Skipping lightly across the surface of relationships and individual states of mind to focus on the stockpiling of weapons or the formation of fragile alliances, The Walking Dead’s seventh season was almost exclusively about the march to war. Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sadistically fetishized slaughter of Abraham and Glenn in the season opener established him as a ruthless despot who could only be unseated by extraordinary means. Several characters, including Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Morgan (Lennie James), and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), tried to resist the call to battle that was Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) unwavering response to Negan’s psychotic display, but their reservations were swatted away with no real debate, creating the illusion that war was the group’s only viable alternative.
All that buildup created a hunger to get on with the fighting already, especially since almost no other storylines or relationships were developed deeply enough to make viewers care about what happened next. So it was disappointing when the season ended with another inconclusive skirmish between the Saviors and Alexandrians. True, this latest attempt at rebellion was a different order of magnitude than any of their earlier clashes: a de facto declaration of war. But it was so badly botched that it did little to change the balance of power, functioning mainly as a prolonged teaser for the battle that will follow (if the TV gods have any mercy) in season eight.
When the Saviors arrive at Alexandria, the first jolt of surprise for the Alexandrians is realizing that Negan knows about their revolt. The second is that they’ve lost Eugene (Josh McDermitt)—or so they think, though the audience is offered a thread of hope when Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) says she continues to believe that he will come around eventually. But the real shock is that Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) is a Judas who sold the Alexandrians out to Negan in exchange for a better deal.
The shock of that betrayal makes for an effective plot twist, but it also points to one of The Walking Dead’s main weaknesses: Paper-thin character development makes it too easy to be surprised by someone’s actions, especially since it’s not unusual for someone to act in a way that seems out of character. In this case, though, the mystery isn’t so much why Jadis betrayed Rick as why he ever trusted her in the first place. She clearly never gave a damn about his safety or well-being, tossing him off her trash heap to fight with the armored walker on their first meeting, and she was a mercurial and unreasonable trading partner, insisting that Rick’s people go back for more guns after they’d risked so much to bring her the first batch. Yet he keeps trying to negotiate with her even after she shoots him, offering to strike a new deal until she casually pushes him off yet another high platform, annoyed that he failed to obey her command to kneel down.
Negan is also oddly tolerant of people who try to kill him. He’s about to kill Carl (Chandler Riggs) in this episode when Ezekiel’s tiger bounds up to redirect the action by munching on one of Negan’s men, but when the boy tried to assassinate Negan in “Sing Me a Song,” the Saviors’ leader reacted by taking Carl under his wing and showing him around the Sanctuary while crowing about how much he admired his moxie. Negan basically did the same to Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Sasha after they tried to assassinate him, and he remains unaccountably optimistic about his ability to convert Sasha to his side right up until she turns herself into a walker in an attempt to kill him.
That unwarranted faith in their ability to turn enemies into allies isn’t the only parallel “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” draws between Rick and Negan. When Negan playfully scolds Rick for having been willing to blow up the Saviors even though his former comrade, Eugene, was with them, saying “You people are animals,” he may have a point. It’s easy to get caught up in Rick’s ends-justify-the-means reasoning, but he has definitely been responsible for more than his share of collateral damage.
Speaking of Ezekiel’s tiger, it’s as satisfying as viewers no doubt hoped it would be to see her go to work on the Saviors—a payoff that was obviously coming from the first time we spotted her by Ezekiel’s side. Still, it was easy to wonder: In the fog of war, with no uniforms to distinguish one side from the other, how would a tiger know who to attack? It was hard enough for us humans to tell who was who, in that sloppily staged battle scene. In the end, after a whole lot of shooting, it appears that nobody died except the woman Michonne was fighting and a few other anonymous Saviors and members of Jadis’s group. The apparent lack of casualties for the Alexandrians and their allies helped make the fight feel oddly weightless even though it left Michonne, Rick, and Rosita (Christian Serratos) seriously wounded.
Sasha’s subplot provides this episode with its most emotionally engaging moments, as it did in “Something They Need.” Sasha is touchingly alive during what turns out to be her last few minutes on Earth, her eyes glistening with tears as she listens to Donny Hathaway or urgently searching Abraham’s (Michael Cudlitz) face as she hallucinates fragments of a conversation that are part life review, part anticipation/acceptance of death. The irony of her entering a casket so fully alive and coming out of it (un)dead is poignant, and the initial challenge of figuring out what’s happening in her scenes is intriguing, as close-ups of her sorrowful face in the dark give way to flashbacks to her conversation with Abraham and occasional shots of her sitting quietly on a bench next to Maggie. Unlike Maggie’s final voiceover about the power of the community Rick’s group has established, which tells us nothing we don’t already know in language too pedestrian to stir any emotion, Sasha’s story resonates, letting us mourn the loss of a character whose best epitaph is delivered by Negan: “You are smart, hot as hell, dignified as shit, and you don’t suffer one goddam fool.”
If I could make one wish on behalf of The Walking Dead, it would be that the show get new writers who can pump more blood, sweat, and tears into the next season. I’d love to see the surviving characters prove worthy of Sasha’s sacrifice, establishing a functional community (or set of communities) that feels truly alive rather than just paying lip service to the idea of community. But first, they will need to defeat Negan, a fear-mongering authoritarian who seemed unbeatable at first but who may prove to be a paper tiger.
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