Oh man, that was rough. The first episode of season 7 was everything we were hoping and/or expecting it would be: brutal, emotional and absolutely devastating. I’m actually kind of glad they didn’t go for a super-sized premiere to echo the (frustrating) season 6 finale, because I’m not sure I could take 90′ of such excruciating, relentless scenes.

The cold open was the scene we’d already seen in the preview released a couple of weeks ago: the immediate aftermath of Negan’s kill and Rick’s promise that he’d kill him. Not today, not tomorrow; Rick may have been shell-shocked and devastated but still defiant.

The scene was impactful even on a second (or third, or tenth…) viewing. Might I say even more so? The impact was tremendous compared to the teaser trailer, because I was bracing myself for what was to follow. Negan is terrifying even when he’s whispering; he’s the most menacing when he’s smiling. Negan’s game of cat and mouse that started last season is far more exciting one on one.

He and Rick playing off of each other was a thing of beauty, even in that one short scene, which immediately makes you excited for what’s to follow.
And, more importantly, we still don’t know who got Lucille’d.

Then Negan takes Rick for a ride in the RV. Still no clue as to who died, but it doesn’t even matter, because Negan isn’t letting up.

I want you to think about what could have happened. Think about what just happened, and think about what could still happen.

It’s not even a threat at this point, more like a casual observation. Still very much in shock, Rick is a bit slow on the uptake. He still thinks this is an ordinary villain he’s up against. Negan’s confidence doesn’t seem to tip him off. It’s as much a lesson to Rick as it is to us: this is a whole different ballgame. We might have yet to witness the brutal execution first hand, but by now we know this is like no other situation our group has been in before.

To drive the point home visually, Negan shot from the back against the pre-dawn fog is straight out of a horror film. It didn’t even need the walkers going splat all over the windshield, nor Negan’s cruel joke about whoever he just decimated with Lucille. Rick’s “last chance” to charge at Negan with the ax is nothing more than yet another game at his expense.

You are mine. The people back there, they are mine. This – points to hatchet – this is mine. It’s yet another casual observation at this point, but it also serves as a callback to “everything you own is now Negan’s” from last season.

And to emphasize that Rick is now his property, he treats him like a dog and plays fetch. Go get my ax. He even earns an ‘atta boy‘ later. And still Rick doesn’t completely get it. There’s still some fight left in him. It’s incredibly effective because there’s still fight left in us.

The entire ax-fetching sequence is just another way for Negan to illustrate his point. He can kill Rick or let him get eaten by the walkers whenever he pleases. He lets him get really close a couple of times. Rick lives by Negan’s ‘mercy’, and yet he’s the last one to get the memo.

His world got turned upside down within moments; he went from cocky Alexandria leader to yet another scared puppy Negan needs to train and keep in line, but as difficult as it is for Rick to let go and allow Negan to break him, it’s just as hard for us to swallow. In this instance, prolonging the dread and anticipation of what’s to come serves TWD brilliantly: just as Rick can’t submit just yet, we can’t either. We may know what’s about to come, but we don’t really know. We haven’t seen what this charming psychopath is capable of yet.

The teasing images of Rick’s people flashing through his brain are somewhat effective; they illustrate that no one is safe from Lucille, they add to the tension build-up, but, unfortunately, they also serve as a reminder of what we didn’t get to see in last season’s finale.

And then we finally see what went down, in excruciating detail.

It’s gut-wrenching and heartbreaking and really painful to watch. From Abraham’s defiance up until his last breath – “Suck my nuts” – to Negan’s relentless whacking until there’s nothing left to smash, to his gleeful ‘Look at my dirty girl!’ when he forces Rosita to look at the gore on Lucille -“Sweetheart, lay your eyes on this” -, everything about this terrible scene is executed to perfection. Negan isn’t just displaying his superiority; he’s giving a performance. It’s a one-man show, and the semi-circle of his kneeling subjects are not lead characters in this instance, but serve simultaneously as extras, as well as his (terrified) audience.

Rick might be too petrified to move, but Daryl wouldn’t be Daryl if he didn’t make a futile hail-Mary attempt at taking down Negan. He does manage to clock him in the jaw before getting restrained by Negan’s men, but his act of insubordination can’t possibly go unpunished. Negan is, after all, “a man of his word“.

