Why the hell was this episode 90 minutes long? Why was a 90-minute episode devoted almost wholly to reinforcing a point The Walking Dead already ate up a full hour making? Why is the show pitting Negan and Rick against one another so soon after their last encounter? Why did they think we’d care if Olivia died? These and more questions will never be answered, save by the stark fact that when you have a hit television program, but almost nothing left in the creative tank, you end up chasing your tail.
I thought that it had been well established that Negan had broken Rick in the season premiere, but nope, “Service” is here to drill that in even further. There’s a seed of a good idea here — the Saviors casually invading Alexandria to pillage guns, mattresses, medicine, and whatnot brings up solid opportunities for different character combinations. But instead, the focus remains with Negan and Rick, whose interactions eventually devolve into repeated refrains of “Where are the guns?” and “I don’t know where the guns are!” This infects the rest of the cast, and an aggravating block of this episode consists of them spewing out mind-fryingly repetitive queries and statements about GUNS. It’s a new dialog low for a series that wasn’t keeping David Milch up at night to begin with.
The way The Walking Dead allocates its screen time is baffling. With Rick and Negan on the center stage, others sort of pop in and out, like Gabriel trying his best to make an encouraging speech in a scene with does nothing but make the hour and a half sag worse. There’s one shot in “Service” — a rare “artful” one for the show — which emphasizes the focus. When Rick and Olivia lead the Saviors into the armory, we see everything in a wide shot, with the characters framed through a doorway. We’re removed from the action, and watch as everyone else besides Rick and Negan are left alone in the room. The shot continues as they talk. This is their story, and again, there’s almost something thematically interesting in Rick having to sell this new paradigm to his people while barely keeping his head down, lest it get Lucille’d.
But that tension wheezes away like a sigh into this episode’s expansive length.
Then there are Michonne and Rosita, who seemingly were plucked at random to have their own (barely developed) subplots in the episode. This really does not help the feeling that many of these characters are simply milling about waiting to get bitten or murdered. That being said, Rosita gets a nice action beat (capable women wielding knives are always a plus in my book), and Danai Gurira gets to flex her chops for the first time in a while. So that’s cool.
I will posit that The Walking Dead would be a brisk, well-paced show if it collapsed every two episodes or so into one. The important bits of this season’s premiere (so about five minutes’ worth of it) could have / should have been the ending of last season. The salient scenes from “The Cell” would probably fit fine in a future episode to heavily focus on the Saviors. And “Service” would probably be much improved by being combined with next week’s episode (and as an hour-long one, mind you). There’s no slow-burn conflict brewing here; half of this half-season has already gone by, and the show only now feels like it’s finished setting up everything important for the season’s arc. And even then, there are loose ends twisting in the wind whatever happened to Tara and Heath?
And what is the point of all this dead air? A whole lot of the filler has been put forth in the service of convincing the audience that Negan is a truly unprecedented threat to the group. But if anything, this is less believable the harder the show tries to push it. There is nothing to Negan as a character. Nothing. His psychopath Nelson Muntz act grew tiresome halfway through his introductory scene, but he just keeps talking. And talking. And talking. His whole menace comes from the army behind him, but that means he could be any kind of person and the effect would be the same. That’s not a sign of good writing. Bigger is not automatically better — or scarier, in this case.
Ultimately, selling the Saviors as the paramount danger of The Walking Dead is an unwinnable proposition. We already know this isn’t the end for Rick and co. — the show’s been renewed for another season. I mean, maybe they’ll all be massacred midway through the next episode and the series will focus on an entirely new cast moving forward. That’d certainly set social media and the think pieces humming. But it’d also be pointless. As a fan of survival stories, civilization-building stories, and action TV, I really, truly want to imagine somewhere new this show could go, but I have trouble projecting it going to any such places.