In this week’s The Walking Dead, Negan pays a visit to Alexandria. For 85 minutes (alright, an hour, with advert breaks), the big man swaggers, bops and grooves through the streets, mercilessly talking poor Rick’s ear off for the whole time. And that’s it; no big action sequence, no surprise death, nor even a show of strength from Rick. This is The Walking Dead: the Negan monologues.
Barely anyone who isn’t Negan gets more than a few lines of dialogue, relegated to looking either submissive or defiant, quietly looking on while the new boss tries to creatively swear his way around ever using the F-word. Maybe that’s the real reason we lost Abraham for the season premiere? The town’s not big enough for both walking profanisauruses. Rosita and Spencer get the closest thing there is to a B-story, scavenging for guns and Daryl’s old bike, and Father Gabriel gets a look-in this week, but Service is essentially Negan’s big episode. And boy, does he make the most of it.
Making their first official call on Rick and the Alexandrians, the Saviours empty the town of their entire armoury, medicine cabinet and – to add insult to injury – the mattresses from their very homes. But how does the episode justify its extended runtime? Not at all, is the unfortunate answer. There is not a single thing which happens in Service which couldn’t have been condensed into fifteen minutes of TV, or interspersed with a little plot from the Hilltop or Kingdom. Service’s 85 minutes cater for precisely two things: Negansplaining and TV adverts.
While the season opener was flawed but absolutely gripping, and episodes 2 and 3 fine exercises in world (and character) building, Service is the worst episode since… well, the series’ last extended episode. Negan talks and talks and talks and talks, Rick looks a couple of times like he might do something either stupid or awesome (smacking Negan about the nut with old Lucille) and Rosita and Spencer go looking for a motorbike. And that’s it. It decompresses a single issue of a comic book into 85 (okay, 60) minutes of television; unfolding almost in real time as Negan yaps his way around Alexandria. There’s no denying Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s charisma and swagger, but it’s at this point where his Negan crosses the line into cartoonishly annoying, making one long for the relative quiet and sobriety of Season Three and Four’s Governor. Colourful as it may be, Robert Kirkman’s overly talky style of dialogue is not one which translates well to live action.
While Rick mopes and meekly obeys, his fellow Alexandrians at least show some gumption. And also a bit of minor mind-reading ability. Rosita runs off to forage herself some guns, somehow knowing that The Saviours will be stealing all of Alexandria’s armory contents (never mind common sense saying that they’ll be able to forage you a bit more if you leave them at least a pistol or two), while Father Gabriel has the curious foresight to fake Maggie’s death. Maybe he watched the previous episode and heard Negan’s Dwight story.
Still, with all due credit to The Walking Dead, at least they don’t try to play Maggie’s non-death as legitimate or a major reveal, perhaps realising that audiences have had enough of Glenn’s nonsense by now. This also gives Father Gabriel a rare moment to shine. While Rick gets to look traumatised and Daryl has a black eye, it’s the Z-list, less liked (or actively disliked) characters in the episode who get to be proactive and actually come out on top. Father Gabriel; faking Maggie’s death, sneaking up on people and creeping out even Negan. Rosita (previously one of my most detested characters on the show), stealing a gun. Spencer (a character so bland I had to look him up on Wikipedia while the opening credits rolled), who, it turns out, was right about the Ricktatorship all along.
And therein lies the problem with Season Seven so far: Negan is too charismatic and ‘fun’ (but also the most annoying man on TV at the moment, like a somewhat socially aware, murderous Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory), while Rick is a terrible, terrible leader. There’s simply too much schadenfreude in the fall of the Ricktatorship. This should have been an episode in which we see Rick and his family grieve, rage and be human… instead, it’s all about Negan again.
Unsurprisingly, then, the best moments of the episode happen when Negan isn’t around talking all over everyone and everything. Spencer and Rosita, Michonne learning to shoot (someone needs to fill that Andrea shaped hole), and Rick finally admitting that he knows Judith isn’t his blood daughter. Good to hear Shane’s name too, in a show which too often forgets about its characters once they’re dead and gone.
“I just slid my down your throat, and you thanked me for it,” grins Negan, as he finally waves goodbye to Alexandria. After the overlong trudge that is Service, it’s hard not to feel that this is The Walking Dead and their 25 minutes of advertising trying to tell us something.