Most people know the bible story of when God tested Abraham. It’s one of those biblical references that just filters through the popular consciousness, even if you haven’t cracked open Genesis anytime lately. The Good Lord tells Abraham, his devoted servant, to prove his devotion by offering his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this command, building an altar, binding his son to it, and raising his knife in the air, ready to perform the grisly deed. But God stops Abraham at the last minute, explaining to him that this was all simply a test of his devotion and then providing a ram to be sacrificed instead.
I can remember hearing this story in Sunday school and how the rabbi would milk this moment a bit. Keeping second graders enthralled with bible stories isn’t necessarily easy work, but he knew how to draw out the details of the story, embellish a little at the margins, and hold the tension of moments like that one. Even if you’d heard the rabbi tell this story half-a-dozen times before, he made you believe that maybe this time it would be too late, that Abraham would act and all would be lost. He knew, in short, how to build the suspense.
And that’s a sizable chunk of what The Walking Dead’s season premiere is going for – an exercise in building suspense. After the minor audience revolt at the Season 6 cliffhanger, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” takes its sweet time in revealing who met the sharper end of Negan’s barbed-wire bat. Rather than offering a quick reveal, we just see an indiscriminate pile of brains and viscera splayed out on the dirt where the victim once kneeled, while Rick is drawn away from the scene of the crime.
The show teases us with hints as Rick’s captor sends him on a Saw-esque mission to retrieve his axe in a horde of zombies. In the midst of this adventure, Rick has flashbacks to all of the people he knows in that circle, brought to their knees by The Saviors. It’s a way for the show to give the audience a mini-recap, a short reminder of the faces and names who might have been be done in by Negan in “Last Day on Earth.”
It’s a little too cute by half. At some point, drawing out the suspense feels like an exercise in cheesiness rather than a high-wire act. To some extent, you have to fight the viewers who are, understandably, a bit disgruntled with the show and apt to tune in merely to get closure on the cliffhanger so they can then return to the rest of their zombie-free lives. The Walking Dead combats this by basically putting that reveal square in the middle of the episode, forcing anyone watching (without the benefit of fast-forward) to witness Rick’s emotional arc in the first half of the episode, to try to get the audience invested in it, before finding out the answer to the show’s whodunit.
And that arc is solid (albeit a bit trite). The big question that the episode tries to answer is this – why would Rick, why would anyone, work for Negan? Why would our semi-noble, resourceful heroes, throw their lots in with this fiend instead of trying to stand up to him?
The answer the show offers is a simple one, one that lines up with the explanation offered by its network sibling. Rick, who is devastated at having lost one of the first people who helped him after the world fell, and another friend who once told him that the world needed more people like him, does not give into despair or to hopelessness. Instead he follows this bloody tyrant’s orders for a simple reason — so that he can keep the people close to him from having to share in the same awful fate. It’s a horrid compromise, but a necessary one to keep his friends and his family safe.
That idea, however, is dramatized in a way that doesn’t make much sense, but is awfully nice to look at, something par for the course for The Walking Dead. The action as Rick is surrounded by zombies, addled by what he’s been through, goaded by Negan throughout, has the rhythms of some bizarre dance. Drenched in fog, isolated in a sea of grasping, groping hands, Rick lies prone but eventually fights for his life.
For all of TWD’s flaws, the show still knows how to do these set pieces well. And Rick dangling above the ground while holding onto a dead man trying to kill him on the one hand, but keeping himself from the hungry mouths below on the other, is a little too on-the-nose in terms of symbolism, but makes for a cool visual, even if Negan’s eleventh hour save comes too conveniently (as is true for most of the hairier zombie-related situations on this show).
Despite the convenience of that moment, this is really Negan’s episode. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets the “and ____” designation in the opening credits, and he earns it here, getting the vast majority of the episode’s dialogue. That dialogue isn’t exactly crackling, devolving into Bond villain clichés and some repetitive goofiness at various points, but Morgan (the actor, not the bow-wielding pacifist, who along with Carol, doesn’t appear in this episode) saves as much of it as possible. While there’s a few odd quirks that took me out of the moment here and there (his little kissing noise for one), the actor is clearly having the time of life when he goes full magnificent bastard here. He leers and mocks and preens and generally chews the scenery, all with a presence and authority that the show seemed to be aiming for with The Governor but never really managed to achieve.
