A brief history of everything that’s happened in the last four episodes, which is to say, nothing.
1. Negan showed up at Alexandria and spent the entire time swanning around and intimidating people (90-minute episode)
2. Maggie and Sasha showed up at the Hilltop and had an hour-long argument with Gregory about whether they could stay or not
3. Tara (who?) showed up at a settlement of women survivors, chatted briefly with them, then ran away
4. Carl showed up at the Sanctuary and was quickly taken prisoner by Negan, who spent the entire time swanning around and intimidating people (90-minute episode)
That’s five hours of our lives, most of it spent watching Jeffrey Dean Morgan pound that same one Evil-Fonzie-ish note on the keyboard that he likes so much. He’s got the leather jacket; he’s got that strange tilting body language while Negan is soliloquizing, where he leans in odd directions as if to show us that that the character is literally off-kilter; he’s got the pause-grin-playful-yet-menacing-retort down whenever a character challenges him and it seems for a moment as though he might tee off on the person’s skull. All of this was engrossing in the season premiere. Three hours later, the returns are diminishing and yet they’re giving us bonus footage in the form of longer episodes so that we can drink deep from the cup of Negan. How are TWD fans feeling about it? Well, the first episode I mentioned above drew 11.4 million viewers, down from 11.7 million the week before and way, way down from a blockbuster 17 million for the season opener. The next one drew 11 million. The one after that, the Tara episode, drew 10.4 million. Next week’s mid-season finale should do solid numbers, but if the second half of the season is a slog like this one was, the vultures are going to start circling in entertainment media. An unhappy fan base is a problem. Even a very big one.
This half-season began with Negan taking revenge on the Grimes gang for ambushing some of his men and, amid a lot of narrative drift, we’re finally on track for the inevitable reprisal episode. There are no fewer than three (and possibly four) assassination plots afoot. Carl tried to kill Negan but failed; maybe he’ll try again, now that Negan’s taken a shine to his baby sister. Rosita had Eugene make her a bullet, presumably to even the score with Negan for killing Abraham. Michonne is on her way to the Sanctuary too to spring Carl and Daryl and/or to kill Negan, presumably because she simply can’t bear the thought of her boyfriend turning overnight from a bad-ass to a candy-ass for the Saviors. It’s also possible that Daryl will try something on Negan now that he has the key to his cell and can escape. There may even be a fifth assassin, with Dwight eventually getting sucked into the anti-Negan plans in hopes of freeing his wife. All of that would be suspenseful if not for the fact that Negan’s obviously going to last the entire season, if not longer, so the plots are doomed to fail. What’s probably going to happen is that one or more of the assassins will manage to kill a bunch of Saviors but not Negan, in which case the new half-season will begin with … the same basic arc as this one did, with him taking revenge on the gang followed by a months-long process of Rick rediscovering his balls and plotting one final raid on Negan and his men. I wonder how it’ll turn out.
One obvious way to add something interesting to the show would be for Carl to take the same sort of shine to Negan as Negan’s taken to him. It’d be fun watching Rick suffer as “Coral” indulges the tyrant within. Negan’s never going to break Daryl because the writers won’t allow it, but him breaking Carl and setting up a father-versus-son dynamic would create some compelling moral dilemmas for Rick during the eventual run-up to revenge. For a moment last night, I thought Negan was going to order one of his “wives” to sleep with Carl, partly to impress the kid with how much control he has over them and partly to show Carl what could be his if he becomes a loyal soldier for the Saviors. No “hero” on this show really goes bad, though (except Shane), so I assume Carl’s going to go on heroically resisting and probably end up dead soon, now that Chandler Riggs’s contract is up. That’ll be the catalyst for Rick’s big revenge narrative in the spring. It’s one thing to bash Glenn’s and Abraham’s heads in, but Coral’s? Rick will hold your wiener out of fear, but kill his son and you’ve crossed the line.
Exit question: How did Carl, armed with a machine gun and the element of surprise, manage to kill only two Saviors in his ambush? Kids.