A good-sized portion of The Walking Dead's American audience just endured a punishing week, with a presidential election that was unusually stressful – and, for many, deeply depressing. So what does the show do? It runs a full 20 minutes longer than usual, to allow viewers to spend more time with Negan, a controlling bully who takes pleasure in breaking people's spirits. (Draw your own conclusions.) Sometimes television makes great comfort food, easing the disappointments and tragedies of the real world. This week's TWD was more like a horse pill. It was bitter medicine, and hard to swallow.
For those who could choke it down though, the episode – "Service" – did offer some relief, eventually. This super-sized episode also exemplified both the best and worst of Season Seven thus far. It was primarily focused on documenting how Negan wrings communities dry, which is a point that by now has been made starkly clear – and probably didn't need to be underscored yet again. But this Walking Dead also took some time to explore the Saviors' impact on yet another neighborhood, which served both to give the story a change of scenery and to establish what the bad guys could be up against, if their supplicants ever decide to mutiny.
In this case, the new locale's actually an old one. The Saviors roll up unannounced at the gates of the Alexandria Safe Zone, a week before they were supposed to, and immediately begin going house to house, stripping the subdivision of its comforts and its weapons. They remove mattresses and furniture, check the arsenal against a printed inventory, and demand that Rick find two missing guns, lest Negan kill the supply-room steward, Olivia.
The relationship between Rick and Negan is the main focus here. In a gesture that could be read either as trusting or humiliating, the chief Savior hands Alexandria's former leader his spiked bat Lucille to hold for a minute. He doesn't ask for it back until he's on the way out of the compound. For most of the day, Rick has the weapon in his hands, with the head of his nemesis nearly always bobbing and swaying within arm's length. It's the ultimate insult: giving someone who hates you the means and method to kill you, knowing that he's too cowed to do it.
Similarly, Dwight spends much of "Service" taunting Daryl, who joins the Saviors on the expedition to serve as a combination peon and trophy. Negan refers to him as "the help," and warns Rick, "You don't look at him, you don't talk to him, and I don't make you chop anything off of him." It's quickly obvious that Daryl's not there to fetch and carry, but to watch in silence as Dwight sends Rosita to find the prize he wants: Mr. Dixon's motorcycle. It's a painful display, as the Alexandrians see how beaten one of their fiercest protectors has become.
Still, what keeps this from being an completely excruciating hour of television (or 85 minutes, with the commercials included) is that the townsfolk don't seem as pessimistic about Negan as the erstwhile sheriff is. Sure, he grabs their stuff almost at random, taking all their medicine and most of anything in their houses that resembles a luxury item – all while snarling, "Half is what I say it is." But during the course of the episode we see Father Gabriel smartly hide the absence of Maggie by pretending that she's dead and buried; and the Alexandrians seem legitimately startled by Rick's casual insistence that anything they want to keep from the Saviors may need to stay hidden away for "years." Clearly, they have no intention of waiting that long.
It also helps that this week's Walking Dead is incredibly well-directed by David Boyd, with a script credited to Corey Reed that sensitively details what's become of the once-proud AZS – a place that used to be so organized and civil that newcomers submitted to videotaped entrance interviews, like corporate employees. Boyd and Reed work in a clips from the once-much-shaggier Rick's tape, along with a quick shot of the sign bearing the community's old motto: "Mercy For the Lost, Vengeance for the Plunderers." There are also a few nice stylistic touches, including a rapid zoom out when Negan begins to survey Alexandria's bounty, and a shot where the villain's presence looms so large over the heroes that he dominates the frame with just the lower half of his face. There's a real sense throughout of what used to be, and how everything's now changed for the worst.
Are all of those aesthetic grace-notes enough to offset the repetitiveness of the new Big Bad's shtick? That's likely to be the No. 1 sticking-point for a lot of viewers this week. Taking into account the previous episodes "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" and "The Cell," we've now spent three-fourths of this season seven so far with the bat man, who talks pretty much nonstop. He's a colossal jerk, even beyond what his philosophies of survival demands. A little of that phony plastered grin can go a long way.
Yet "Service" does seem to be laying the groundwork for a satisfying comeuppance somewhere down the line. At various points we see Michonne and Rosita working in secret to arm and train themselves for a future fight; and the episode actually ends with the latter going to Eugene and suggesting that it's time for him to get his bullet-factory up and running. "This doesn't have to be our life," she says at one point, indirectly countering Rick's own insistence that, "We play by their rules and we get some kind of a life." It'd be easy to feel depressed about this episode, which appears to frame our heroes' choices as one of quick death or an existence mired in incessant misery. But anyone who needs an emotional boost right now might find it in Father Gabriel's more practical, hopeful take on where things stand: "We'll get through today. Then we'll find a way to go forward."
Previously: The Name Game