Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 7 follow.
It feels like yesterday the team behind AMC's The Walking Dead had the entire world asking, "Who did Negan kill?" Over a fast-moving year later, the answer stands as "Glenn, Abraham, Spencer, Olivia, Dr. Carson, and the men of Oceanside."
The show's biggest villain made his presence known in the most brutal episode the entire series on October 23, 2016. Negan's introduction was carried out in gory form, bashing the skulls of Glenn and Abraham, and completely emasculating Rick Grimes in front of the survivor crew he had been fearlessly leading.
Right off the bat, it was clear: this is the Negan show (for now).
Had The Walking Dead followed its most compelling characters in Rick and Negan throughout the first half of its seventh season, it could have qualified as the best batch of episodes seven years in. Instead, it earns the title of being the boldest and bravest show of the year for taking the risks elsewhere.
The flaws (especially in the first half of the season) surround two major elements. The first is the constant reminder of the unforgettable moments which opened the season. The second, and more important, was the scattering of interesting characters across episodes with multiple weeks between screen time for some. For example, the Tara-centric Episode 7x06 (Swear) told an interesting story but like the Morgan-centric "East" hour a year before it, the episode was poorly timed, focusing on secondary characters (one of which went missing and no one has asked "to where?") and a new community, while much more pressing matters were begging for attention. In the case of Episode 7x06, fans were left wondering what would happen when Carl arrived at Negan's Sanctuary armed with a machine gun.
Part of what makes the cliffhangers with episodes between their resolve so dreadful is the predictability offered by the comics. Readers were fully aware of what to expect when Carl's truck pulled up to Negan's house: he would unload the gun, kill a couple of nameless bad guys, and get taken hostage in order for the iconic "Sing Me A Song" moments to realized. These moments are when The Walking Dead is at its best but need not be held off in favor of building suspense. Poor Tara Chambler had to serve as a mere road block between fans and what they were more interested in seeing.
Luckily for The Walking Dead, Jeffrey Dean Morgan can carry any scene they throw him into, especially if it meant memorizing piles of dialogue for complex, sarcastic, showman style speeches. His dark humor changed the show's dynamic as he did what the Governor, Terminus, and other villains could not: broke Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and the rest of the group's strongest leaders.
As has become usual with The Walking Dead, the first half of the season served as set up for a massive payoff coming late in the back eight.
Finally realizing it is time to fight, Rick got his A-team together and decided he wanted to ask for the Hilltop's help. When Gregory unsurprisingly rejected their request, the community rallied behind Maggie who had saved them from a Savior-launched zombie earlier in the season. From here, it was time to meet the season's most interesting character: King Ezekiel, who was introduced to Carol and Morgan back in the season's second week in what would prove to be one of the best hours of the year. But, what else do you expect when Greg Nicotero directs the episodes?
The pacing was bogged a bit by the predictable rejections to Rick's requests and a side quest with a unique-to-television group of junkyard dwellers but the back half of Season 7 provided more of a "leading to something big" feeling than the first. The show had suddenly become more complex than ever before. Politics became a factor on the show for the first time as five communities were depending on each others' moves to make their own. Multiple characters were being developed -- including Sasha and Rosita who were often unfavorably flat in the years leading to this one -- but even more were introduced, with Dwight becoming one of the deepest, saddest characters when his story with Sherry was explored.
All of those build-up episodes were leading to a momentous payoff.
The Oceanside group served their purpose of providing Rick with the necessary guns to fight Negan but also made the line between the two leaders a bit more grey when Rick forced the women into handing over their guns while rounded up and put on their knees.
It was the betrayal in the finale which lead to the action-packed closing for the season which made it all worth it. What appeared to be another year of Rick's group being backed into a corner for the season finale turned into a rally at Alexandria as the Hilltop and Kingdom finally joined the fight, albeit conveniently in the nick of time. King Ezekiel's entrance, with Shiva literally tearing Saviors apart, made for the most exciting moment of The Walking Dead since Carol saved the group from Terminus. To top it all off, she was a part of the charge, returning to Alexandria for the first time since Season 6.
Without the dark, grueling tone of Season 7's first half, the victory in the finale would not have been nearly as rewarding. Months of Rick Grimes and company being beaten down and scrounging for resources to give themselves a chance in battle is not what anyone wants to see. Still, the show bravely blazed a trail toward the epic finale, offering gigantic moments in the concluding episode and promising more in Season 8's premiere.
Season 7 feels a lot like the "rock in the road" which Rick described in his story to King Ezekiel when trying to convince him to join the fight. His version of it saw a little girl clearing a rock from the road which had been disrupting wagons and hurting people, only to find a cache of gold beneath it. This season appears to be that rock. With every episode between them looking like a valley between, the mountains were the premiere and finale episodes with a couple of strong hours helping support them in between. Those who faced the weaker episodes of Season 7 were in for a highly anticipated treat with its closing and beyond.
The best part of the season is that it took chances. While it was tough to endure at times, with payoff appearing to be nowhere in sight, the end result was a brave season of The Walking Dead. Introducing a heavy batch of new characters sprawling across several communities, more of both than ever before, and temporarily reducing its leading man to an ancillary whipping boy for the new villain in town was unheard of until now. While we all hope it won't happen again, Season 7 is suddenly more enjoyable looking back on it as a whole than experiencing it on a weekly basis.
Seven years in and The Walking Dead continues to grow with no signs of slowing down. The Walking Dead is the biggest and bravest show on cable and Season 7 is its most powerful yet as unforgettable moments will be ingrained in fans minds for years to come and the aftermath of the season's events will be felt for years.
Once again, Andrew Lincoln and Melissa McBride cement themselves among the top actors on television with unforgettable performances, though Lennie James, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Khary Payton certainly deserve recognition for their drastically different efforts, as well.
To top off the season's highlights, the production team managed to bring a tiger to life in magnificent, convincing, computerized form. Is there anything The Walking Dead can't do?
MORE WALKING DEAD: Why Rick Will Never Bow To Negan Again / When Does TWD Season 8 Premiere? / Finale Ratings Reach Five-Year Low / Why TWD Changed An Iconic Comic Death For Finale / Watch The Talked About Scene From The Finale / Importance Of Daryl's Wooden Figurine Revealed / Behind-The-Scenes Photos Of All Out War
The Walking Dead will return for its eighth season in October of 2017. The first trailer will arrive at San Diego Comic Con in July. For complete coverage and insider info all off-season long, follow @BrandonDavisBD on Twitter.