You can say this much for The Walking Dead: No matter how angry fans may have gotten at last April's cliffhanger finale, the show's creators have made it all but impossible not to watch the Season Seven premiere this Sunday night. If you've been following Rick Grimes and his battered, battle-scarred post-apocalyptic tribe since they first arrived on Halloween night back in 2010, you're not likely to turn away until you find out how they'll handle their most devastating setback yet. It's cruelly addicting, what showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his cast and crew do every fall and spring. They punish us hard; and we keep tuning in to see how much more we can take.
For those of you who are still recovering from last year's trauma, and can't remember where the story left off, here's a refresher on what the stakes are now – for the characters and the show.
1. One of your favorite characters is dead
The main question that every TWD viewer wants answered, as soon as possible, is what exactly happened at the end of the sixth season. In the last scene of the finale, a group called "the Saviors" lined up Rick, Maggie, Glenn, Michonne, Daryl, Eugene, Carl, Sasha, Aaron, Rosita, and Abraham on the ground, while their leader Negan decided which of them to bludgeon with his barbed-wire-covered bat, "Lucille." The screen cut to black after a POV shot from Negan's chosen victim, and we've spent the last several months drumming our fingers, waiting to see which actor needs to find a new job.
Fans have been engaging in speculation all summer, examining set photos and commercials for the new season, tracking blood-spatter and looking for clues in social media posts by the cast. But given the way Gimple and his writers operate – in a show where anybody can die at any time – it's impossible to guess who's a goner. It could be somebody fairly minor, like Aaron; or it could be somebody who's been in the story from the start, like Daryl. AMC won't be making the new season's premiere available for critics, so don't expect the secret to leak early.
One thing's for sure, though: If this Sunday's episode doesn't tell us who's dead within the first few minutes, viewers around the country may pick up their TV sets and start shaking them violently.
2. Negan has finally arrived
Pretty much the entire second half of Season Six was geared toward setting up that moment with Negan, Lucille, and some unlucky so-and-so. And while it may have taken too long for The Walking Dead to formally introduce its most vile villain yet, the wonderfully oily performance of Jeffrey Dean Morgan in that bloody finale scene made the wait worthwhile. It's going to be fun – in a sick, dark way – to watch him toy with Rick in the weeks and months ahead.
Readers of writer Robert Kirkman's comic books have been looking forward to Negan's arrival, because on the page he's been such a formidable foe for our heroes. Rick's journey over the past few years has been toward a deeper understanding of how ruthless he needs to be to protect his loved ones. But the Saviors have pushed those theories to their logical conclusion, by forming a cult-like society that drains other communities of their resources via merciless brute strength. Strictly from the point of view of what this show is trying to say about humanity and survival, the appearance of this new character marks a turning point. The world is about to get a lot darker and bloodier.
3. The extinction-level threat of Negan has made every other subplot seem less urgent
Hey, does anyone remember what led Rick and company right into Negan's trip at the end of the last season? They were steered to their doom while trying to get medical care for the pregnant and ailing Maggie. That potentially life-threatening crisis was quickly superseded by the more immediate danger of a fatal bludgeoning at the hands of a smooth-talking sociopath. And that's not the only Walking Dead subplot that's been pushed off the front page by the viciousness of the Saviors. In anyone still thinking much about whether Abraham is coupling up with Rosita or Sasha?
There's a lot that this show will undoubtedly get back to soon, once we know who Negan killed and what happened after. Eugene has found a metalworks set-up which the residents of the Alexandria Safe Zone may be able to use to manufacture ammo. Glenn has been shaken up by his decision to slaughter defenseless Saviors in the name of crippling them before they can hurt anyone else. Carol fled the ASZ because she's lost her will to kill, and worries that she's becoming a useless burden to the community. Morgan took off after her, to prove that pacifists can still be helpful.
It's important to remember that the Saviors don't want the Alexandrians dead; they'd rather that the community work to fatten Negan's coffers. So as the show's main characters start to adjust to the new reality, they should have plenty of time to worry about who's sleeping with whom, and to manage their various individual crises of confidence.
4. The Saviors aren't the show's only new faction
Outside of the stretch of episodes where Rick and his bunch were holed up at the prison and at odds with the Governor and the residents of Woodbury, The Walking Dead has been a "one location at a time" kind of show. We've been to Hershel's farm, Terminus, and now the Safe Zone, where the good guys have been settled since the end of Season Five. But ever since Rick and the rest arrived, the previously sheltered Alexandrians have been threatened by more than zombies. First, the nomadic, ravaging "Wolves" found their way to the ASZ; and then various adventures outside the gated community brought the heroes into contact with the Saviors (who immediately ordered them to start handing over their food, medicine, and weapons) and the Hilltop Colony (an agrarian collective who've been paying their "taxes" to Negan for a while now).
Comics readers know that there are more pockets of civilization yet to be introduced – including the one represented by the mysterious armor-clad horseman that Carol and Morgan met at the end of Season Six. Commercials for the upcoming episodes show a little more of that group; and without giving too much away, there are rumors that at least one more major faction from Kirkman's saga will pop up this year. Which brings us to our last pre-game note …
5. This is a pivotal season for The Walking Dead
Just this past weekend, AMC announced that they've already renewed the most-watched original dramatic series in cable history for an eighth season, which is no surprise. Even though ratings dipped a bit last spring, The Walking Dead is still a cultural juggernaut, with no signs of weakening any time soon. Plus, Kirkman's comic is ongoing, and has generated enough material for a few dozen more episodes at least – with more to come.
That said, for six years this has been the story of a small group of brave survivors, fighting off the undead and dangerous human rivals while trying to find someplace safe to settle down – and now the show is about to become something different. As of the end of last season, we've already embarked on a grand-scale tale of war and peace, with trade routes and treaties and last-ditch battle strategies. Those who've always tuned in to see shambling rotting corpses will still find much of what they're looking for each week. But very soon, Walking Dead fans are going to have a lot more to fret over than just one measly "Who lived and who died?"
Find out everything you need to know about Negan, 'The Walking Dead' Season 7 villain. Watch here.