What did we learn from The Walking Dead season 7 finale?

Well I, for one, am a sucker – for sentimental crap and small triumphs alike, so the finale hit most of those chords for me:
We got the “epic” battle we’d been anticipating all season long, the long awaited mauling of a couple of Saviors courtesy of Shiva the tiger, an emotional voice-over montage that would befit a series finale, a sad (albeit predictable) death with its requisite accompanying flashbacks, a death scare that (again, predictably) was a false alarm, a couple of Deus ex machina moments, and – most importantly – we finally got some plot development.

Not to be a negative Nancy, but looking back on the entire seventh season, and especially the second half, it seems as though a lot of it could have been condensed and/or completely discarded, and we still would have ended up right where we are now: the beginning of the all-out war the show has been teasing us with all year.

But let’s break this down:

Sasha

In true Greg Nicotero fashion, we got several scenes that contained a dying character’s final moments intertwined with flashbacks to significant plot points that would be paid off in Sasha’s actual death. As emotional as it was for Sasha fans to see her get the hero death she deserved, I feel that all this back and forth between the action in the here and now and cutting away to the claustrophobic tight shots in the casket took away from the flow of the episode. As was the case with most of the extended episodes we got this season, this could easily have been a regular 40-odd minute episode without slowing down the action.

Much as I love me some good ol’ Abraham, my main problem with those flashbacks wasn’t so much the time issue, but the actual point they tried to drive home. Sasha’s decision to basically weaponize herself by taking Eugene’s death pill was, indeed, selfless, but it was also a direct result of the turn of events that she herself precipitated by going on this suicide mission. Had she (and Rosita) not selfishly decided to take it upon herself to single-handedly launch an attack against Negan, she wouldn’t have been caught by the Saviors, and therefore wouldn’t be facing the impossible decision of betraying her people by letting Negan use her against them. In the end, it wasn’t really a choice at all: unlike Eugene, she was never a coward. She simply played the one trump card in her possession.

The flashbacks were effective in terms of adding some emotional depth to Sasha’s death, but any TWD fan remembers the long stretch of self-destructive behavior she displayed after Tyreese’s death; it sure didn’t look like she had the group’s interest at heart. Even a casual viewer can probably think back a few episodes ago, when she eagerly agreed to go along with Rosita’s plan to exact revenge on Negan for Abraham’s death, even though both of them were well aware of the group’s own plan. It’s blatantly obvious that the writers basically retrofitted her character arc to provide some deeper meaning to her decision to kill herself, and what’s annoying is that, it wasn’t even necessary. Sasha’s death would have worked just as well if she was merely trying to make it up to the group for sabotaging their plans to begin with.

Having said that, I must have been the only one who was actually surprised to see Walker Sasha emerge from that coffin – probably because she was the only walker we got to see this week, and the walkers have generally taken a back seat to all the people-centric action since the Alexandria massacre of season 6. The coffin gag might have been a bit inexplicable in terms of storytelling, but I totally cheered when she launched herself at Negan. It was even more satisfying when she bit the face off that grammar Nazi Savior who apparently didn’t like the word ‘veggies’.

The Hilltop & The Kingdom

Was it me or did both communities’ decisions to march against the Saviors a little too convenient in terms of timing? We spent 15 whole episodes watching them slooooowly build up to this week’s conclusion, and in the end the show dedicated a few short minutes to each storyline before both the Kingdom and the Hilltop fighters showed up at Alexandria in the nick of time.

Sure, I enjoyed watching Shiva in action as much as anyone – although I have to question how the tiger knew who to attack out of that lineup – and warrior Maggie is always cool, but Ezekiel’s “Alexandria will not fall on this day” line was too Aragorn-esque under the circumstances, as was his flowery speech to Morgan when he finally convinced him to join the cause.

Speaking of Morgan: we endured two entire seasons of his zen pacifist bullshit, saw him briefly regress to his old, circa Clear, crazy self, but a minor character death and a Shakespearean pep talk from Ezekiel was all it took to finally get him on board? I’ll buy it only because I was sick and tired of his character arc going nowhere for so long. Ditto Carol: man am I glad to see her back in ninja mode – and that final scene with her and Morgan on a stoop was lovely indeed.

Negan

Where do I begin?

First of all, kudos to JDM once again for making a despicable character almost sympathetic at certain points throughout the episode. His lines when the Saviors pulled up before the Alexandria gates were funny, his scenes with Sasha brought out a rare human quality in him, and I absolutely loved seeing him lose his composure this week. Both his reactions to Walker Sasha and Shiva were awesome and hilarious.

