With the emergence of braggadocio villain Negan, season seven of The Walking Dead has split the fandom clean down the middle.
There are those who feel his off-screen counterpart, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, lacks the physicality required for such a role while others believe him to be every bit the fearsome antagonist they were wanting; how you feel about this latest episode - ‘Sing Me a Song’- relies on which side you fall down on.
In a sense, the same could be said for Carl (Chandler Riggs) because at this episode’s rather murky heart lies a two-hander between the Saviours’ leader and Rick’s one-eyed kid. The last time we saw Grimes Jr, he had snuck into the back of a supply truck that was headed straight for Negan. This outing brazenly gives you no time to dwell on theories about his intentions – the usually-reticent writers here make the kid's actions known with immediacy.
Arriving at the Sanctuary, Carl grabs a rifle and guns down two Saviours – “I only want Negan; he killed my friends – no one else needs to die” he says, fully embracing the cowboy archetype assisted by the hat he's wearing. Then he gets caught.
An alarmed Negan watches on: “You are adorable,” he growls, kickstarting a series of scenes that comic book readers have been hyped to see since it was announced the character would appear in the show. If the seeds were sown through the duo's interaction in the season six finale, this opening – the most breathless in recent memory - is the germination of what looks to be one of the series’ most beguiling relationships.
It's this encounter that permits us a wider glimpse at the inner machinations of Negan’s stomping ground, the Sanctuary. A few strands that were presented in the Daryl-Dwight-centric third episode ‘Cell’ (they've laid off the "Easy Street" torture, thankfully) are yanked to the fore. First, we meet his harem of wives - one of which we previously learned is Dwight's ex, Sherry (Christine Evangelista). These scenes showcase his perverted nature and make him far more unlikable than when he's, say, placing a face-meltingly hot iron on the cheek of a Saviour rulebreaker. That's three scenes later.
In Carl, Negan seems fortunate to have someone impressionable to show his power off to. In these scenes, his leadership seems like nothing more than a mere game – however, instead of cusing these moments to exude raw unpredictability viewers felt suffocated by in this season's premiere, his movements here feel concerted - he's less terrifyingly anarchic Joker, more playground bully.
The episode's main interaction between Negan and Carl – a memorable moment from Robert Kirkman’s source material – plays out in a far more understated manner fans would have expected. On the surface, the sequence sizzles with disappointment; a mere rewatch, however, and they simply sizzle. It's this scene that provides the episode with its namesake, an emotionally manipulative moment where Negan requests Carl remove his eyepatch and sing him a song. Disturbing and depraved, the extended scene is host to impressive work from both actors, namely Riggs who should never be held accountable for Carl’s setbacks. Unfortunately, it fails frustratingy to earn a placement in The Walking Dead hall of fame, exarcebated by the fact an earlier scene involving Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) coud vie as the episode's best. Perhaps it's these kind of issues that's to blame for diminishing viewing ratings.
And yet, the series remains dinstinctly watchable. Elsewhere, Michonne (Danai Gurira) waltzing off on her own revenge mission, katana in hand, brings to bear echoes of season three while the brief appearance from the ever-sprightly Jesus (Tom Payne) fundamentally serves as an audition tape as to why he could fill Glenn’s gap as your new favourite character. It even seems Daryl (Norman Reedus) may be out of those rags sometime soon...
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Then there’s the aforementioned priest who – with just two scenes this season – has managed to subtly impress. Instructing a scorned Spencer (Austin Nichols) to "stop the car" after the latter suggests that the death of Rick could be a good thing for Alexandria, Father Gabriel unexpectedly lays the most unexpected of smackdowns. "What you're saying doesn't make you a sinner," he tells him. "But it does make you a tremendous shit.” Forget Negan’s clan - this coward has became the show’s most unlikely of saviours, unthinkable when you recall his first appearance in season five.
Ultimately, this episode marks a new chapter for not only Carl but the future of the series. While it’s admirable to see his character attempting to take a stand against adversity, the fact remains that his actions have lured Negan back to Alexandria sooner than anticipated; unnecessary casualties look likely. As the madman sits on the porch, Carl by his side and baby Judith in hand, it's almost as if we're being treated to an all-too disturbing alternate view of The Walking Dead universe, one in which Rick never woke up from his coma and Shane (Jon Bernthal) survived.
Sure, there may not have been the need to worry should Rick and Aaron have returned from their supply run booted with items to throw Negan's way; or should a vengeful Rosita not be nearby with a bullet reserved for the man himself. Or, most terrifyingly, if next week’s episode wasn’t a midseason finale - we all know how they end up.
The Walking Dead airs in the UK every Monday at 9pm on FOX
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