A decent “Walking Dead” episode requires three things: Brisk pacing, an imaginative zombie-killing set piece, and a relatively low “Rick Grimes anxiety” quotient, as we’ve had our fill of trauma-emoting after a thousand seasons of this show running in circles. Last night they checked all three boxes. Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been worse.

Actually, let me suggest a fourth ingredient: The less Negan there is, the better. He wasn’t seen at all last night (but was heard briefly over a walkie talkie), and not only didn’t I miss him, I thought the show functioned much better without him. I remember how fans of the TWD comics oohed and ahhed when Jeffrey Dean Morgan was cast as Negan; if you thought the Governor was menacing, they cooed, wait until you — and Glenn — see this guy. Negan’s arrival was going to take the show to new heights of apocalyptic dread. But something’s gone badly wrong. Whether it’s the hammy way Morgan plays him or just the fact that the audience is sick and farking tired of the perpetual “Team Rick versus this season’s baddie” story arc, the show bogs down whenever Negan turns up. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve never matched the virtuoso violence of the season premiere, when he took it to Glenn and Abraham, having him spend most of his time onscreen ever since jawing like a two-bit tough guy at the local roadhouse on Saturday night. Or maybe it’s the show not understanding that a little of Morgan’s one-note shtick goes a long way, having made several episodes in the first half of the season extra long just to give Negan more time to swan around and gurgle about Lucille being “hungry.” He’s exactly as rich and complex a character as a pro-wrestling “heel” is. But the show seems so infatuated with him that I worry the season finale won’t end with the inevitable “Rick beats Negan to death with Lucille” scene. I think they’re going to hold Negan over and give us another season of him as the enemy-in-chief instead of doing what they should be doing, which is setting the gang towards finding a cure for the zombie fever or at least getting them out of the dead end of rural Georgia. The show might not survive another season of stasis given the slide in ratings last year.

One of the oddest things about this show, which becomes ever clearer as the episodes roll by, is how uninterested the writers are in their own central premise. The zombies have been incidental on this show for a long time. They pop up now and then, like they did last night, to offer a target for an especially nifty action sequence, but if the zombie plague mysteriously ended and all the undead suddenly keeled over, you’d imagine the show going on practically the same as it does now with the same ol’ community rivalries. Maybe that’s inevitable, though, when you try to turn a genre that succeeded in theaters, in two-hour bites, into a TV series with endless hours piled on top of each other. At some point, unless you’re willing to do an anthology and explore the zombie breakout from all sorts of different dramatic angles, you’re destined to keep writing yourself into the same plot traps. The survivors will hole up in fortified communities, they’ll war with each other, and every now and then when they’re beyond the community walls there’ll be an obligatory frightful encounter with the undead — but it’s too rote by now for anyone to sweat it too much. And even when characters seemingly find themselves trapped and overwhelmed by the number of walkers around them, as Rick and Michonne did last night, it’s just too darned easy to make their escape plausible. The walkers are slow, they’re clumsy, Rick and Michonne know how to fight, blah blah blah: Before you know it they’ve extricated themselves from a mob and they’re safely in a SUV, speeding away. It’s weird to think that this show has been so fabulously successful when it’s so palpably bored by its central conceit, but hey. When you’ve got a money machine, just keep turning the crank.

Update: I didn’t see it until after I’d finished this post, but here’s David Sims of the Atlantic chiming in with his own take on how Negan is killing “The Walking Dead.”

It’s not so much that he didn’t wreak havoc (he did). But suddenly The Walking Dead became The Negan Show, a seemingly endless exploration of a man who uses terror to achieve all his goals. The entire first half of the seventh season was about the extent to which he dominated Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of zombie fighters, through murder, torment, and ongoing threats of death and destruction. It was gruesome and hard to watch, but more importantly, it was incredibly boring—an exercise in repetitive punishment designed to remind the viewer just how difficult it would be for Rick and company to resist.