Los Angeles (CNN)The following contains spoilers from "The Walking Dead" midseason finale.
The arrival of Negan was billed as a game-changer for "The Walking Dead." Yet as good as Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been in the role, his character has wound up holding the entire show hostage.
Much has been written about why the AMC program's ratings have rather abruptly declined, especially after the initial tune-in to discover who died in last season's cliffhanger. But the midseason finale reinforced the casual sadism that has become so prevalent within this world, to the point where zombie-inflicted deaths -- now few and far between -- would represent something of a relief.
Negan's brutal introduction established just how overwhelming his forces are, which has gradually been reiterated through this flight of episodes. And while several female characters wanted to resist and fight back -- the exception being Carol (Melissa McBride), still operating in Greta Garbo-like "I just want to be left alone" mode -- it took the full arc to bring group leader Rick (Andrew Lincoln) around to that mentality, setting the stage for full-blown war when the series returns in February.
Once again, the writers exhibited fidelity to the comics, with Negan executing Spencer (Austin Nichols) for seeking to betray Rick. And apparently because the show's deaths now come in pairs, that was followed by the arbitrary shooting of Olivia (Ann Mahoney), as if further evidence of Negan's ruthlessness was required.
Looking ahead, there is some promise in uniting the various communities against Negan, as well as seeing the series finally address what has become a major drawback under showrunner Scott M. Gimple by reassembling many key members of the core cast. Those characters have been scattered throughout the season, resulting in another bunch of episodes that focus on only a few at a time.
Obviously, an episodic drama has to find ways to tease out storylines, and "Walking Dead" has done that in part by exploiting the depth of its cast -- which remains formidable even with the recent casualties.
"We're not really together as much as we're used to being together," Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl, said on the companion talk show "Talking Dead," identifying one of the storytelling approaches that has made the series less enjoyable.
Even in diminished form, the series remains a near-unique ratings platform for AMC, reaching so many male viewers that Sunday's 86-minute episode (those "super-sized" chapters being another symbol of the recent excesses) featured an abundance of movie ads intended to reach that audience.
The producers of "The Walking Dead" went out of their way, in Spencer's gruesome demise, to prove the show has plenty of guts. What this season still hasn't earned, creatively speaking, is much glory.