Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 7 finale, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life."
The Walking Dead Season 7 finale delivered an epic attack, setting off the "All Out War" storyline from Robert Kirkman's comic book source material as it pits a coalition of subjugated communities led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in a colossal conflict against the numbers-heavy zombie apocalypse extortionists the Saviors, led by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). However, a decline in ratings has been widely attributed to the torturous turns taken toward this long-awaited point, allowing some of the show's schadenfreude-seeking detractors to peak out of the woodwork. While some might declare that the show has jumped the undead shark, I think other variables are to blame for the dip.
I am making the argument that Season 7's woes were not attributed to any kind of widespread zombie apocalypse ennui, but, rather, a storyline structure that was done a disservice by its normal weekly-episodic structure, turning the Saviors storyline into an exhausting and masochistic five-month experience that diminished enthusiasm for the climactic pot of gold at the end of its proverbial rainbow; something that might have been mitigated if the episodes had arrived instantly as a single binge experience.
Make no mistake, I'm not espousing the idea that AMC should suddenly make The Walking Dead into some streaming event, but I think this viewpoint might just allow viewers to appreciate a generally solid season.
Rock in the Road
Since Negan and the Saviors made their 2012 debut in The Walking Dead comic book with the subtlety of a barbed-wire bat-wielding bull in an apocalyptic china shop, fans had been eagerly attempting to glean clues in anticipation for their monumental arrival on the show. Mind you, not because they wanted to see poor Glenn's head turned into a piñata, as it did in the comics; rather, it was because Negan was to be a game-changing injection of adrenaline and dark humor. However, by the time the show finally got there, the decision to implement the "Who did Negan kill?" cliffhanger in Season 6's finale, "Last Day on Earth," may have left a bad taste in the mouths of many of those same clue-gleaning fans, causing declarations of quitting the show, kicking off the (perceived) dulling of the show's former buzz-heavy splendor.
The power of the moment with Negan's bat-swinging debut should have been unleashed in one bold shot as a climactic bookend after Season 6 had spent so much time hinting and building to said moment. Unfortunately, the already over-extended episode climaxed with Negan beating an unidentified victim to death, seen through a campy, blood-dripped closing POV shot, kicking off six excruciating months of waiting for an aromatic main course moment that loyal viewers, by all rights, had already earned. It concluded in the Season 7 premiere, "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be," revealing Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) as the POV victim with Negan later taking an additional (comic-accurate) sacrifice of Glenn (Steven Yeun) for a head-smashing encore. However, with enthusiasm drained from the cliffhanger drama, the scene did little to springboard the series, almost as a fruit that withered on the vine too long.
No Easy Street
Flashing forward to the recent Season 7 climactic closer, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life," we saw Rick's makeshift coalition of neighborhood guerillas deliver an explosively aggressive catharsis against Negan and the Saviors after the show forced viewers to witness beloved characters endure 16 episodes of death, abuse and humiliation. Yet, one can't help but think the same zealous pre-"Who did Negan kill?" cliffhanger audience would have enjoyed the finale moment far more than the jaded post-cliffhanger audience; something that leads me to believe that the show's Saviors storyline would have been more celebrated if audiences could have binged it at their own pace, rather than suffering teases and dilatory tricks.
It's a viewpoint that's validated by the Season 7 finale's ratings, which, at 11.3 million viewers, ranked as the third-lowest finale since Season 1's 5.97 million (closing an abbreviated upstart season,) and Season 2's 8.99 million (the notoriously slow Greene family farm, Search for Sophia season). It was also noticeably down from the 17 million who tuned in for the Season 7 premiere.
Ironically, the events depicted in the Season 6-7 cliffhanger, nay, the deliberately-paced Season 7 overall, had the show, at least on paper, in a poignant and compelling form. It's just that somewhere along the line, the show became tone deaf to the role that crucially-timed beats can play in a weekly/seasonally-structured series. While the show had exercised episode detours before, it habitually settled into a character-fixated form, expanding its formerly-occasional habit of breaking up seasonal beats with introspective, character-specific episodes, depriving viewers of certain main cast characters for months. That's a tough sell for a show in its seventh season, with viewers more concerned for the fate of the primary characters they have come to know (and in some cases, love).
"Drink from the well, replenish the well."
It almost feels silly to lament a season of genre television that, despite the highly-publicized dips, still averaged over 11 million viewers, especially since it continued to artfully build upon its mythos with the introduction of new survivor groups and story nuances. The all-female Oceanside -- a loose adaptation of a group introduced in the comics at a much later point -- turned what seemed to be a "Vatos"-like throwaway episode into a critical component of the finale. The quirky junkyard dwelling Scavengers, led by the taciturn Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), were introduced as potential allies to Rick, yielding a shocking finale twist. Plus, we were finally introduced to the Kingdom, a group whose community is built around an abandoned school, led by Ezekiel (Khary Payton), who, armed with a sword, leads people to productive, honorable lives with an enigmatic earnestness — oh, and he keeps a freaking tiger! It's like Isaac Hayes' Duke of New York had a beneficent baby with King Arthur and tiger Shiva plays his "A-Number-One" loyal steed.
Yet, Ezekiel's arc with him maintaining a façade of strength and eventual acceptance of the need to fight the Saviors was one of the season's many emotional components that was broken up in big chunks across too many episodes. In fact, it was almost easy to forget, since the season centered on the bitter idea that Rick led his compatriots down the primrose path in his initial attacks on the Saviors. After having escaped death so often, Rick became egregiously overconfident, and, in one fell swoop, was humbled into servitude by the overwhelming forces of Negan with those signature deaths delivered, along with threats to his son Carl. It's a great season angle and the show arguably did a better job building to this ironic fall than the comics. However, it was overlooked how the length of time between the episodes that addressed Rick's arc (which were few and far between) would make everything feel more watered-down and gimmicky than they really were.
While the season was structured in a binary manner, with the first half reveling in Saviors dominance and the second on the burgeoning insurgence, things like Rick's initial acquiescence to Negan, Daryl's torturous "Easy Street"-listening, dog-food-sandwich-eating closet captivity by the Saviors, Carol's sudden perplexing, isolation-seeking moral dilemma and Ezekiel's acceptance of the All Out War would have better complemented the overall storyline had they been stitched together over across the season, allowing viewers to keep regular tabs on things, rather than showcased under a microscope in sporadic episodes, exacerbating the emotion and leaving other characters to be forgotten.
At the end of the day, The Walking Dead's Season 7 told a powerful story that was hampered by the constraints of its own weekly platform. As the title of this piece suggests, the season's strict anthological character episode approach would have shined in a streaming platform as it allowed viewers to binge the story in a manner that didn't excessively withhold the dramatic rewards bestowed after having endured an overflow of Saviors sadism. While we all know that idea is not feasible from the standpoint of AMC's sponsor-driven business model, I think it might justify having critics of Season 7 cut the show some slack, especially if one were inclined later on to go back and rewatch the season in a more amenable binge-friendly form.