“A continuing story of survival horror.”
So goes the tagline of The Walking Dead comics: book and show are both tales of survivors, not heroes. Those clinging on, not those rising high. We have to keep this in mind as we watch AMC’s ongoing adaptation, probably the most popular speculative-fiction show of our time this side of Game Of Thrones. Survival horror. Let’s let that thought be our true-north guide as we look at what I believe to be the show’s best episode. And, obviously, this will have indiscriminate and unmarked spoilers for the whole show.
When you talk about the fan-favourite episodes of The Walking Dead, the series premiere gets a lot of props for good reason: the classic slow-burn leading up to the appearance of the first walkers, the horrific sight of a walker-swarm in the city, the horse, the tank…it nailed the setup. I always had a soft spot for the season 1 finale, which features quite possibly one of my favourite uses of a Chekhov’s Gun in popular media (that grenade, man!) and some essential exposition that sets up the show’s bleak tone to follow.
And who can forget Too Far Gone and the fate of the Governor? That couldn’t have been any more epic if the Avengers themselves had descended from the sky to deliver the killing blow. Or how about the wonderful No Way Out, which takes the show’s bleak tone and shows our heroes forcing their way through into a place of honest hope, in the most awesome and fan-pleasing way possible? That is one of the few precious moments where the survivors do get to call themselves heroes – big damn heroes, sir.
But those are happy moments, going from bittersweet to just plain awesome (that quick-cut montage that climaxes No Way Out remains one of the show’s most incredible moments). But if we proceed to look at the show as “a continuing story of survival horror”, one episode sticks out in my mind as the “best” episode:
A Day Will Come When You Won’t Be. The season 7 premiere, and the episode where Negan brutally murders both Abraham and Glenn.
Yes, I’m being completely serious.
So you can consider this a bit of a sequel-piece to this, where I raked the previous episode, Last Day On Earth, over the coals for an ending that completely yanked the viewer ‘out of it’, and treated what should have been a lynchpin scene of the series as an excuse for cheap clickbait. I still stand by every word of that episode review/glorified rant, but let’s look at the episode they followed it with half a year later.
I’d like to paint a completely subjective picture for you, if I may, to demonstrate why I believe this to be the “best” Walking Dead episode, if we are in fact to look at the series as survival horror rather than as a “drama”, a term so amorphous that it could describe 95% of prime time television.
That season, I was working in a Halloween shop. I loved it and I’ll cherish those memories forever. When you’re someone who loves Halloween as much as I do, that’s a dream job. Of course, on Sunday, October 16th, 2016, that was probably the single busiest day we had. It was crazy and stressful, to the point where my co-associate actually said to me, “If I snap at you at some point, it’s nothing personal, I’m just losing my f***ing mind”, and I actually didn’t even take my break because there just wasn’t a moment where I had the chance.
And the reason I mention this is because, later that night, the Walking Dead premiere was the most stressful part of my day.
I watched it with a friend, a police officer who has personally seen some genuinely harrowing stuff, up to and including a suicide-by-train, which is precisely as messy as you’d expect. And the episode made him feel like throwing up.
Watching it again on blu-ray in 2017, I set out to answer the question: how much of the episode’s scariness and horrifying nature is inherent, and how much of it was due to our hype on the-night-of, our knowledge that someone would die and we didn’t know quite who?
In short, I needed to know whether the episode is really a masterpiece of horror, capable of sucking us back in even when we already know the outcome, or if their cheap, sleazy, insulting, clickbaity hype campaign had actually worked.
The episode, as it turns out, is a masterpiece of horror. Just like how Game of Thrones remains gripping long after you know a given character is going to take up a new career in pushing up daisies, this episode remains gripping even after you’ve previously viewed it and think you’re prepped for the deaths and the brutality. But where Game of Thrones treats major character deaths as shocking in simply how there is no real filter or plot-shield on who may or may not die, as it’s simply another part of the narrative (it’s been said that on Thrones, characters die because another character wants something), this episode goes the opposite direction and pays special attention to this double execution, until the tension becomes completely unbearable in the best possible way.