And just when you thought you had all you could take during the soul-crushing skull-smashing scene with Abe, Negan retaliates the way he knows best: Glenn gets Lucille’d and it’s sudden and utterly awful. The juxtaposition of Negan’s swift blow to Glenn and the painfully long, lingering shot of his disfigured face is terrible and brilliant and so incredibly haunting. WTD doesn’t hold back this time; even the short moment where they teased Daryl’s demise can’t take away from how effectively nauseating this second death is. As much as most of us expected a double-whammy and had been placing bets on who the two recipients might be, nothing can diminish the impact of these two deaths or the rest of the group’s reactions. It hits you hard, one after the other, not giving you time to recover.

Then there’s the shot to Lucille, gorier than ever. “Lucille is thirsty, she’s a vampire bat“. Well, at least now we know what Negan’s (totally unfunny) joke was.

And we finally get a complete look at just how truly psychotic Negan is. His posture, his smile, the tone of his voice: it’s disarming and menacing and utterly bonkers all at once.

This is where the true brilliance of the show comes in: even after all this devastation, it doesn’t let up. It’s as unrelenting as Negan. First there’s the hatchet-cleanup scene in the RV, and we’re supposed to cringe with dread at what’s about to go down. For all of us who were expecting Rick to lose a hand a few seasons ago, every warning light seemed to go off at once.

And then there’s the twist, and it’s compelling character development as well as captivating television; even if Rick is the last one to realize what’s about to happen, it’s clear as day to everyone else watching. It’s a much more brutal scenario than Rick getting his hand chopped off; not only does he have to switch places with one-eyed Carl, but he’ll have to do the deed himself. Negan needed to break him, and this is a sure-fire way to accomplish just that. I’ve gotta give props to Andy Lincoln for his performance and I can only imagine how glum the entire cast and crew must have been when they shot this episode, but man it was worth it.

In the end, Rick doesn’t even have to go through with it. The fact that Carl’s limbs are intact doesn’t take away from the scene one bit. If anything, it’s even more powerful this way: had Rick been forced to maim his child, his anger and need for revenge might have sparked more acts of defiance. Coming so close only to get some reprieve was the best way for Negan to keep him in check. After all, threatening to do something can be even more frightening than actually doing it. Rick’s learned his lesson, and we can breathe a sigh of much needed relief.

We did it. Even the dead guys on the ground. They get the spirit award for sure. Today was a productive damn day.

This guy is too much. Normally I’d take issue with some of his lines, but JDM does such a brilliant job with this character it’s hard to begrudge him the cartoonish dialogue.

Keeping Daryl as hostage is yet another brilliant move. Not only does it deprive the group of their best fighter, now that Abraham and Glenn are gone, but it also guarantees that this will keep them in line in the future.

Welcome to a brand new beginning you sorry shits!

I’m pretty sure this was directed as much towards the group as it was to us: Weren’t you all whining about the season 6 finale? Now just wait and see what’s coming next. Well played, TWD.

The quiet closing scenes are as devastating as the awfulness we just witnessed. The music is spot on. Maggie, ill and pregnant and sick with grief, shows everyone just how brave she is. I don’t know what’s more heartbreaking, the fact that she feels responsible for dragging everyone out to be captured by Negan, or the imaginary dinner in Alexandria, with Abraham, Glenn and even Glenn Jr (or Maggie Jr?), giving us a glimpse of what might have been – and never will be.

There’s some shows you binge-watch, like popping candy from a pez dispenser. Then there’s Season 7 of The Walking Dead. As much as I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, I’m glad we get a full week to recover.

One last thought: Did we really need the frustrating season 6 cliffhanger finale? Would the death(s) have been more or less impactful had they not cut to black before turning the camera around on Abraham? I guess it’s too late to speculate now, but for what it’s worth, I think it would have worked in either case.

The way it was done, it had the double-whammy shock factor going for it, and the fact that before we could even regroup after one gut-wretching death scene, we were subjected to another. On the other hand, had Abraham’s death been shown last season, Glenn’s death would probably have come as more of a surprise.

In any case, it was a phenomenal episode, the most brutal to date, and I’ve already forgiven TWD for last season’s finale, so for my money, it was definitely worth the wait. I was hard on TWD for the cliffhanger and I was among those who subscribed to the Abraham & Glenn theory; even so, it was so much worse (and, I guess, better) than I expected, and I’m very excited about what’s next!