I enjoyed the season premiere of The Walking Dead better than most. I understand the complaints that it was too bleak, too cruel, and too hopeless, but to my mind, it made sense to embrace those elements in order to establish Negan, both a character and as a threat. There have been so many ineffectual villains on this show, so many antagonists who seemed like mere speed bumps along the way toward Rick and company’s inevitable victory. TWD needed to make a big introduction to convince the audience that Negan and The Saviors were something different, something dangerous and more serious.
I also didn’t mind the hopelessness of that opening episode. Sure, it’s difficult to watch our heroes being broken, to see characters we know and love brutalized while the bad guys take great joy in the effort. But shows like The Walking Dead need stakes. In order for the good guys’ eventual triumph to feel earned and meaningful, the series has to make its main antagonist not only someone whose defeat doesn’t seem preordained, but also someone who’s actually worth beating. The suffering at this point of the arc will, with any luck, pay off down the line when the protagonists strike their blow against Negan and his goons.
The only problem is that the premiere already felt like a lot. It gave us a lot of blood and guts, a lot of horrible acts, and a lot of Negan preening and chewing scenery. That worked as an opening salvo for the character and as the culmination of the build his debut, which had been bubbling up since the midpoint of Season 6. But it was a great deal to take in all at once. The viewer can only stand so much of that level of cruelty and velvet-trimmed venom before it starts to overwhelm.
Which means that an episode like “Service” which essentially acts as a sequel to the premiere — in the way it gave us an even greater helping of Negan’s routine, skimping on the violence but doubling down on the lack of hope — comes off as rubbing the audience’s nose in all of this misery. Making it a super-sized episode to boot, one that packs in an extra twenty minutes or so of the same sneering bad guy material, the same hammered-home message about Alexandria’s weak position, only worsens the problem.
It’s especially rough for the character of Negan himself. I’ve generally enjoyed Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as the season’s big bad. Negan’s a difficult character to find the right balance for, and Morgan (again, the actor, not the character played by Lennie James) pulls it off well. By definition, Negan has to be outsized, someone so grandiose and convinced of his own unassailable greatness that he exudes slimy confidence, but who also feels like a predator and not just a clown. Morgan walks that line nicely. He has Negan’s shit-eating grin down pat, and he lays into his lines with a joy and a casual cruelty that lets you know that Negan thinks of himself as the vicious-but-benevolent cock of the walk.
But again, too much of such an exaggerated characters begins to wear. The Walking Dead has had outsized personalities show up before — The Governor probably comes closest to this sort of theatrical bent — but so far the character of Negan as written has really only played one note. He gives you the same quotient of gleeful menace in each scene, the same image of man who toys with his prey but thinks himself a just and noble ruler. That works well enough in small doses, but pile it on like TWD does in “Service” and the seams start to show. It starts to feel as though the series is spinning its wheels, repeating itself as Negan simply reheats points already established in memorable fashion in prior episodes.
It also doesn’t help that “Service” has painfully plodding pacing. Not every Walking Dead episode needs to be eventful of full of fast-paced action (“The Cell” demonstrates that well), but despite some effort at conflict on the margins, most of this episode is just a big tour for The Saviors around Alexandria. Seeing the effect that Negan has on the rest of the camp, the way he and those resigned to his reign intend to stamp out the last bits of resistance, is a valid and arguably necessary tack to take in the aftermath of the events of the season premiere. But there’s not enough there, or at least not enough in the show’s approach, to fill an entire episode, let alone one with an extended runtime.
Those conflicts are also pretty uniformly tepid. The missing guns provide fodder for Rick to give one of his trademark speeches, albeit one about knuckling under rather than fighting back. This episode, accordingly, is full of reminders, constant conversations, and loud declarations that “this is our lives now,” that things are different and can’t go back to the way they were before. So when Rick finds Spencer’s guns and turns them over to Negan in exchange for Olivia’s life, it’s anticlimactic. It feels like there was never really much of a risk there, but rather that the whole issue was a bout of drummed up, forced conflict to provide a reason for that speech and to accentuate the mostly forgotten wedge between Rick and Spencer.
