of eyeballs. He was right, but in retrospect it was also the moment at which fans of Happy Days began to debate whether the show had lost the plot.
That brings us neatly around to the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead, an episode in which, while nobody did this...
...two characters were killed in a brutal fashion at once both faithful to the comic book and unusual in the television landscape. Reviewing the ep, a handful of critics went in hard on The Walking Dead, one dismissing it as "a show so stupid that it thinks we're stupid, prays we're stupid [enough] to come back next week."
Is it stupid? Are we stupid? I wanted to take a deeper dive into the sharky waters of #TheWalkingDead to find out whether or not any oceanic creatures were jumped in Season 7 opener, and what the episode's events might mean for the show on a grander scale going forward.
The Glenn Dilemma
It's not possible to talk about the Season 7 opener without the context of the long wait for it, and the highly infuriating cliffhanger of the Season 6 finale. AMC made us wait 6 months+ to find out who Negan had turned to mush with one swing of Lucille, a guessing game designed to keep the hype machine alive throughout summer.
Here's the problem with that strategy — the longer the audience is made to wait for answers, the more difficult it becomes to deliver something satisfying. We had months to theorize on who would be Negan'd, to piece together scraps of "evidence." Across social media, a huge number of Walking Dead fans were firm in the belief that Glenn would be killed in the premiere.
And then... he was. For those who believe the show should stay faithful to the comic, there's no disappointment in that, and sure, AMC still found a way to inject a twist of sorts by having Negan take Abraham as his first victim. But in spite of that, Glenn's death did not feel earned. Perhaps the major reason for that is that he was literally resurrected from his last "death" just a handful of episodes earlier. We had already been teased with the idea that an original cast member was gone, mourned appropriately, celebrated his survival... and for what? If The Walking Dead wanted to respect the comic, it should never have "killed" Glenn last season. Now, it feels both anticlimactic and wasteful.
As for Abraham, does anybody really care? He always felt expendable. The Walking Dead has clearly established now that there are untouchables: Rick, Daryl, Carol, Carl, Michonne. Killing any one of these characters would've been a genuine shocker, potentially a game-changer on the same level as Game of Thrones's Red Wedding. Instead, Rick marches on looking tortured as ever, the untouchables untouched, the emotional stakes firmly unraised.
The Impact Of Violence
The Red Wedding is actually an interesting point of reference on another level: It was arguably the moment at which Game of Thrones learned to use its love of brutal gore and violence to compliment and advance character development. The mass slaughter of the Stark bannermen was horrifying, but the sight of Catelyn Stark, a woman defined by her staunch moral code, slicing open the throat of Walder Frey's young wife, innocent except by association, spoke to how the betrayal had been the final trigger to push Catelyn into the abyss of insanity. She'd been through enough; as a final act of misjudged vengeance before her own death, the violence was earned.
In response to those critics who labelled the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead too violent, or gratuitously so, fans have pointed out it's based on a hyper-brutal adult comic, that it's been to equally bloody places before, that this is not a kids' show. All of that is true. But balancing fidelity to the source material with what works best as a method of storytelling on television is no mean feat, and it's a high-wire walk this episode didn't quite manage to pull off.
Negan is fun, charming and (unfortunately) considerably more likeable than Rick, but I don't actually understand his motives. Would killing Rick not have sent a much more chilling warning to the group than taking Glenn as his victim? What's the benefit of toying with Rick? It's Bond villain behavior, a classic "let's dine while I speak in veiled threats about exactly what I'm going to do to you... another day" scenario. And ultimately, that's not strong storytelling. The events feel random where they should feel connected. Are we now in torture porn territory? It sort of feels that way.
In the Season 4 episode 'The Grove', a simple but brutal act of violence alters Carol forever. Her decision to shoot Lizzie in the back of the head goes against everything she stands for as a character, but she does it because it's necessary. Only the strong will survive in the new world. The act of violence for the greater good signals that Carol found a new mental strength. That's how brutality feeds into character development, and there was no sign of that in the Season 7 premiere.
Violence for the sake of violence, pulp brutality, is also fine. It just signifies that The Walking Dead is no longer ambitious enough to aim higher. If the reign of Negan is defined by gore and random blows to the head from Lucille, there will be those who have to accept that the show they once thought great has left them behind. It hasn't jumped the shark — for better or worse, it's swung the bat. Welcome to the new Walking Dead.
Check out the promo for next Sunday's episode above, then tell me:
Is The Walking Dead still one of the best things on television, and have Negan and Lucille turned the show into a very different kind of beast?