‘The Walking Dead’ sets stage for war in tense season finale

(CNN)The following contains spoilers about “The Walking Dead’s” Season 7 finale.

There was, finally, something cathartic about seeing Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the coalition he had painstakingly, gradually assembled fight back against the brutal Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors. Not that the battle really settled anything, since Negan managed to escape, rallying his massive army at the end by announcing, “We are going to war!”
Since Negan first made his presence felt on the show — in a stomach-turning sequence that milked his cheerful sadism for all it was worth — AMC’s signature hit has both been significantly altered and lost a substantial portion of its audience. While previous years were built around carefully constructed arcs as the central group sought elusive refuge in one location or another, Negan’s vise-like hold on the disjointed communities under his thumb cast a very long shadow, even during those stretches where the charismatic Morgan wasn’t on screen.
    The finale, in a way, felt like an effort not just to spin the show into a state of open warfare — with all the tactical aspects that entails — but also to address some of the concerns voiced about its dramatic drift. Perhaps that’s why there were so many different flourishes upon which to chew, from Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) engaging in her noble sacrifice to an unexpected betrayal to an old-fashioned last-minute rescue, sending Negan and his band into uncharacteristic retreat.
    Having been pretty overtly emasculated by Negan in their early encounters, Rick was also given an opportunity to exhibit some of his trademark grit, telling his nemesis yet again that he would eventually kill him, despite being captured and beaten.
    The writers even set aside what amounted to a calming moment near the close to acknowledge the various losses and provide the characters a momentary respite. Mercifully, they also spared die-hard fans from sweating out, say, who was on the wrong end of Negan’s bat until October.
    That chance to inhale felt welcome, especially if the coming season is indeed going to be one long martial exercise, in a show that has long since moved beyond fear of zombies to the horrors people will inflict upon each other when not bound by laws. (Notably, except for the Sasha interlude, “walkers” were an afterthought in this latest episode.)
    The challenge facing “The Walking Dead” going forward is how to balance the more epic qualities the current storyline augurs without losing sight of the core characters. In that respect, Sunday’s finale can be viewed as a tentative step in the right direction — a victory, however modest, for a series whose biggest and best days appear well behind it.

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