As much as the Season 6 finale was Negan’s introduction, devoting the last act to his big speech and show of force, this episode is his coming out party, a chance to show that he’s not just another in a long line of underwhelming Walking Dead big bads. The show establishes him as a force by not just giving him the lion’s share of dialogue, but by proving, for both the characters and the audience, that he’s a serious man by having him kill off two major characters.
The first is Abraham, who throws in one last cocky boast before bearing the brunt of that barbed-wire bat. It’s a sad end, one that traffics in the bitter irony of Abraham’s arc in Alexandria, of how he went from having trouble adjusting to the calm of life behind those walls while harboring something of a death wish, to finding a reason to hope and to want to live to see something more. It’s grist for the mill of fans and critics who argue the show is steeped in nothing but nihilism and tragedy.
But sadder yet is Glenn, whose death is one of the defter narrative moves of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” After Abraham’s death, the audience assumes that the rest of the crew is safe for now, that the promise of the cliffhanger has already been met. That makes Glenn’s death a legitimate surprise, something that has a little more force beyond the episode’s strained attempts to stall for time before showing who was behind the POV shot at the end of Season 6.
It’s also legitimately horrifying, both visually and emotionally. Again, the effects work on this show is never shoddy, and the image of Glenn after he’s suffered a blow from Negan’s weapon is appropriately gruesome and disturbing, a sign of how terrible the man who dealt that blow is. His death also carries the weight of the fact that Glenn is one of the few characters left from the very beginning of the series, after those with weaker plot armor have been winnowed away. He’s an expectant father, someone who always believed in the potential of this group, who says his wife’s name with his last breath.
He is, unlike the mercurial Rick, or the pugnacious Daryl, or the deadly but complicated Carol, someone who never wavered, who represented the best of what these people could be. So there’s more symbolism at play when it’s his death at Negan’s hands that’s meant to send a message. It’s meant to make Negan an antagonist unlike any other the show’s offered, whose cruel philosophy represents a terrifying antidote to Glenn’s optimism and determination.
That’s what Negan, and the show, is trying to impart. It establishes the stakes of this arc on the show. It’s trying to teach our heroes, and the viewers, who and what this man is. Negan needs to demonstrate to them, and us, what he’s capable of, to show the consequences of going against him and how futile and awful the results will be.
In short, Negan needs to break the good guys. So when it comes time for his final act, his most important show of force, he takes a page out of The Good Book. Not convinced that he’s fully cowed the leader of this group that’s caused him so much trouble, Negan has his goons drag Carl next to Rick, and orders Rick to cut off his son’s arm. He threatens that The Saviors will slaughter the lot of them if he refuses. He makes Rick beg him not to do it. He drives Rick to the point of having to make that terrible choice for the greater good, to prove his devotion, his utter submission, to the man who has made the last few hours of his life a living hell.
But then, at the moment of truth, Negan stops Rick from completing the act. He forbears. He makes himself clear. Because Negan sees himself as a god, not the beneficent and kind master of all, but the vengeful, Old Testament god who wins the devotion of his followers or else punishes the unfaithful. That is what Rick and his company are up against. That is why these people who thought that they owned the world may cop to what this man demands of them.
Our heroes are denied the fantasy we see at the end of the episode, a vision of almost everyone dressed in white, breaking bread together once more, while Glenn holds his child in his arms. It’s a beautiful image, one of a paradise they may never be able to bring to pass with people like Negan lurking beyond their doorstep.
“The Lord will provide,” said Abraham to Isaac. The words can be chilling or hopeful, either a reflection of Abraham believing that his son really will have to be sacrificed, or trusting that God will save him. Here, it’s Rick who is expected to provide, to “produce” for his new god. And that final image can also be either devastating or hopeful, depending on how you look at it. It could be a view of something Negan has ensured they will never have, the very hope that Negan intends to stamp out. Or it could be a dream in the midst of this darkness, a vision of joy, of what these beleaguered men and women may still one day achieve.