Remember when The Walking Dead's seventh season began last October with Glenn getting his head crushed beneath Negan's spiked baseball bat – one of the most devastating and polarizing deaths in the entire run of this corpse-strewn series? We've come full circle, in a way: Last night's finale ended with the dearly departed's wife/mother of his child Maggie giving a stirring speech that framed his murder as the loss of a kind man at the hands of a cruel one. In the sixth months between those moments, cable's most popular drama has taken us to astonishing new locations, to meet unusual new characters; throughout, producers Scott M. Gimple and Robert Kirkman have tried to bring a sharper focus to their morally hazy post-apocalyptic world. This show long ago stopped being about the living and the undead. Now it's about heroes and villains – who can be hard to tell apart when they're pointing guns at each other.
This has admittedly been somewhat of a rocky year for the series. After Glenn's death, the ratings dipped, and while this remains one of the most-watched shows of any kind on television, it's begun to fade some from the cultural zeitgeist. The quality has varied wildly too from week to week. Some episodes have been torturously slow and sad, while others have worked just fine as rip-roaring action-horror. But as the cast and crew regroups and prepares for their eighth year, there's a lot from this past one that they can build on. The tightened pace of Season Seven's second half was refreshing, and several of the more recent additions to the cast – such as Jesus and King Ezekiel (and his henchman-eating tiger!) – have brought a lighter tone, proving that this show doesn't always need to be episode after episode of angry, self-pitying people snarling at each other.
So as we bid farewell to walkers and survivors, warriors and traitors, dreadlocked regents and bat-wielding bad guys for the next six months, here are our main takeaways from the past 16 episodes, and what they might mean for what comes next.
1. War ain't easy
Aside from Negan's disgusting round of batting practice, this season's arc could be summed up in a single sentence: "Rick and his people meet new communities, and slowly – very slowly – convince them to join their fight." But as the confusing mayhem of the season finale made clear, even when the good guys succeed in assembling multiple armies, that doesn't mean they've actually accomplished anything. The Alexandrians are now backed by the Kingdom and the Hilltop Colony, and have a mole inside the Sanctuary in the form of Dwight. In the process though, they've made enemies of the Oceansiders by stealing their guns, which were then passed along to the double-crossing Scavengers.
Meanwhile, Morgan is reverting to savagery, the Hilltop's nominal leader Gregory is sneaking intel to the other side, and in the season finale the team lost a valuable player in Sasha. And through it all, Negan hasn't really suffered many casualties. Before, Rick thought his hardest task was going to be working up the collective will for war. But now that he's started something he can't back out of, he may find himself burying a lot of old and new friends.
2. The survivors (and the show) are better off when different groups work together …
After the brutal, depressing season opener, The Walking Dead started to get back on track when it introduced Ezekiel and the Kingdom, which immediately gave the survivors a fresh group of friendly faces they could (eventually) team up with. The second half of year seven has featured more collaboration than contention, and has been much more enjoyable to watch. For this show to hold the audience's interest over the long haul, it has to at least suggest that some kind of bright, quasi-utopian future could be possible.
3. … and yet everyone still blindly puts their trust in Rick
Our man hasn't made any moves lately as dunderheaded as his ill-fated zombie cattle-drive in Season Six, but still, given how often and how well the Alexandrians have been guided by likes of Maggie, Michonne, Tara, Sasha, Rosita – and really, any other Alexandrian with a pair of X chromosomes – it's getting harder to understand why everyone keeps deferring to Mr. Grimes. His misplaced confidence in the Scavengers was almost a fatal error, corrected only because of the last-second intervention of the Hilltop's and Kingdom's armies – something that he helped set in motion, but hadn't exactly planned-out or coordinated. His earlier raid on Oceanside may ultimately turn out to have been a total boner too, if that bunch ever gets re-armed and decides to exact revenge.
This show's lead character has a good heart and good broad-stoke ideas, but his inattention to detail and his hair-trigger decision-making keeps causing more problems than it solves. As Negan put it, right after getting the drop on our man yet again: "You suck ass, Rick … You really do."
4. Negan is beatable ... but "Neganism" may not be
Fans have been split on whether Negan has been TWD's best villain yet, or whether his bro-drawl and smug smirk lost their novelty right around the time he crushed two fan-favorite skulls. Still, thanks to multiple Season Seven episodes that have taken us inside the Sanctuary, it's at least easier to understand how he keeps his Saviors loyal. He rewards the useful, giving them a simple choice: They can live like kings, or they can be bashed into goo. It's because of this that this leather-jacketed tyrant never seems to blink an eye when yet another Alexandrian shows up at his gates and starts killing his people. Instead, he marvels at their gumption, and wisely tries to exploit it.
Some of the co-opted, like Dwight, are deeply unhappy with their lot. Others, like Simon (and Eugene, sadly) don't appear to spend a lot of time second-guessing. The plan for the coming war is to take out Negan right away, and then to hope that his ruthlessly efficient protection racket dies with him. But it may not be so easy to convince a well-fed inner-circle of bullies to stop taking whatever they want from the weak and defenseless.
5. It's hard to see where the show goes from here… but that may not be a bad thing
Here's a question for all you Dead-heads: How many zombie attacks can you remember from this season? There have been a few, granted – that scene with Rick and Michonne clearing walkers from a carnival was a kick. Ditto the midseason opener's sequence, in which our heroes began bisecting ghouls with two speeding cars and a wire. But for the most part, the shambling monsters who gave this series its name – and its raison d'être – have become an afterthought, as the show has evolved into an epic saga about tribes at war. Given what we've seen over the last 16 episodes, there's no reason to believe that defeating Negan will change anything. Season Eight is bound to begin with more bloody melees, and then … well, what?
That's not presented as a reason to quit on The Walking Dead. If Gimple and Kirkman stick with the plot of the latter's comic books, then yes, there's a lot of repetitious violence ahead. But this season deviated from the page in some key ways – including, most notably, in the events of the finale, which took a winding path and used different combinations of characters to get to where the comics are at the end of the storyline "March to War."
The TV version of TWD has always been very open to change if it serves the drama. When the show starts adapting Kirkman's "All Out War" arc, it'll be interesting to see whether we'll still be watching a moody, character-based horror story, or if we'll be getting a stealthy revival of the old Vic Morrow WWII series Combat! … with occasional flesh-eating.
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