“Service” lays some groundwork for that growing rift, with Spencer still resentful of Rick after the death of his parents as he lays the coming of The Saviors’ new world order at Rick’s feet. It’s an issue that’s bound to bubble up in the future at some inconvenient time, quite possibly with Spencer trying to make his own deal with Negan and ending up meeting a grisly end for the trouble when Negan decides to stick with Rick for his greater “earning potential.” But in the brief time we’ve known him, Spencer’s never been a particularly interesting character, which makes it hard to be especially invested in that storyline or its implications.
The same can largely be said for Rosita, though she’s received a bit more characterization over the past few seasons. She’s part of a different strain of thought running through this episode, that there are people who are poised and ready to resist The Saviors, even if they don’t quite have the implements or the plan to do so just yet.
Her task to retrieve Daryl’s bike (and her attempt to find a gun from one of Dwight’s deceased running buddies) mostly serves as yet another opportunity for people to debate whether The Saviors can be stopped or whether the denizens of Alexandria should simply accept that this is the new reality. We’re given plenty of plausible justifications for surrender — that The Saviors have greater numbers, more weapons, and a ruthlessness that makes them a threat to everyone and everything — but the endless back and forth over the issue (probably meant to answer the “why don’t they just take out Negan now?” question from the audience) isn’t particularly compelling.
It also bleeds into uncomfortable intimations of rape as The Saviors patrol Alexandria. We see it in the disgusting way that Negan talks about Maggie (who, in one of the cannier narrative choices, has been whisked away elsewhere before Rick lies and tells Negan that she passed away). We see it in Dwight’s uncomfortable treatment of Rosita. And we see it in the particularly unsettling way that one of Negan’s henchmen tries to get Enid to repeat the word please in order to get her balloons back.
I’m of two minds about this tack. On the one hand, as uncomfortable as these moments are, we’re talking about the bad guys here. We’re not supposed to like them, and so deplorable behavior is more excusable as a narrative choice. What’s more, rape is about power, and the overtones to Negan’s behavior underscore the way in which he is, despite his violent and sexual appetites, most interested in the power of his acts, the way that they allow him to proceed unfettered and unchallenged, more than any inherent pleasure he gets from the acts themselves.
On the other hand, in the henchmen especially, it feels like a cheap way to make the villains seem more villainous, a shorthand for evil in lieu of something better earned or more thematic. It also risks not taking rape seriously, a major problem when such acts are used as a lazy device and not earnestly explored. There’s potential for the show to go in either direction here.
The same varying potential is present in the episode’s closing scenes. Michonne is exactly the type of person who, as her experience with The Governor portends, will not sit idly by while a tyrant strides about and keeps good people under his thumb. But Rick’s speech, while not enough to convince her to stop practicing for the day when she might take Negan out herself, at least ties the “we have to do what The Saviors say” point (that’s repeated ad nauseum here) into something emotional and steeped in the history of the series.
The parallels are loose, but when Rick confesses that he knows Judith is Shane’s child, there’s power in it because it’s one of those few remaining plot threads from the beginning of the show that haven’t been tied off yet. And the thematic resonance of the revelation, the idea that sometimes we have to accept hard truths, things that tear us up, in order to do what we need to do to protect the people we care about, is solid. Negan’s actions make Rick’s knuckles tighten up on Lucille when Negan’s back is turned, but his desire to keep the Alexandrians safe loosens his grip, allows him to make these compromises and admissions in the hopes that his people will be able stay alive and get by, even under such harsh conditions.
That’s a fine way to dramatize the yoke under which Rick and Michonne and their band of survivors are living, the choices they must make every day. There’s just too much of Negan’s scenery-chewing, self-aggrandizing flotsam preceding it for that resolution to feel like anything more than too little too late.
It’s important to establish your villains. It’s important to make them notable characters in their own right. And it’s important to show them besting the heroes from time to time while posing a genuine threat, so that the eventual victory doesn’t feel hollow. But when you spend so much time with such a bastard, so much time reinforcing how terrible he is and how little hope is left in his wake, those remaining moments when you try to show that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, a rationale behind the capitulation, feel like a meager salve after forty minutes with your hand in the fire. Strong villains are good. Struggling heroes are good. But make the antagonists monolithic and spend entire, overly-long episodes devoted to their villainy, and the audience will be as apt to give up as Rick is.