The cinematography on A Day Will Come […] is remarkable. The black night grips the forest-clearing scenes like a suffocating shroud. Watch it on a big television with the lights off, and you’ll still feel like you’re right there amid the forest and the blood. They wisely frame the episode around the experience of Rick, who is forced to watch, impotent, as Negan slaughters one of his companions, then another. Part direction, part deeply subjective and atmospheric cinematography, and part superbly shell-shocked acting on the part of Andrew Lincoln, this episode reels you in with tragic emotion long after you know the outcome.
And when we think about the tag ‘survival horror’, and break it down, there’s a bit of a paradoxical element at play here: the genre has ‘survival’ in its name, but necessarily, not everyone will. Good horror needs to be punctuated by reminders of the stakes, of the powerlessness of the protagonists, of the lurching grotesque things that make their world such a crapsack place. This episode doesn’t just release the tension simmering for half a season before it; it is a brutal flash-bang of all these things, not just on the night it aired, but for all time. After the show has ended, people a generation from now will go and binge-watch it, and even if this episode has turned into a Rosebud thing by then, the harrowing direction and performance on everyone’s part in the episode will continue to make it a lynchpin moment in the series.
The gore effects in The Walking Dead, as a whole, are phenomenal. Decades ago, before the era of prestige TV, it would have been hard to believe that we would reach a point where a fantasy show would have dragons as believable as a theatrical adaptation of Tolkien’s work, or that a zombie show would have gore effects every bit as believable as the best of Tom Savini’s work. But there’s something about Glenn’s death – the way this beloved OG character is beaten so brutally that his skull caves in, one eyeball forced halfway out of its socket – that, I think, resonated with people more strongly than with any other moment in the series.
Now, the monumental drop-off in ratings after the premiere may well have been due to the brutality of said premiere. When I say drop-off, I mean that according to Wikipedia, the show lost five million viewers (and that’s just counting those whose views were counted by the ratings panel), then another million the next week, and it more-or-less continued like that. And while the premiere was anomalously high for obvious reasons, the season as a whole netted lower ratings than the previous.
(And just when the producers were probably thinking, “We’re on easy street – and it feels so sweet…”)
But, to be honest, the rest of the season just wasn’t quite as good. That’s the long and short of it. From the weird trash-people who talk really strange even though the timeline wouldn’t have given them leave to really branch off and develop their own unique dialect, to the fact that the first half of the season was basically a protracted emasculation of our survivors, the season peaked as early as it possibly could.
For my part, I was okay with the first half of the season from a content standpoint, but I know it didn’t sit well with many people who thought it harmed the pacing significantly; I have yet to do a front-to-back marathon of the first half of Season 7 to see if I share that opinion about the pacing. Because, to be honest, watching TV seasons as they air is a different beast from watching the full season, one episode after another. It’s fine to catch a weekly show full of situation-of-the-week episodes, but when it’s an ongoing continuity-heavy story like TWD, having to wait a week between episodes can feel unnatural in this kind of long-form storytelling. I mean, you don’t have to wait a week between chapters of a novel or acts of a movie unless you really, really want to.
(That said, this is obviously not the first time the show has run into pacing problems due to gratuitous bottle episodes and the like: Beth’s hospital arc of season five was an unfortunate nothingburger that burned several episodes’ time, killed a beloved main-cast member in an aggravatingly stupid and pointless way, and all it got us going forward was another side-character who was himself killed a few episodes later. Season seven is paced much better than season five, but that’s faint praise.)
What a peak, though. The best thing that any media calling itself survival horror can do, is get you to such an immersive place that you feel utterly consumed by the horrors on-screen even though you know in the back of your mind that you are safe and that what you are experiencing is not ‘real’. It’s the same reason why games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Bloodborne endeavor to consume you with their sound design and grimy landscapes.
And if we are to take The Walking Dead as ‘a continuing story of survival horror’, then A Day Will Come When You Won’t Be is, so far, the show’s greatest achievement.
And, like any Castlevania game worth its salt, the episode even has a vampire bat.
What? Was the joke that bad?