SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for tonight’s Season Seven premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Proceed at your own risk.
When asked about his character's death in "The Talking Dead," actor Michael Cudlitz said he knew it was coming. Some fans probably did, too. As anyone who's up to date on the "Walking Dead" comic knows, Abraham's on-page demise was given to Denise on the AMC series. If the show was following the book, he would have gotten shot through the eye with Dwight's crossbow a few episodes ago. As such, according to Cudlitz, Abraham was "on borrowed time." The same could be said of Glenn, whom the show tried to trick viewers into believing was dead back in "Thank You."
When considering both of those things, their deaths at the hands (or bat) of Negan become somewhat frustrating. What was the point of assigning Abraham's death to another character -- a strong female queer character, no less -- only to pick him off a few episodes later? Granted, his ending does work to smooth over the rift between Sasha and Rosita, but that doesn't feel like a big enough payoff. And in Glenn's case...well, we've expressed our frustration with how his arc over the past year has been handled on several occasions. While it's doubtful the writers were intentionally trying to manipulate the audience, the constant toying around still compromises the emotional weight of his death.
Or maybe not, for the above grievances only start to hit after the episode ends. If we're just talking about the effectiveness of the plot mechanics, the deaths more than hit home within the broadcasted hour. There's the obvious gut-punch surprise of not killing one, but two major characters, and Glenn's braining plays out as grotesquely as it does in the comic. It's hard to get caught up in the narrative cheating when so much unease is on display. The brutal murders of Abraham and Glenn may not make last season's trolling completely forgivable, but they at least start the current season off on a strong note.
And besides, the majority of "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" has as much (if not more) to do with Rick than either of Negan's victims. That title could refer to the physical loss of two major characters, but it likely refers to the breaking of the show's protagonist. Sensing that the elder Grimes wants swift revenge for what's just happened, Negan hauls him into the RV and sends him through a zombie gauntlet. His mission? To retrieve the ax hanging from the belt of Negan's former righthand man -- the poor soul still hanging from the overpass.
In addition to being an effectively taut action sequence (the walkers look scarier than they have in a while when lunging out of the morning mist), it cements the dynamics of Rick and Negan's soon-to-be complex relationship. These are men who are both tough leaders; men who have done many questionable things all in the name of helping their followers. Negan may be the more sadistic and psychotic of the two, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan's been correct in pointing out several times that they share many of the same qualities. There's both an admiration and an animosity towards Rick during their conversations.
That's why he doesn't outright kill him. He even helps Rick out with the ax retrieval by gunning down several of the zombies that are closing in. It's clear he has far bigger things in mind for the head of the Ricktatorship. Once they return to the others, he orders him to hack off his son's arm with the ax, or else everyone (including Carl) dies.
I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who thought Negan was actually going to make Rick go through with it, despite his aversion (for the most part) towards child abuse in the comic. And maybe he would have if he hadn't sensed the fright and vulnerability in Rick's voice. That's a Rick we haven't seen in quite some time now: the sniveling, pleading human being who's been lurking under the hardened exterior. That's exactly the look Negan wanted to see. It's a commanding performance from Andrew Lincoln, who restores some of the desperate glassiness to Rick's eyes as he thinks about all the harm he's inadvertently caused to everyone.
And that's what's at the core of the premiere. As Rick's party is abandoned in the gravel -- left to bury their dead and tend to The Saviors' orders from here on out -- there's a strong sense of figuring out how to pick up the pieces. How do they proceed when Rick's reverted to such a fragile state? How will they satisfy the inevitable thirst for revenge from people like Maggie, who, even in her physically ill state, wants to hunt down The Saviors? Those questions, along with the seemingly impossible task to rebuild after the grueling ordeal, are all far more interesting than the mystery surrounding Negan's victim(s). "The Walking Dead" may have committed the cardinal sin of trolling, but it's exciting to see the series move past it into more emotionally complex territory.