However: his plan to use Sasha against the Alexandrians seemed unnecessarily convoluted to me. Why did she need to be hidden, if everyone knew she was his prisoner? Why a coffin, for that matter – other than to help push that plot forward? We know he has a flair for the theatrical, but doesn’t a coffin seem like an odd choice of prop? It would have made sense had it been a callback to an earlier scene – one they could have easily set up in the first half of the season, if the writers actually had a long term plan for the show rather than going at it 8 episodes at a time – but I have a very hard time recalling a scene featuring a casket in seven seasons of the show. The way it played out was cool, but it was simply a plot device that conveniently took care of several problems at once, although it still doesn’t account for the fact that Alexandria is apparently only a couple of hours away from the Sanctuary, yet in that time Sasha had time to reminisce, swallow the death pill, die AND turn.

Back to Negan’s plan: He already had the element of surprise, he had the numbers, he had the freaking Scavengers (more on that later), so how did the Sasha angle make any sense, aside from allowing her to die in secret so she could be a distraction and give her people a chance to win?

Even if we allow that, as little sense as that plot line made, it at least gave us a few cool scenes, Negan’s traits as a fearless leader come into question when you stop and evaluate the evidence.

For one thing, he inexplicably takes a shining to his fiercest opponents. We’ve already established that he resents cowards and yes-men, yet he has no problem with Eugene. In his own twisted way, he seems to respect Rick, Daryl and Sasha (and her beachball-sized lady-nuts), and I guess it’s a fun game for him to try and break them, but at what point does this game become pointless? When you have a rebellion on your hands, its leader on his knees, you threaten to kill his son in front of him and smash both his hands with a baseball bat and that guy still gets in your face and swears he’ll kill you, why not just take him out on the spot and rid yourself a headache? This choice seems even more odd given what we learned about Negan in the Oceanside episode: when dealing with that community, he killed every single boy and man. What could they have possibly done that was so much worse than Rick’s promise to kill him again and again, and his organizing an actual coup?

That aside, there’s also the fact that Negan tends to misplace trust without really thinking it through. His blindly trusting Eugene right from the get-go might have worked for him so far (and by the way, at this point Eugene either needs to just die, preferably at Rosita’s hands, or at least perform a grand gesture to redeem himself, and then be killed by Negan or even Dwight), but Eugene’s semi-plausible explanation of Sasha’s “suffocation” in the coffin seems to have raised an eyebrow but was not explored further. Hopefully it will get paid off in Season 8, but for now it really goes against Negan’s image of running a tight ship.

Dwight is another prime example of misplaced trust on Negan’s part. Even for someone who’s used to ruling through fear, it makes little sense that he’d completely trust a man who had to lose his wife to the guy who melted half his face off with an iron, and continues to berate him every chance he gets. He doesn’t even keep him on a tight leash, just in case – otherwise, how could have Dwight made the 4 hour return trip to Alexandria under Negan’s nose? (However, I’ll allow for a small asterisk here: if Negan trusted Dwight implicitly, then D would have probably known about his side deal with the Scavengers).

And speaking of tight leashes: in order to keep each community in check, wouldn’t the wise decision be to install at least one of his men there? If the “little bird” (again, more on the hideous Scavengers later) hadn’t told him about Rick’s plan, he would have been caught completely unawares. Had he placed a few Saviors in the Hilltop and the Kingdom, they wouldn’t have run to Alexandria’s aid. All of this just goes to show that his leadership skills leave much to be desired, which in turn makes the entire plot line suffer: he’s not a strategic mastermind, and yet he manages to come out on top every time, because the writers need him to. It’s frustrating and, more importantly, takes away from the character. It would be much easier to fear and despise a malicious genius than a self-possessed lunatic.

The Scavengers

It turned out that Gregory wasn’t the ‘little bird’ Negan alluded to in his conversation with Sasha, after all. It could well have been, considering how problematic the timelines can get on this show, but I guess I can’t complain because the possibility that Gregory turned up at the Sanctuary to find everyone gone is simply hilarious.

Nope, the little birds in question were the filthy garbage people (possibly Negan’s best line of the night?), which gave us all the more reason to hate them – as if we needed any.

We all knew there was something fishy about these people from the start – well, except for Rick, but the guy was growing so desperate all season long I can’t really fault him for grasping at straws – so their betrayal wasn’t really a big shock. The way these scenes played out, however, was so annoying: by having Negan reveal that he had someone on the inside, it was easy to conclude who that someone was. Had Gregory left for the Sanctuary earlier, it would have been a pretty simple way to confuse us, and make the Scavengers’ flip at least a bit more surprising.

I mentioned Negan’s problematic trust issues before, so it bears repeating: these guys have already gone back on the deal they struck with Rick. What makes Negan believe they will honor their deal with him?

Still, that’s the least of my problems with this entire story line. It’s not even the absurdity of the Scavengers riding bikes and garbage trucks.

