(Warning: There are going to be a lot of major spoilers in this article!)
There’s little argument that The Walking Dead season seven premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”, was a brutal one. Throughout the episode the audience is taken on a hellish journey in which Negan makes a goal of breaking the proud, fearless, Rick Grimes. As Rick breaks under the techniques used by Negan, so does the viewer, sharing the experience on a unsettlingly visceral level. The dominance of Negan, the feeling of instability, the isolation, the powerlessness, all ultimately leading to the sensation of dependence on Negan.
Negan’s dominance is often literally shoved in the viewer’s face as he and his bat, Lucille, take up the screen over and over. Even when the focus is shifted to another character, Negan remains there in some form: his grin, his pelvis, his bat, the back of his head, or even just his voice taunting in the distance. Negan is everywhere. It isn’t just about Negan always being present, though, it’s also about the way in which he is presented. Frequently via low-angle shots that place the viewer beneath Negan, causing him to look all the bigger, more powerful, and more ominous. Even Lucille is shown as above the viewer, the spikes from her barbed wire glinting, the blood of her victims dripping, as the audience is put into the points-of-view of those characters on their knees.
Adding to this is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan as he almost lazily struts and stretches himself out across the screen. Arms and legs spread, pelvis thrust out, head back, Lucille extended…Morgan works to show this is a man who is completely in charge and unworried about being challenged. He consistently invades the personal space of others directly or via Lucille while alternatively staring down and looking away – often with disapproving or disinterested sighs – from both characters and the audience. Even when not physically in the scene his voice is present and overriding all other sounds.
As the episode hops between present, past, and possible futures, then back again the audience is never completely sure where they’ll be in time from scene to scene. Is this the moment Negan kills someone? Is this Rick’s memory or imagination? The affect is a wildly disorienting experience where one is no longer completely sure where they stand or what’s about to happen, what could still happen, in what is fast becoming Negan’s world. This causes the audience to begin to feel the same precariousness as Rick and the rest.
There are sharp turns within the scenes themselves as well, the best example being the events surrounding Glenn’s death. While many may have suspected Glenn would die, it’s highly unlikely anyone saw it occurring the way it did. After Daryl attacks Negan it seems that, perhaps, it’s the end for the beloved Mr. Dixon, but instead Negan seems almost impressed. This allows the audience a brief moment of relief, a thought that perhaps Negan will let it slide, until he takes a sudden hard swing at bystander Glenn’s head. The result is a sickening sound and incredibly graphic impact wound that renders Glenn almost unrecognizable as he continues to attempt to speak…the affect is a sickening sense of shock, horror, and loss. That Negan merely chuckles, cracks some tasteless jokes, and continues to beat Glenn to death only heightens those emotions.
A deranged Negan goes from cracking skulls to cracking jokes, threatening to friendly, sympathetic to terrorizing and, more often or not, all in the same exact shot. After tasking Rick with getting the ax from a hoard of Walkers he both shoots at Rick and Walkers so that the viewer can never be certain where Negan’s truly aiming. Because the audience can’t be sure what he’ll do from one moment to the next there’s no way to prepare for, well, anything.
Just as Rick gets pulled from the group on possibly the worst road trip yet, so does the audience. Given what’s known about Negan is terrifying it’s impossible to feel Rick’s safe with him or anyone else is safe with his men. And, because Rick’s perspective is now the only perspective, there’s no checking in with the others unless Rick survives long enough to see them again…the viewer will only see, know, what Rick does and that’s not much.
As if being shut up in the confines of the RV wasn’t enough windows that might’ve given clues as to location are whited out. The cause is unknown and vision beyond Walkers spattering across the windshield proves impossible. Even after the RV is stopped things don’t get any clearer as Rick is thrust into a strange, foggy, Walker-filled, wilderness. The shots feel almost handheld as the audience’s view is spun and jarred in swirling smoke that allows only brief glimpses of what’s around – which is the still-burning roadblock the Saviors made in last season’s finale – before another Walker comes into dangerous focus. …Those watching, like Rick himself, feel utterly alone outside the enemies that surround them.
Nearly everything mentioned before results in a feeling of powerlessness. Fan favorites on their knees, Negan in the audience’s face, the erratic switches in time, the disorientating effect of Rick’s point-of-view as he fends off Walkers in a smokey terrain…all work to make the viewer feel helpless. There’s also the fact that the few moments where a viewer can cheer for Rick and others are almost immediately met with a brutal, dispiriting, counter from Negan. Negan’s reply to Abraham’s defiant “suck my nuts” is to smile, strike harder, and then mock the man’s words after his death. Rick’s “I’m gonna kill you” statement gets him dragged like a petulant child into the RV where he’s bullied and forced into completing the life-threatening task of retrieving “Negan’s” ax.
Yet the clearest example comes in Daryl’s landing of a punch to Negan. While the initial reaction of the viewer might’ve been one of pride – “Atta boy, Daryl, Negan totally deserved that!” – it’s almost immediately squelched as Daryl’s tackled and dragged to Negan’s feet. It looks like the end of the beloved biker, but then he’s seemingly given a reprieve. Relief sets in, the pride in Daryl’s actions returns…and then Glenn’s skull gets caved in for Daryl’s actions. With the viewer being emotionally punished for delighting in that bit of revenge on Negan they learn to be hesitant of wanting, hoping for, any other retaliation from the Alexandria crew. Like everyone in the line-up the viewer is now mentally, emotionally, handcuffed and forced to watch without the fight they might usually have.
By the time Negan’s ordering a blubbering Rick to cut off his own son’s arm the audience is pretty much just praying that someone will stop this before it happens. And who are they praying to? Negan. There’s no one else to pray to, no one else who can possibly stop what’s about to happen: the Alexandria crew are dead or have guns to the back of their heads, Rick’s falling apart, Michonne’s pleas aren’t effective, and Negan’s counting down as Carl tells his dad to just do it.
Negan has broken the viewer watching on the other side of the TV screen just as he has the unbreakable Rick Grimes. There is no longer any doubt that this is Negan’s world and it turns on his whim alone.