The Walking Dead’s seventh season began with a swing and a miss for people turned off by its garishly cruel premiere in October. That hour, likened to snuff films and torture porn by sickened viewers, wrung every last drop of misery-for-entertainment from terrible violence, heartbreak and pain. It was also bad television, on top of all that, making it difficult to fault fans who vowed not to return.
But in the weeks since that episode aired—and since the show began bleeding viewers at a rate unprecedented in its history, whether as a natural symptom of its prolonged age or as a direct result of that unsavory premiere—The Walking Dead took a surprisingly thoughtful turn. It expanded the scope of its world and the breadth of its storytelling, finally finding meaningful use for even superfluous characters.
What happens when a vengeful, fascistic bully in power tries imposing his will on a tight-knit group equally given to unilateral acts of brutality against strangers, but who identify themselves as the good guys? Rick & Co. are just as likely to murder people in their sleep, as they did at Negan’s outpost, or terrorize and steal guns from a community of women and children, as they did at Oceanside.
Yet because they are the “us” in “us vs. them,” we’re meant to see them as the heroic resistance. “The world can belong to good people,” Rick says, before ambushing a group, stealing from them, and then telling them they had it coming. What he really means is the world can belong to “us.” All that’s par for the course for the show’s (strangely conservative) philosophy.
Within that framework though, this season has found new, interesting ways to define “us” in the wake of Negan’s arrival. The introduction of a handful of new communities—the subjugated yet merry folk of the Kingdom, the free yet fearful women of Oceanside, and the shadowy, demanding Scavengers—has broadened the spectrum of choices, rationales, and alliances to explore in a crisis.
Even if, by the end, the show mostly forces each community to succumb to Rick’s default binary (they’re either with him or against him, no matter how nuanced their previous reasoning—a boring end to a relatively unconventional season), the journey to this finale, called “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” still boasts some of the best character work the show has done in years.
Eugene’s defection to Team Negan was shocking yet of course understandable—and true to character, too. Gravitating to the strongest available protector, remember, is how he ended up lying to Abraham about being a scientist and joining up with Rick. Dwight, meanwhile, has also seemingly betrayed his wife-stealing, face-ironing, sociopath boss and crossed over to the opposition, a victim breaking away from his abuser.
Gregory’s abject jealousy of Maggie’s gift for leadership at Hilltop also rings depressingly true. He’s an elected official, set on regaining his station and the status quo that serves him. He fantasizes about killing her—until he realizes he’s useless in a fight and cries out for her to save him. She does, without hesitation, Glenn’s old baseball cap on her head.
Sasha and Rosita, meanwhile, form a fragile, uneasy bond for their failed kamikaze mission to kill Negan. For one, this story marks the first inkling of depth bestowed on Rosita in her entire three years on the show. More of that, please. Motivated by revenge for Abraham, the women defy Rick’s sluggish course of action, infiltrate like agents of chaos and spark the collapse of an already-doomed ecosystem.
They wanted all-out war; now that’s exactly what’s coming. (The next portion of this story in the comics is called All-Out War, in fact.)
With Carol and Morgan this season, the show asks—for the umpteenth time—if healing through self-forgiveness is enough, and if abstaining from violence is possible. Spoiler: the former is, the latter is not, at least according to this show’s worldview.
It’s a topic now trod to death (remember Farmer Rick?) and a question the show only knows how to answer one way. As triumphant as it felt to watch Carol and Morgan righteously storm into battle (to a cool, synthy soundtrack, no less), having known the ends of their season-long arcs based on sheer predictability did dampen the enthusiasm.
Sasha’s death, meanwhile, was not unexpected—emotional, show-spanning flashbacks are always a bad sign for a character’s health. But her emergence from an actual coffin as an already-turned walker certainly came as a morbid surprise. Greg Nicotero, who directed the finale, nearly buries the moment in chaos: it’s followed by a vicious beatdown on Michonne, a near-death bat swing on Carl, and a freakin’ tiger lunging into the frame—all highly effective thunder-stealers.
But while her big Sophia-from-the-barn reveal felt anticlimactic (and just slightly confusing—walkers are slow and easily to kill individually, did she really hope Negan would die?), to be fair, the drama of the moment wasn’t a point she wanted to make. Selfishly, understandably, foolishly, and bravely, Sasha wanted to start a war. She got her wish, ensuring no one else had to die in the process.
Suicide has weighed on the show’s mind of late—not for the first time, but perhaps more heavily than at any time since season one. Both Sasha and Rosita signed up for a suicide mission; one of Ezekiel’s men, Richard, similarly tried to set himself up as a sacrificial catalyst for war on Negan; and Morgan was glimpsed taking a knife to his wrists.
Things are knotty and complicated and textured right now in a way that’s uncommon for this show, at least for a bigger-than-usual handful of characters. It is telling thus far though that Negan isn’t one of them. Despite his quirks—like a fondness for babies and whatever weird code he has about rape—he’s still barely more than a mustache-twirling villain with a matinee-idol face. He actually spends an entire monologue in this finale raving about how evil he is.
It’s the smaller, human moments that shone in a finale chock-full of foregone conclusions. Rick shuffling awkwardly away after Jadis promised to “lie with him” after the fight. Sasha jamming out to hip-hop and jazz on a first-generation iPod. Rick and Michonne reunited, Carl in the background. And a voiceover from Maggie, framing the entire series thus far as a chain reaction sparked by an act of kindness: Glenn helping Rick in the very first episode.
It was a fitting tribute to a character fans were outraged to lose last October, one best remembered for his sweetness. Abraham’s return in Sasha’s flashback also felt like a proper, belated farewell, and maybe an olive branch from the show’s makers. Or maybe I’m being too generous. But it would be one more happy example of humanity saving the day (and the season).