For one thing, how and when did the garbage people disarm the explosives? How would they even know how to do that? (Even worse: are we to expect a Scavenger-centric back story episode in Season 8? I shudder at the thought.) Even if they had a garbage version of Rosita in their midst, we’ve already established that the entire town was expecting Negan and his men to show up, and had therefore posted lookouts at the gate, with the truck in plain view. Are we supposed to believe that the junkyard idiots are so stealthy that they managed to sabotage the explosion right under Rick, Carl and Rosita’s noses?

Secondly, what exactly is this freaking deal they struck with Negan? Shouldn’t the show have made it clear, and therefore given these characters some semblance of depth, rather than just portray them as the double-crossing dirty assholes that they are? From what we could deduce from Jadis’ broken english and awful negotiation skills, the deal involves 10… people? How are ten people better than a shitload of weapons? How does this fit into their whole “we take, we don’t bother” spiel, for that matter? When did this deal take place? How did Jadis even get in touch with Negan in the first place? And, while I’m at it, why make the Jadis ⇒ Judas wordplay so obvious?

Not only does this entire deal make no sense – unless Negan also promised Jadis other kinds of… services, which wouldn’t be a stretch considering her proposal to Rick – but it also just did a huge disservice to the entire season’s flow. The plot device wasn’t exactly ideal to begin with, but especially in retrospect it just feels like a colossal waste of time.

Had Rick not been adamant to honor his deal with Jadis, a) he would have tried harder to get the Hilltop and the Kingdom on his side, and more importantly b) he wouldn’t have needed the extra guns from Oceanside, which would have in turn spared us the show’s lowest-rated episode to date. Both points would have advanced the plot much sooner, but I guess the writers needed plenty of filler to stretch out the storyline in this second half. If the Scavengers turn out to be little more than red shirts in the big war, there’s absolutely nothing that warrants their existence in the first place, especially considering how flat their characters are. Similarly, unless our group ventures back out to the Oceanside to try and recruit the badass women (which makes even more sense now, given that they no longer have the numbers), the entire Tara storyline added virtually nothing to the plot, as the guns Rick & Co. confiscated are no longer in their possession.

Pretty much half the episodes leading up to the finale were moot. And with so much story to draw from, either directly from the comics or even straying from the existing material, the way this season was written seems like a cruel joke at the viewers’ expense.


What makes this season’s story arc even more frustrating is that, by introducing several (unnecessary) plot lines so they could stretch out the episodes until the climactic finale, they did a pretty shoddy job of bookending the season. There are still plenty of loose ends that could have been dealt with in season 7: Gregory’s day trip to the Sanctuary; the zombie horde clotheslined by Rick and Michonne; freakin’ Heath and that mysterious PPP keycard. Surely these aren’t the stuff of cliffhangers, so why not address them before the season is out? What we’re all anticipating in season 8 is the actual war; a hint that these (so far) unconnected puzzle pieces might fall into place would be an additional reason to tune in come October.

As a side note: I mentioned Rick’s repeated promise to kill Negan. If the show intends to follow the story in the comics, it’s pretty safe to assume that this promise won’t exactly be fulfilled. Although it might make for an interesting plot line, I can’t help but think most viewers will feel cheated by the lack of payoff – especially if the reason it won’t happen is Morgan going back to his ‘all life is sacred‘ spiel.

Having said all this, do I look forward to Season 8? Absolutely, because I still love the show. As hard as I can be in my critique, it’s only because it frustrates me so much when they squander its potential. TWD could be an amazing show, but lately it just seems to miss the mark. Even so, I’m still invested, and I still want to be amazed on Sunday nights. Given how we’re now in the ‘Golden Age of Television‘, a few scattered ‘wow’ moments, such as Walker Sasha or the Shiva attacks just don’t cut it. TWD can do so much better, and I hope it does. [I also hope they have an end game in mind for the near future, but I won’t be getting into that now. We have plenty of months’ worth of downtime to analyze and scrutinize and pretend we’d do a much better job at writing the show than Gimple et al 😉]

To be fair, we did get a few glimpses of that greatness in this season finale. Although not its best finale to date, the episode had plenty of shining moments – and, most importantly, it finally gave us what we were all waiting for all season long: war. It also offered a few very touching scenes, with Abraham’s return, Sasha’s self-sacrifice, and Maggie’s speech at the end, which tied everything up beautifully, and reminded us how it all began. Was it sappy? Sure, but it also did a wonderful job of illustrating exactly why we’re all so addicted to this show, even when it’s disappointing: we’re invested in these characters and their stories, and watching them all reunite at last, closer than ever because of the losses they’ve suffered, was the one true payoff we got in this otherwise bleak and uneven season run.

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