Today’s ninety-minute episode of The Walking Dead felt like an apology from the showrunners, as if they were giving viewers extra time to compensate for the fact that Rick’s group of survivors haven’t had any screen time since the first episode of the season. Season seven’s format of one story strand/storyline per episode continues to be frustrating, as we still don’t know the fate of Maggie and Sasha, who are arguably the most impacted by the deaths in episode one, but haven’t made it into any of this season’s episodes so far because they’re separated from the rest of the group in their journey to find a doctor at the Hilltop Colony.
In today’s episode, ‘Service’, Negan makes his first collection of goods from Rick’s group in Alexandria and announces his arrival by whistling, a continued motif, which helps Negan tread the line between terrifying and charming. When he speaks, it’s with an air of grandeur and joviality, as if he’s truly enjoying his performance as a dictator, terrifying all those who encounter him. The arrival of Negan and his large group of Saviours is a few days earlier than expected and he explains this early arrival to Rick by proclaiming, ‘I missed ya.’ This was the moment that made clear Negan would play – like so many television and movie character before him – the sweet-talking, charming villain; the type of villain who shouldn’t but could have an audience drop their guard from time to time, as I found myself laughing out loud at some of his dialogue.
‘Service’ tackles the divergent ways that Rick and Michonne choose to deal with Negan’s subjugation of Alexandria. The episode opens with a tableau of the couple back to back, on opposite sides of the bed. It’s a far cry from the other intimate moments between Rick and Michonne that have operated to date and clearly hints that something has changed. While clearly unhappy, Rick bends the knee to Negan and gives him what he wants. Speaking to survivors, Rick explains ‘Let me put this to all of you as clearly as I can. I’m not in charge anymore: Negan is.’
The episode painfully walks us through how Negan and the Saviours strip bare communities, taking their medicine, weapons and beds – the latter of which Michonne finds in a burning pile just outside of Alexandria. The Saviours are not sparing Utilitarian despots, they do awful things just for the sake of it; Dwight rips the cap off Rosita’s head and some creepy Saviour runs his finger over the adolescent Enid’s face. I spent the majority of the episode just praying that they wouldn’t find or hurt Rick’s toddler-aged daughter Judith.
Judith Grimes, who as a child is often used in The Walking Dead as a prop, was used to explore something very meaningful in ‘Service.’ As evening falls, Rick and Michonne argue over why they’re co-operating with Negan, and Rick explains to her the story of his friend Shane. Fans of the show will remember that Shane – (Jon Bernthal) from seasons 1 and 2 – coveted Rick’s now-late wife at the very beginning of the zombie apocalypse, when Rick was presumed dead. Rick reveals to Michonne, ‘I know Judith isn’t mine. I love her, she’s my daughter, but she isn’t mine.’ It’s a revelation that fans of the show have often suspected, but Rick has never spoken about it on screen. Here, Rick is trying to tell Michonne that sometimes, we must accept the hand that we are dealt in order to survive. Michonne says that she will try, but it seems doubtful – she’s simply too much of a fighter to kneel to Negan.
The rest of the episode was peppered by the actions of minor characters such as Rosita and Spencer, who leave Alexandria during the Saviours’ raid in order to find Darryl’s motorbike for Dwight. It’s always interesting to get some insight into minor characters, but Rosita and Spencer have not yet been fleshed out enough for me to care about what they would do in this situation. I’ve been begging for a Rosita flashback for a long time, so that the audience could really get to know her (potentially fascinating) character.
The other minor character who shone was Father Gabriel, who up until today’s episode had felt like a dead-weight in Rick’s group. However, in ‘Service’ he thinks quickly and amps up his role as a priest in order to seem like less of a threat – a la Carol with the housewife routine. The subtle touch of Father Gabriel clutching his bible, then quickly wiping his hands on his pants is great, as he leads Negan to ‘pay [his] respects’ at a false grave for Maggie. Every Walking Dead fan has been waiting for this moment for the past two years; the moment where Father Gabriel finally comes into his own.
‘Service’ is undoubtedly the best episode of the season so far. I’m glad that we have finally returned to Alexandria to witness the fallout of Abraham and Glenn’s deaths, and to see how our usually tough group of survivors deal with their invidious position. With that being said, it’s difficult to watch many of the Alexandrian survivors blame Rick for the position they now find themselves in; a case in point being Spencer claiming ‘this is where Rick got us’. Negan is presented as such a force of nature that it seems he would have found Alexandria sooner or later, with or without Rick leading them there – but the tensions about Rick’s leadership and fall open up the prospect of more conflict and juicy plot lines in episodes to come.