“The dead don’t rule us.”
That’s what Rick Grimes says after King Ezekiel, a man who has a pet tiger, argues that going to war with Negan’s Saviors would be too devastating. So many have already sacrificed their lives fighting back hordes of zombies, Ezekiel explains. Rick’s response that fighting zombies isn’t the same as fighting a group of sadistic terrorists fails to convince Ezekiel to become an ally, but it’s important nonetheless. Rick is saying that killing zombies — long the main source of entertainment on The Walking Dead — isn’t as big of a deal as ensuring freedom. The line is one of several signs in the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead that point to a fundamental shift. After falling into a lather, rinse, repeat storytelling approach and cycling through Big Bad Villains like late-series Dexter, The Walking Dead may be pivoting in Season 7. This isn’t a show about the apocalypse anymore — it’s a show about a brand-new world.
If you’re already rolling your eyes, I get it. Any new attempt to cast The Walking Dead in a positive light has to be made with caution. Over the years, every brief flash of brilliance has been overshadowed by false starts, cheap cliffhangers, and narrative tricks so egregious that critics have accused the show of abusing its audience. Ratings for TWD have been slowly falling, proof that a once loyal fan base is getting tired. At this point, it probably is easier and safer to watch the show with one eye open, expecting the worst. But there is a way out of this zombie-filled ditch.
If The Walking Dead is still concerned with mere survival, then there will be another bad guy once Negan and his crew are dispatched, and you will swear you’re suffering from the worst déjà vu ever. But from a different, admittedly more optimistic perspective, the Saviors’ demise could be seen as the first step in world-building. The apocalypse is over. These people survived. Look at them: They’re putting leashes on tigers. Killing Negan isn’t a matter of survival — it’s making the world that rose up in the zombies’ wake a better place. King Ezekiel’s speech about expanding his “kingdom” and spreading his way of life makes him sound like Alexander the Great. Finding a cure isn’t The Walking Dead’s endpoint — civilization is.
A pivot in perspective opens the door for a more interesting show, a combination of Game of Thrones and House of Cards that studies primitive societies and the dynamics of a clan-driven world. War would still be a running theme — Rome wasn’t built in a day — but so would diplomacy, the intricacies of (mostly) starting from scratch, how class is constructed, and the laws of human nature. “We made it,” Michonne tells Rick after a close call with a horde of walkers. “We can make it. We’re the ones who live.” If that’s a foregone conclusion, then the show can begin exploring what that means for a decimated world in need of a reboot.
Adjusting the lens on The Walking Dead also allows for the possibility of hope, something the show has been lacking since the Center for Disease Control blew up in Season 1. Sunshine soaks the midseason premiere, accented by flamenco guitar; multiple characters speak of improving the world; Rick smiles. TWD is no longer wallowing in what it means to exist in a bankrupt world, or racing toward a lose-lose choice between life and death. Rick’s Alexandria crew, the Hilltop community, and the Kingdom have an ideal to strive for, and the show is better for it.
There’s no guarantee that showrunner Scott Gimple won’t reverse course at a moment’s notice — it would be very on brand to end this seventh season on a close-up of Rick’s spilled brains, once again mistaking shock for catharsis. But in this moment, things don’t seem so bad. The sun is shining. The Walking Dead has forward momentum. You just need to tilt your head a little to see it.