‘The Walking Dead’ Finds Its Feet Again
And it’s at its best without Negan.
The first half of season seven’s The Walking Dead was full of violence for the sake of violence. While Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) death stayed loyal to Robert Kirkman’s comics which the show is adapted from, the outright violence seen in the illustrations of Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn has not always translated well to the television medium. Adlard and Rathburn’s illustrations showed the same amount – if not more – violence than the infamous Greg Nicotero-directed debut episode of the season, yet there still remained a sense of morality from the comic’s creator, with one panel providing a break from the gore of Glenn’s death.
Meanwhile, the first episode of season seven, titled “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” focused solely on making Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the center of attention. The constant use of high angle and low angle shots to manipulate the audience by ensuring they know his position of power emphasised the episode’s “empty violence,” as well as foreshadowed the torture of Daryl, death of Olivia, and gutting of Spencer. The episode showed how the moral compass of The Walking Dead seemed to disappear in concentrating only on Negan’s brutality. And these early episodes of the season felt like narcissistic violence, with only small gestures, for example the development between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) or Tara’s (Alanna Masterso) comic relief brought in “Swear,” placed throughout the season to provide fans with a less ambiguous moral compass to follow.
The mid-season finale (“Hearts Still Beating”), however, saw a change in direction, and one that exemplifies what makes The Walking Dead so good when it’s at its best: its focus on humanity. The panning shot in the final scene of “Hearts Still Beating” reunited the characters (minus Carol) once again, the only sense of danger looming represented through the ominous low-angled shot of Rick holding the gun. The power’s back in his hands now, a visual metaphor for the show’s return from the meaningless to the meaningful – and it’s clear from the drop in ratings during the first half of season seven what side viewers prefer.
This sense of hope in “Hearts Still Beating” continues into The Walking Dead’s most recent premiere, with both episode nine (“Rock in the Road”) and ten (“New Best Friends”) showing how the show has returned, albeit slowly, to what made it so engrossing in season one. Take, for example, what happens in episode nine when Rick, Michonne, and Rosita (Christian Serratos) take dynamite off an explosives rig. As they near the end of their mission to take the dynamite in the hopes to use it against the Saviors, a herd of walkers come. What follows is the kind of suspense viewers were used to seeing in The Walking Dead’s earlier seasons – the kind where, while the threat of death looms, viewers ultimately know they’ll be okay. As Michonne and Rick kill the herd of walkers with a barbed wire attached to their cars – the wide angle tracking shot allowing viewers to see the scope of what is being killed – viewers are reminded of the urgency and fight for survival in the show.
Similar to how Glenn helps Rick escape a herd of walkers in season one’s “Guts,” or when the group flee Hershel’s farm in season two’s “Beside the Dying Fire,” these moments of gore do not seem as trivial as the brutality of Negan. Rather than using intense close-ups of blood on Negan’s bat for no reason other than to emphasize the horror of it, the kinds of scenes mentioned above (and briefly brought back in the mid-season premiere) work in all their gun-shooting, head-chopping glory because there’s something to be taken away from the violence. It isn’t needless, but needed. These scenes of violence represent the unity of the group, their willingness to survive, and hope of a cure. It’s also entertaining. Just like the trope of action heroes having to stop the bomb always raises a sense of suspense, despite the fact they will always stop the bomb, the question of if, but more importantly, how Rick and company will escape a herd of walkers remains a part of the show that is engaging.
The “how” is important too, as the difference between the creators making the viewer watch for the “how” against the “who” (as in “who will be killed?”) emphasizes the tone brought to the season by Negan. By focusing on the “who,” it’s as if the characters are reduced to two dimensional products to serve the narrative, ready to be killed off when Negan’s ruthlessness needs to be emphasized. This was a major concern throughout episodes one to eight of season seven, yet the last scene of the mid-season finale, along with the first two episodes of its second part, suggests The Walking Dead is returning to the “how” question.
Episode ten proves the strongest of the season yet, with the show balancing character development, action, and new characters and spaces without distancing the viewer through scenes of endless and heavy dialogue. Rather than feeling like a filler episode building up to the inevitable battle against the Saviors, “New Best Friends” feels like it is progressing while actually watching it, instead of simply used to set up the motivation for characters’ actions in later, more necessary episodes.
Understandably, Rick gains the most camera time in the two most recent episodes. After seeing him cower to Negan for so long, his defiance is a welcome return that sets The Walking Dead back on its original, somewhat hazy, path towards morality and hope. Yet episode ten still gives viewers time for other characters. There’s Michonne, who has so far mostly been shown while engaging with Rick, for example when helping him defeat Jadis’ metal-head zombie through words rather than actions. It’s clear Michonne is stronger both mentally and physically than Rick, and the show isn’t afraid to shy away from the fact she could easily be leading the group if, for some reason, she didn’t want Rick to. Likewise, the scene between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) provides a moment of much-needed poignancy between some of the show’s most popular characters. This reunion also speaks to the character development of The Walking Dead’s characters, with the evolution of Carol evolving from cowering wife to unapologetic killer to the inner conflicting emotions that now surround her being brought up with the return of the now open Daryl, a stark contrast from his contained anger in season one.
Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) lack of screen time so far has been the one let-down of the second part of this season so far. Yet her little presence also shows her character development too. From episode nine’s brief regrouping of the characters at Hilltop, Maggie is the first to leave the Hilltop mansion and is later the center of the frame while talking to the willing participants for Rick’s fight against Negan, with Rick standing in the background. When Rick and Maggie are together, it’s unclear which one of them is leading, and with Rick’s return to his position of leader in his group it’s clear why Maggie isn’t seen as much – viewers need to be reintroduced to the new dynamics. For now, viewers can hope that (spoiler from the comics) Maggie’s eventual leadership of Hilltop is being foreshadowed here.
One of the most resonant shots from the latest episode encompasses the new direction The Walking Dead should, and needs to, go in. After defeating the metal-head walker, proving his reliability, the leader of the as-yet-untitled Rubbish Kingdom, Jadis, throws a rope down to Rick. The camera pulls into a deep focus on the two lines of rope in the foreground, with Rick standing in the background before grabbing onto one. It represents what the show is about when it’s at its best, and what it should continue to be: an entertaining and thrilling fight against walkers, representations of what the characters could become but refuse to, and the evil nature that still pervades a post-apocalyptic society. While the violence of the show does call into question this culture’s increasing insensitivity to all that is gory in its often frivolous use of gore, the second part of what makes The Walking Dead partly redeems this. As after each violent scene, someone is there to help, to support, and to provide hope (unknowingly or not).
The two newest episodes of season seven have shown the show can return to the time when The Walking Dead was at its best, and let’s hope it continues to follow through. This means less of the hollow violence of Negan and more of the meaningful resilience, found in characters like Michonne and Maggie, and the humanity found in the show’s relationships.
Related Topics: Comics