If you thought there’s absolutely no way The Walking Dead could tease who Negan killed anymore than it already has, the season 7 premiere is out to prove you wrong. And yet, that’s what this whole episode is about - we all want to know which one of our favourite band of zombie survivors we have to say goodbye to. Well, The Day Will Come When You Won't Be certainly makes you work for it, but the premiere proves that after seven seasons, The Walking Dead still has something interesting to say.
Amazingly, AMC really did release the opening scene to season 7 early when they put out this exchange between Rick and Negan, and that’s exactly where the episodes kicks off. At this point, we know someone(s) has died, we know it’s been brutal and terrible, and watching the look on Rick’s face, you can barely contain your anticipation, but before we find out who, Rick is dragged off into the caravan with Negan for a little chat. It’s clear why Negan’s taken Rick. He’s testing him, he needs him to know that he’s no longer in charge, and so Negan drives them into a zombie horde, throws an axe on to the top of the caravan, and tells Rick to go get it. Needless to say, Rick makes it to the axe and as he lies there deciding what to do, we (FINALLY!) find out who Negan killed.
I guess I never really thought about how you probably wouldn’t die straight away from one bash to the head by a baseball bat, but I’m sure as hell thinking about it now. Negan has thought about it too because after he thwacks Abe on the top of his skull he waits… he lets the group take it in, lets them watch, lets them feel the pain of it. He’s enjoying himself, and you really do believe that. Props to Jeffrey Dean Morgan for making me genuinely question if he’s a psychopath. In true Abe style, Michael Cudlitz tells Negan to suck his nuts but even that final act of defiance won’t help you block out the sounds of the sickeningly wet crunches as Negan goes to town on his head.
After all the build up, it’s a pretty traumatic moment, made all the worse by Negan’s taunting (“look at my dirty girl”), but Abe feels like the easy choice. He’s a fan favourite but not an original character and so, as bad as it is, I feel like I can get over this. Which is when Negan smacks Glenn round the face. Yeah.
It had been rumoured that more than one character might be killed off and I guess, given the outrage from fans after the season 6 cliffhanger, it made sense to give us something truly shocking. And it really was, because despite the evidence that said Glenn wouldn’t make it, just like all the characters on their knees, you thought the worst was over and then you had to watch Maggie look on as Glenn was beaten to death. Oh, but not before he turns to her, covered in blood and one eye popping out of his skull, and says: “Maggie, I’ll find you.” Yeah, that hurt. A lot.
With one of this year’s biggest questions in TV answered, we return to a traumatised Rick lying on top of a carvan wondering what to do. Ultimately, he makes the only choice he can and retrieves Negan’s axe, but that’s not enough for Negan. He knows Rick just as well as we do and he knows he’s probably still thinking of ways to get revenge down the line. At every turn he humiliates and bullies Rick all with one single purpose - to make him realise that he is no longer in charge. The extent to which he does this would almost be overkill except that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is 100% committed to the performance, and if you didn’t hate him so much, you’d almost believe he’s doing it because he genuinely doesn’t want to have to kill anyone else.
Point made, the pair return to the scene of the crime so that Rick can show everyone how obedient he is and this can all be over. No doubt he’s closer to complacency than we’ve ever seen him before, but Negan is no fool. Rick refuses to give him what he wants and so it’s back to threatening everyone again. With guns at the heads of the rest of the group, Negan calls over Carl - who is as hot-headed as ever - and lays him down on the ground in front of his dad. As he draws a line across Carl’s arm, a look of realisation falls across Rick’s face and he starts to beg, at which point, you realise you know what’s going to happen before Rick does. Negan isn't going to cut Carl’s arm off. He’s going to make Rick do it, or he’ll have everyone else shot, and then he’ll kill Carl anyway, and then everyone in Alexandria, and then he’ll hold Rick captive for a few years so he can really suffer before killing him as well. Seriously, this guy is evil.
This is the moment that made me realise The Walking Dead is still worth watching after seven seasons. It’s not like we haven’t been here before; with a bad man killing Rick’s friends and demanding obedience. There was a time when I would have said The Governor was as bad as it could get, but I still believed Rick and co will do what they always do - grieve and play along, waiting for the moment to strike. That’s not what’s going to happen in season 7. I guarantee it. All you need do is watch Andrew Lincoln’s performance in this moment to realise, Rick might finally be broken. When Negan stops him from cutting his son’s arm off at the last moment, he’s so grateful, so overcome with emotion that he says and does anything Negan tells him to. It’s the promise of one of the best things a TV show can ever do: something different.
Satisfied, Negan rounds up his men, throws Daryl in the back of one of their trucks and tells Rick they’ll be back in a week for their first offering. Slowly everyone leaves until the remaining survivors are left alone in the dirt. It’s a while before anyone moves, but when they do it’s Maggie, not Rick, who takes charge. It looks like she’s being set up to be the leader we’ve been promised as she tells Rick they need to go get ready to fight Negan. The group reform around her - broken, battered, and almost completely unrecognisable but still there. Just when you think it can’t get any worse Negan’s voice can be heard again; “Bet you thought you were all going to grow old together, sitting around the table at Sunday dinner in the happily ever after,” and we see the family meal that could have been, headed up by Glenn holding a baby that isn’t even born yet. “No, it doesn’t work like that Rick. Not anymore.”
There are many times during this episode when director Greg Nicotero could have crossed the line. It really does milk it for all it’s worth, first by dragging out the reveal and then with the emotionally-charged flashbacks. Negan is also a very over-the-top character and in anyone else's hands he could have been little more than a caricature. Plus, the extended level of violence and threat of further loss means you’re in almost a completely state of anxiety throughout. And yet, it works, mainly thanks to the performances by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Andrew Lincoln. If this episode doesn’t make you want to see more of them, you might as well quit now. The episode ends perfectly, with one solidary zombie walking out of the woods and towards the caravan. Remember them? Remember that there’s a zombie apocalypse on? Rick’s nonchalant attitude towards the walker says it all, he longs for the days when flesh-eating monsters were his biggest worry.