There was a hue and cry after the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. Two characters we knew and cared about died, and people were undeniably, understandably upset. Some of that reaction stemmed from the mere brutality of it – the protruding eyeball and the last gasps and the earth stained with bloody mush of it all. But more of it stemmed from the senselessness of those deaths – the sense in which these individuals had perished not as the culmination of their journeys, but as fodder for puffing up the series’s new biggest of big bads, turned into sacrifices made on the altar of “this guy means business.”
And yet, “The First Day of Your Life” serves as a corrective to that. It frames the deaths of Abraham and Glenn as poetry, as symbolic of who they were and what they believed in, that fueled their compatriots on to greater things to carry on their spirit. If the finale of The Walking Dead’s seventh season is to be lauded for anything, it’s recontextualizing those deaths, making them part of a noble struggle, the nobility of which emanates from the two kind, honorable men who gave their lives to it.
The episode presents Sasha’s sacrifice as part of a mindset she and Abraham shared before his fateful trip through the forest. Even apart from the season-ending fireworks, Sasha’s reflections on this were the strongest part of “First Day.” Every once in a while this show gets arty, and the quick, disorienting cuts between her in what was revealed to be a coffin, a face-to-face exchange with Negan ahead of his movement on Alexandria, a moment watching the sunrise with Maggie, and most importantly, her last conversation with Abraham, ably represented the jumbled thoughts running through her mind as she made a brave choice in that vein. The form serves the function – teasing the audience a bit as the viewer puzzles over what’s happening, while slowly allowing the pieces to fall into place until it’s clear not only where all of this is going, but why.
The why is the more important question. It’s a thrilling moment when Negan cracks open the coffin and a zombified Sasha lurches out and attacks him, but on its own, that could be what The Walking Dead’s critics accuse the show of offering – empty twists and emptier violence. Instead, it’s steeped in notions of sacrifice, of the knowledge that the capable people in this broken world know that every day they may face their end. Every day they go beyond the protective walls of their own camps, opening themselves up to hurt, to harm, to death.
But Abraham voices the theme that the show has been baking into every episode, particularly those in the build-up to this climax – that they do it in order to be able to fight for the future. Death is inevitable, in safe comfortable societies as well as in dangerous, lawless ones. All we can do is try to make our lives, and our deaths, meaningful, so that if we perish, we do so in service of helping someone else, in ensuring that the promise of a different tomorrow survives even if we don’t.
That is what bubbles in Sasha’s mind as she takes her last trip, as she savors her last moments in this world. That sacrifice kicks off the real action of the episode, the kind it seems like we’ve been building to for a whole season now. The fight with The Saviors is mostly satisfying, if pulpy and full of the typical convenience involved in the characters we care about (save for Sasha, obviously) making it out alive. There is the fog of war, the unexpected twists and turns amid the battle, and the individual scraps that make up the larger whole.
“First Day” succeeds by injecting enough uncertainty into the proceedings to make the conflict more than our heroes simply playing out the string. The inevitable result of all the posturing from the back half of Season 7 was the groups coming together to fight Negan. But the episode does two things that make this fight something more than a foregone conclusion.
The first is the betrayal of the “Garbage People.” Their Benedict Arnold-like change in allegiance wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the pregnant tone when the Junkyardigan woman offered her assurances to Michonne, but it immediately made our heroes seem at a disadvantage. It threw a giant monkey wrench into Rick’s plans and contributed to the sense that no matter how he and his allies scrapped and scraped, Negan was always going to be one step ahead.
The second is that “First Day” spends more than just a moment making it seem like all is lost. Sure, even when cornered, the good guys fight back, but Michonne is in a brutal fist-fight and Rick and Carl find their people lying in the streets or rounded up by The Saviors and utterly at a loss. Negan has time for one more big speech, one more opportunity to rub in the fact that while he plays the clown, he is as serious as a heart attack. It is gut-wrenching, and veers toward the sort of bleak hopelessness that the show is often tarred with, but it underscores the odds the good guys are facing.
And then, a freaking tiger attacks, and even overthinking critics like myself are not immune to the heartening qualities of the cavalry arriving. Maggie and The Hilltoppers on the one hand, Carol, Morgan and The Kingdom on the other, burst in to save the day when it seems like all is lost. It is not the mortal blow to Negan that one might have hoped for, but it is the culmination of the reciprocal idea The Walking Dead has explored this season – the notion that people can come together, fight for one another, and achieve a greater good.
Season 7 of The Walking Dead has, in the real world, been a tough one for the show. Fans erupted in disapprobation after the premiere. Critics have been less than kind to this series that many (not unreasonably) had never warmed to in the first place. And most importantly when it comes to the future of the show, its ratings have continued to fall.
The irony is that for a show that has been consistently inconsistent in terms of episode-to-episode quality, for one repeatedly slammed for its lack of diversity, and for one accused of wallowing in bleakness and nihilism, its most derided season is also likely to be this one, which subverts those notions and may ultimately prove to be its best. This year saw the show at its most consistent and focused in its goals and characters. It saw episode after episode founded on the struggles of women and POC, and anchored the heart of the show around touching, meaningful, interracial relationships. It offered the series’s most hopeful perspective yet, with characters repeatedly affirming that they will fight to better things for the next generation, that they are the ones who live, that kindness and altruism are possible even in such harsh environs.
And it anchors that last idea around dearly departed Glenn, a soon-to-be father who may be gone, but whose child will, with any luck, live to see a brighter future. “First Day” lets the thread start to fray and splinter; it lets the audience believe that perhaps we will see a repeat of the events of the premiere with our heroes on their knees and Negan swinging his barbed wire bat.
Instead, friends and allies dive into the fray when they don’t have to. People risk their safety, risk their health, risk their own lives for the sake of others. That started with Glenn, with his simple act of helping Rick when he had no reason to beyond simple human kindness. It is an affirmation that the show’s mission statement is not an endless series of grinding deaths – that it is the ideas we put forward into the world that survive us, the moments of self-sacrifice that live on long after we are feeding the daffodils. It is that spirit of living for others, and dying for them too, that persists in a world where self-interest becomes all the easier and more mortal a proposition.
It is, in short, a testament to what Abraham and Glenn lived for, and not just what they died for. It is a spirit that lived on in Sasha, that finds strength in Maggie, that animates Rick and Michonne and Carl and the rest of the found family that congregates in Alexandria at the end of the episode. It is a cliché to say that these two men, and other brave, bold individuals like Sasha, are gone but not forgotten. But it speaks a truth that softens the sting of those horrifying blows within Negan’s circle. It tugs on the heartstrings as Maggie holds Glenn’s watch in the final image of the season.
When the world falls, when the dark-hearted claim dominion, when the path of least resistance is to want and take and harm for your own good, there are still people who will still do no harm, who will still bring light unto the world, a light that shines and inspires and heartens, no matter if, when, or how they were extinguished.