This post contains spoilers from the Season 7 finale of The Walking Dead.
Subtlety wasn’t the watchword of The Walking Dead’s seventh season, which came to a close on Sunday. Even by the standards of a series in which survival sometimes requires slathering oneself in undead intestines, the season was a study in extremes, an arc formed from two contrasting sections of eight episodes each. The first half, which began with a brutal, lethal beating of two core characters, was all about breaking down the heroes who hadn’t had their skulls crushed — separating them physically, subjecting them to torture, and trying to sap them of their will to fight. The second half was about building them back up again and restoring some measure of hope.
That back half, which began with the relatively rosy “Rock in the Road,” undid much of the damage caused by the season’s almost unwatchably bleak beginning. Negan’s suffocating presence disappeared for a few episodes, which allowed less overbearing characters to get some space in the script. A smile returned to Rick’s face. Daryl and Carol, the series’ emotional center, were reunited for the first time this season, and shortly thereafter Carol left her cottage to rejoin the rest of her comrades. The three known settlements under the Saviors’ subjugation started talking about banding together, and Morgan got over his latest ill-timed bout of pacifism. The show’s narrow scope expanded to include a new group, the intriguingly strange Scavengers (who had to have been LARPers in their former lives). The Alexandrians got more guns to replace the ones they’d allowed Negan to take, and the previously nondescript Rosita got a belated backstory. On the audience side, the ratings remained near five-year lows, but at least stopped slipping.
Sunday’s extended finale, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” brought the season full circle by revisiting much of the territory that the early episodes explored. This time, though, it was the Saviors’ turn to take Ls. Daryl and Dwight faced off in another prison, but their roles were reversed, with Daryl having home-field advantage and holding Dwight at knifepoint. Again a rebellious Rick and Carl knelt before a bat-wielding Negan; again Rick promised Negan he’d kill him; and again Negan threatened to punish Carl for Rick’s refusal to fall into line. But unlike last time, Lucille didn’t draw blood.
Instead of orange-haired Abraham having his head beaten in, there was orange-furred Shiva chewing Savior heads whole. Instead of seeing a sick Maggie on her knees, barely clinging to consciousness, we saw her leading the charge as the de facto Hilltop head honcho, the rescuer instead of the one being rescued. And instead of Glenn having his eye pop out during an undignified death scene, we got a Maggie monologue about how Glenn once brought the group together.
This was a more watchable Walking Dead than the one we saw late last year; I’d rather see the series’ protagonists triumph improbably than spend entire episodes staring at a traumatized Rick’s glassy-eyed expression or an imprisoned Daryl’s stained sweatpants. The problem with the finale was that the good guys’ ascendance — to the extent that we can still call them good guys after their latest ethical transgression, the plundering of Oceanside’s armory — seemed painfully preordained and transparently plotted.
One of the reasons that the first-half slog was so frustrating was its failure to generate real suspense; we knew we were being manipulated, made to feel that Rick’s group was in real trouble when it was inevitable that Negan would get his comeuppance, just like the Governor and Gareth before him. In the finale, plot armor protected almost all of the Alexandria residents through a sequence of contrived and telegraphed events, most notably the combined force from the Kingdom and the Hilltop arriving at the very instant that Negan starts to swing Lucille (albeit not soon enough to save indestructi-Rick from another easily shrugged-off war wound).
As with the Governor’s getaway at the end of Season 3, Negan’s escape sets up another season of conflict against the same doomed opponent, whose downfall, it seems, will be brought about by double agent Dwight (who left a carved figurine in the Alexandria gate to tell Rick’s crew that he wasn’t aware of the mystifying, flip-flopping Scavengers’ “better deal”). Considering the number of attempted and sworn assassins that Negan has allowed to keep plotting against him, his security precautions leave a lot to be desired in a villain viewers are supposed to take seriously.
The latest thwarted assassin, Sasha, gets closer to killing Negan in death than she did in life. Given the chance to train as Negan’s newest enforcer, she instead lets Donny Hathaway play her out, a poison pill from Eugene killing her in a conveniently pre-supplied coffin and ensuring that someday this summer or fall Sonequa Martin-Green will be free to serve in the lead role on Star Trek: Discovery. Before Sasha becomes the finale’s only walker, showrunner Scott Gimple gives her a more emotional send-off than many of The Walking Dead’s previously departed can claim. As the poison does its work, a series of flashbacks — maybe one or two too many — retroactively adds depth to Sasha’s brief relationship with Abraham, giving more meaning to her mourning for him. It also helps us understand why Rick’s people won’t simply pick up stakes and find a settlement that isn’t so near to Negan, apart from Alexandria’s non-transportable pool tables; it’s a big country, but they’re committed to helping the Hilltop and Kingdom, who can’t or won’t free themselves. (Not that Rick has done anything useful for them so far.)
In some ways, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” felt like a questionable compensation call that an insecure ref might make after realizing he’s blown a big one. What better remedy for a slow-paced season than an action-filled finale, with more redshirt deaths than an episode of Martin-Green’s next show? And what better way to make up for a well-liked original character’s fake-out exit and ensuing actual ignoble death than by ending the season with a spoken tribute to him and a close-up of his watch? Either tactic might have worked if the show hadn’t torn up too much road en route to repave in one episode, even an extra-long one.
While The Walking Dead appears to be past the peak of its popularity, it’s still the most-watched show on cable. On Sunday’s season-ender, it came closer to acting that way than it did by confining Daryl to a small cell or making Rick and Co. full-time foragers. Although this isn’t saying much, the show is in a better place than it was at the end of Season 6: With Negan one year closer to being pushed out of power and the skeleton of a post-Sanctuary society in place, there’s more to look forward to when the show returns in October than there was following the last hiatus’s hook, a bat to a mystery character’s (or characters’) face. The Walking Dead may never again be consistently good, but the second half of Season 7 reminded us that it can at least be bad in a better, more mind-melting way.