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It may have been the most brutal hour in television history. After months of speculation, we saw who arch-villain Negan chose to execute from the main cast of The Walking Dead.

Ready?

SPOILER ALERT        

Last chance…

Instead of just one cast member, viewers of the season premiere were stunned to see two go down to the brutal embrace of Negan’s barbed wire baseball bat, affectionately dubbed Lucille, no doubt as a tribute to B.B. King.

First to go was Abraham, the red-headed, tough-talking hombre who has served as Eugene’s guardian and then a stalwart follower over the past few years. Abraham went out as he lived, stoically absorbing the first blow from Negan and spitting out one final, defiant insult before succumbing to a rain of repeated blows that turned his head into red mush.

It was hard to watch, but not unexpected. Yet what happened beyond that was the true shocker.

With everyone reeling from Abraham’s gruesome death, the next – and bigger shock — happened in the next five minutes. That’s when a distraught Daryl rose from his kneeling position and struck a blow on Negan. The punch was barely felt, but it was exactly the wrong move. For Negan, who said the first bit of defiance was “free,” did not give the rest of the group a pass.

Reminding them that he is a man of his word and had warned them of the consequences of resistance, Negan turned on Glenn, bashing him to a pulp. Glenn, too, survived the first blow, managing to mutter to his beloved Maggie that he would find her in whatever afterlife came next. That sent Negan over the cliff, and he made Glenn’s head resemble a strawberry margarita in his frenzy of blows.

Interspersed with the shocking developments of Abraham and Glenn, we saw the final breakdown of Rick’s defiance. Dragged into a Winnebago by Negan, he was driven to a foggy nearby location teeming with walkers. Negan, who earlier teased Rick into attempting to use his ax on him before being backed off at gunpoint, now took the hatchet and tossed it out into the walker area. His instruction?  “Bring me back my ax.”

The nightmarish immersion of Rick into the fog-shrouded search for the ax was temporarily thwarted by the sheer number of walkers in the area. Rick managed to elude them by scrambling onto the top of the Winnebago. There, he sat in stunned stupor, re-living the head-bashing back at the camp. But an impatient Negan began firing his automatic weapon through the Winnebago ceiling, chasing Rick off the vehicle and onto a nearby walker hanging from a bridge. As the walker’s neck stretched and Rick headed back down into the swarm. Negan gave him a fighting chance by picking off a number of walkers with his gun. But Rick had to scramble to finally recover his hatchet.

Having survived, Negan drove them back to the clearing where the others waited. There was one more horror to live. Dissatisfied with Rick’s continued defiance, Negan set up the most brutal final act possible – prompting Rick to chop off the forearm of his son, Carl, using the hatchet. If he refused, the rest of the crew would die from gunfire.

Fortunately, Rick’s near hysteria was exactly the reaction Negan wanted. He stopped the torture and took back the ax. He reminded everyone that they needed to round up tribute, and that he would be back in a week to collect it.  And with that, he shoved Daryl into a van as a hostage, and his army departed, leaving our stunned cast to pick up the emotional and physical pieces.

As Rick departed the scene, a lone walker emerges from the woods and staggers toward him. Rick barely reacts. The walkers are no longer the biggest monsters in the world. He’s now seen what a real monster looks like, and there is no escape from its predations.

Next week: Will the Rick Grimes crew become scavengers for Team Negan? What choice do they have, given that Daryl is in their custody and that they are out-manned and out-gunned?  Maggie is still defiant, but her pregnancy is at a critical stage, and she may not survive. Overall, it was a stunning start to the season, one that ranks as one of the most disturbing segments yet in a series that has constantly upped its shock value.

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