If I were having a romantic conversation with The Walking Dead, I’d probably coo, “You had me at ‘bathing in zombie guts.’” Remember that early episode of The Walking Dead in which the characters rub zombie guts all over their bodies to mask their human scent and navigate through the ravenous packs of undead? Well, I’m not really saying that’s the moment I fell in love with the show, but it’s the moment that I realized – along with a compelling storyline – that The Walking Dead was willing to cover uncomfortable, even nauseating terrain that most horror – on the Big Screen or the TV – never considers touching. Watching the zombie-guts, season one episode of The Walking Dead is in fact a fond memory. Michael and I sat eagerly in front of the television, ready to binge watch the first five and a half seasons of the show to prepare for the second half of season six, which was set to air in the spring. When the characters lathered themselves in zombie guts like they were taking a shower and basking in aromatic, sudsy soap, Michael started to gag, and gag, and gag. “Honey, shut your eyes!” I exclaimed. “I am,” he yelled, “but I can still hear them!” “Well then, leave the room,” I told him, because I really thought he was going to vomit, and if he vomited on me, well, that might just send me over the edge, and then we’d have a mess on our hands. But he didn’t (leave the room or vomit). And so, we enthusiastically enmeshed ourselves in six more seasons of drama, violence, and unpredictable, unchecked bloodshed. Ahhhh, memories.
So you can conjecture that The Walking Dead sits close to my heart, even though I jumped on the proverbial bandwagon later than your average fan. And as you can imagine, Michael and I were both excited to watch the premiere of Season 7 last night, which would pick up with our band of intrepid, apocalyptic zombie-fighters surrounded by Negan’s gang, facing Negan’s formidable, barbed wire bat named Lucille. Like every fan, we saw Negan mercilessly crack someone over the head during the finale last season, and we waited eagerly for six months to find out who it was. While my interest tapered off as time elapsed, and I sort of wished they’d just told me who the victim was, I was rife with anticipation while sitting in front of the television last night, waiting for the premiere to air. (Michael, my once-gagging boyfriend, was pacing around the room claiming that this was all too much for him to handle. This is his typical situation when we watch the Walking Dead, and one might wonder what he gains by thrusting himself headlong into the show’s angst when it affects him so much, but to this point he’s done it, and with enthusiasm).
Of course, there will be spoilers in my description of my reaction to the show. I felt remarkably uncomfortable as I sat there, watching – for the second time – Negan play a disorganized game of eeny-meeny-miny-mo with his venerated bat, in an effort to determine who he was going to kill. And to be sure, I was a bit miffed that the show delayed the revealing of the unfortunate individual(s), though I found the typical Walking Dead flashback strategy effective. I was uncomfortable when Negan lowered his bat on Abraham’s head, but more uncomfortable with the extended, brutal coverage of Negan bashing in Abraham’s skull. Thankfully, this part of the show was over quickly, and ultimately – at that point – part of me was surprised that Abraham was the chosen victim. Though he’s certainly an important character, he’s not as central as some of the earlier cast members, and I was at least half-expecting the script-writers to make a bigger move with this plot line. To me it seemed like they’d taken the “safe” route by having Abraham die instead of a more established character, and at the risk of sounding macabre, I sort of disagreed with their decision.
If you’re still reading at this point, I have to assume you’ve either seen the episode, don’t intend to see the episode, or enjoy spoilers. In any case, I was situated comfortably back into a pocket of emotional and mental calm after this scene ended. Of course, I was being naïve, because it’s The Walking Dead, and the show always does something unexpected. Of course it would venture to darker territory, for mere shock value, in the season premiere. But I honestly didn’t expect Negan – after Daryl tried to break loose and stop him from dangling the bloody bat in Rosita’s face – to turn around and take his bat to Glenn’s skull. Though I was always highly skeptical that Daryl would die – he’s virtually indispensable to the success of the show and has a throng of both young and middle-aged female admirers – at that point, I was partially anticipating Negan to kill Daryl. And that would have sucked. But when he took the bat to Glenn’s skull, something in me just sunk. And as I watched Maggie – suffering, sick and in pain with a possible miscarriage – collapse into tears, something in me sunk further. I didn’t have time to reflect on these feelings as they were occurring, because everything happened so quickly. But suffice it to say, in retrospect, I think I was really, really bummed.
