*SPOILERS AHEAD … AND MORE VILLAINOUS QUIPS PER SQUARE METRE THAN A BOND VILLAIN CONVENTION*
Like a broken record played over and over and over again by a zombie instinctively remembering they once loved this thing called “moo-zik”, the producers of The Walking Dead endlessly regale us with the fact that season 7 is the darkest, most badass and terrifyingly awful that the show has ever been.
And as far as it goes, that’s kinda true.
Alexandria, and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) himself, are on the ropes – thanks in no small part to Rick’s onetime-overweening hubris that he could defeat anyone and everyone, sight unseen (whoops!) – new Big Bad Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is pulping anyone who moves with his barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat Lucille (charmingly named after his dead wife who was no doubt glad to be rid of him) and community after community such as Hilltop and The Kingdom live in fear of Negan’s Saviors popping by for a visit.
Not exactly a walk in the park, especially when Negan and apocalyptic Mafia henchpeople decide you are their victim du jour, which Rick and the gang most certainly are, to the burning chagrin of people like Spencer (Austin Nichols) who rightly blames Rick for all the bad things that have befallen him and his once-blissfully happy compatriots (those that remain alive anyway).
(Not that he’s allowed to say so with Rick channeling his inner proto-Negan to shut down Spencer’s voluble protests with the calm efficiency of the dictator he has often shown himself to be; the thing with Negan is that Rick has simply found a more powerful bully than himself.)
And for sheer shock tactics anyway, Negan’s prancing, preening, amoral bad guy who acts like a lowlife Viking on a raping and pillaging spree – the way he casually sexually objectifies women such as palpably uncomfortable Rosita (Christian Serratos) is chilling in the extreme with its utterly inappropriate playful casualness – fits the bill perfectly.
He is everything the producers promise he is; and yet he is not at the same time, a tired cliche full of bluster and oneliners and swaggering disdain, a passive-aggressive bad guy who lays all his cards on the table from the get-go so you are under no illusion that he’s BAD, like some twisted take on the Michael Jackson song.
As far as it goes, that’s fine – full of narratively-stunted murder porn though it is, the opening episode of season 7 “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” did its job of introducing a wholly-overwhelming threat who put paid to Rick’s arrogance in the most pronounced and bloodthirsty of ways – but it does give you a very limited dramatic palette from which to draw.
As “Service” made all too clear – the title refers to both Negan’s delusional idea that he is being of service to the Alexandrians by hardening them up (and saving them from the occasional stray walker) and to the tribute the town must pay to him in the form of ALL their guns, mattresses (later burned in a pile by the roadside to Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) fury, and medicines – there isn’t anywhere much left to go when your bad guy is a mono-dimensional villain with little room for any kind of growth or reveal.
At least the Governor (David Morrissey) , who is supposedly in the shade evil-wise to Negan, had nuance to him, layers that were unravelled at he came apart at the seams, his passive-aggressive Stepford Wives kingdom pulled apart by the greatest destroyers of all – Rick and his gang of self-important misfits.
The Governor was pure dripping evil but evil that was revealed as the storyline saw fit, providing the narrative with some reasonably decent places to go.
But Negan? He is everything and nothing all at once, a murderous bully on steroids who goes on and over with his quip-heavy banter, threatening death to Olivia (Ann Mahoney) when two handguns Spencer has secreted away in fear of Rick – fair enough, Rick is a pretty scary guy that has effectively laid Alexendria to waste – fail to show up.
His only recourse is threatening again and again and ad nauseum that he and his coteries of thugs, lowlifes and ne’er-do-wells will lay waste to Alexandria should it so much as dare to raise an eyebrow in defiance.
(The only one to escape censure is Carl, played by Chandler Riggs, who manages to survive holding a gun to the head of one of Negan’s henchmen, largely because The Walking Dead‘s cardboard cutout Big Bad admires his chutzpah.)
With only the most threadbare of bad guys to rest its narrative potential on, “Service”, despite its bloated 90 minute running time, fail to tell much of a story.
Negan and his gang arrive a few days too early, no one is ready, things are stolen – many things are stolen – people threatened and a new reality of intimidation and coercion is established while Rick stands back nervously, the fight still within him but not enough to do anything worthwhile.
Rick is even left with Lucille for much of the episode with Negan knowing he doesn’t have the guts to do anything with it; only Michonne, who is out practising with a rifle when the Saviors arrive and is livid when Rick offers up her gun despite it not being on Olivia’s detailed inventory, and Rosita show any sign of resistance but no one matches them and so it dies on the vine.
That in a nutshell is it, illustrating vividly how bare the storytelling cupboard now is, how little room The Walking Dead now has to manoeuvre in, and how limited its narrative has become.
This is a TV show that is reduced to amping up its badness and nastiness to such a degree that it burns away all subtlety and nuance which, granted does provide a temporary buzz if you are into that sort of thing, but leaves little to show it was ever there, or that it meant anything, not the ideal position for any show with the once-mighty watercooler cachet of The Walking Dead.
- And the terrorising continues next week’s episode “Go Getters” with the action switching to Hilltop in the main wherein rests an ailing Maggie – not dead as Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) pretended to Negan via a freshly-dug grave in the Alexandria graveyard – and where compliance with brutality long ago became the community religion …