Be warned! This review will cover aspects of the episode. Spoilers will lurk like groaning walkers..
Previously on The Walking Dead... Look, just watch this, okay?
How you respond to tonight's episode most likely depends on what you've wanted from The Walking Dead as it takes ever darker turns. If you've been eagerly anticipating who was on the receiving end of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) baseball bat to the head (you sick puppy, you), you might feel relief that at last we know that it was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and then Glenn (Steven Yeun) – in keeping with the comic book story – who met their fate thanks a combination of wood, barbed wire and brute strength.
But as the series has veered from post-apocalyptic drama where you hoped the characters would find some chance at redemption, even if the possibility of putting civilization back on track remains tantalisingly out of their grip, to something resembling violence and misery porn, the entertainment value has taken a real tumble.
Sure, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of the gang have been in tough situations before. No one can forget the Governor (David Morrissey) or the cannibal gang at Terminus, but now, with the stakes higher than they've ever been, it's starting to feel as though we got our wish for the main characters (particularly lucky escape champ Glenn) to face true jeopardy and we're regretting it.
Morgan's man certainly makes for a compelling, intense and frequently jovial villain, who has clearly been reading from the Khan Noonian Singh Manual Of Bad Behaviour – most of the episode is about how he intends to go on hurting Rick (and company) unless they do what he says. There's even a sequence – ably brought to life by director Greg Nicotero channeling his old boss Frank Darabont's vision of The Mist in a sequence where he drives Rick in the RV to a pack of walkers, throws Grimes' hatchet on the roof and makes him fetch it.
It's hard, though, because the tone this week – from show-runner Scott Gimple's script – is one of such unremitting brutality that you'll find it difficult to figure out how anything positive can counterbalance the blood, loss, fear and depression we're wading through here. And even Negan's demands for Rick to show him the proper level of respect starts to feel repetitive. We get it... he's terrible. And he wants their loyalty, or at least their subservient fear.
There are things to admire about the episode, for sure. Nicotero and his effects team do fine work on the deaths, especially the drawn-out beating of poor old Glenn, which makes this one we wouldn't recommend watching with dinner, not that you should on a regular episode either. Focusing on Rick's haunted eyes across different scenes – as he lies atop the RV surrounded by walkers, or faces up to Negan – is also effective, and let Andrew Lincoln do a lot with very little.
"Very little" is what most of the rest of the cast get to do save for a few moments. There are tense times for Carl (Chandler Riggs) who seems like he might lose an arm at one point before it is revealed that it's just Negan's final little test for Rick. And Lauren Cohan is handed a chance to grieve as Maggie for Glenn before showing some steel in her spine, announcing that she's walking the hospital at Hilltop (she's pregnant, remember, and apparently was in some difficulty but now seems more able to walk) and that everyone else needs to fight Negan. Good luck with that! Daryl, meanwhile, lunges at one point, but is restrained and eventually ends up caged like an animal in the back of Negan's van. But in a moment, like several others in the episode, where Negan comes across as the audience substitute, even he realises he can't kill Mr. Dixon. Must've heard that the fans will riot...
The final scene of the episode actually works better than most of the intensity that precedes it; as our shell-shocked main group pick themselves up and pile back into the RV. There's a moment where Rick spots a walker stumbling out of the trees, attracted by the remains of one of the victims, but simply leaves the creature in the rear view mirror, a healthy bit of symbolism indicating that the walkers truly are no longer the most dangerous thing out there.
Yet for all the little elements in the pro column, The Day Will Come When You Won't Be (sponsored by Very Long Titles Are Us) rarely hits at a level that makes the long wait worthwhile, while the episode keeps such a tight focus on the misfortunes of the main group as to feel as if the show's team is Negan, brutalising our feelings even as they batter the characters. We've followed Rick in particular this far, but his endless series of misjudgments and even his seemingly lunatic bravado towards Negan in the early scenes start to put you off the concept even as you still worry for the future of the group. They will fight back – they have to, that's what they do, and no one wants a story where they're simply another arm of Negan's violent Saviours for the rest of the run – but after one big question of who died was answered, another has been asked: who wants to keep watching?
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9pm on AMC in the States and Mondays at 9pm on Fox.