So the show would have shocked and shaken me had it stopped there and provoked no more emotional turmoil for the evening. But after Negan lowers his bat, the screen pans to Glenn, and rests on his bloody head and his partially-crushed skull. He’s leaning forward a little bit, trying to speak, as one of his eyes is popping out and Maggie is crying. If you’re not familiar with the show, this is a character to whom people are likely to be strongly emotionally connected. Negan lowers the bat a few more times, and the camera shows the insides of Glenn’s head, splayed out on the ground, while his headless body spasms and moves, pressed against the pavement. If you’ve seen the footage already, I apologize for dredging up unpleasant memories. If you haven’t, I hope that description didn’t create too strong of a mental image. It was at this point that I turned to Michael and said “I’m done with this show.”
Of course, I blog about horror as a time-consuming side-hobby when I should be reading for my PhD in literature, so I’m among the last people in cyberspace (I would think) to offer strong moral objections to violence. I’ve never liked horror movies that employ cliché, campy violence for violence’s sake, at the expense of any tangible plot or character development, but I’m completely open to, and accepting of, gore in movies. I don’t think violence makes our youth more violent (although I wouldn’t show Halloween to a five-year-old) and I was brought up with parents who let me watch violent horror movies at a relatively young age (maybe when I was about 12). I don’t feel I was any worse for it, and any young adult troubles I experienced had many traceable origins, none of which were cinematic violence. My critique, then, is not an argument in the typical sense. I’m not saying what the writers did was inherently “wrong” or that there is a “wrong” and “right” in this case. I’m just echoing some of the sentiment I’ve seen – from TWD viewers online and offline – and describing my own personal feelings. Watching Glenn die the way he did was far more than shocking: it was, to me, deeply unsettling, disturbing, sickening. The amount of emotional discomfort I experienced makes the riveting plot and captivating characters of the show almost seem not worth the trouble. Frankly, I never want to feel that way again.
Which doesn’t mean that I’m arguing “the show’s writers were wrong.” I’m just wondering two things: First, where does the show go from this point forward? It’s highly unlikely that this random act of not just violence, but sickening, deeply disturbing violence, is the last. While I would argue the intrigue of The Walking Dead rests largely on a fantastic script with sympathetic, complex characters, the show prides itself on what I mentioned before – going where most horror doesn’t go, and trying to shock the viewer. One gets the sense that the writers felt they had to “give us” something really cataclysmic after making us wait a half a year to discover the victim of Negan’s bat. Which is fine. The fact that Glenn dies is disturbing enough. But the fact that the writers needed to show us his dismembered skull for shock value makes me wonder what it will be like to experience Season 7 of The Walking Dead, should I change my mind and choose to watch it. What happens when a show continues to “one up” itself in the gore and chaotic bloodshed category? At some point, does not “the grotesque” eclipse the artistry of the plot and consume most of what is excellent about the show? I’m not saying this will happen, but it could, and as I’ve already emphasized, I don’t want to sit through another scene like the one I witnessed last night, much less a worse one.
The second thing I wonder is what this episode will do (if anything) to the show’s fan base. Michael and I talked about dropping the show. His friend Jeff, a long-time fan, turned it off after Glenn’s brutal death and, to my knowledge, doesn’t plan on turning it back on. And more than one of my Facebook friends suggested that they might not be able to handle the show anymore. So one has to wonder: did the writers foresee this reaction, but (either rightly or hubristically) count on their talent to draw the dissenting fans back in after the initial shock of the episode wore off? Is it possible that this writing decision changes – if not dramatically lessens – The Walking Dead fan base? I in no way suggest that the show’s cancellation is imminent, but I wonder if it will lose popularity, or – more frighteningly still – will change what we expect from pop culture, or, at least, horror in pop culture, and establish a horrendously grotesque “new normal.” There’s just something unsettling about watching the intricate details of depraved, disgusting acts for entertainment. I think The Walking Dead crossed a line. To what extent will the fan base agree?
Ultimately, I’m faced with a difficult decision: Do I continue to watch the show? Although moral opposition wouldn’t make me stop watching it, I wonder – if last night’s episode predicts the path the show is headed down – if the script will have as much substance, if it will be pleasure-inducing, the way I think art is supposed to be. For, as I’ve argued before, even when we watch the grotesque, there is some delight in the experience, or we wouldn’t watch it. Until, that is, there isn’t – until the delight is consumed by a deeply disturbing side of life that we never sought to experience, especially in a culture that boasts a fine line between life and death because of medical technology and a simultaneous and paradoxical trepidation of that which is sick or dying. And last night’s episode of The Walking Dead showed me an image – though powerfully resonant after I turned off the television – that I did not want to see. It brought me a little too close to death’s inner room.
Luckily, I have a week to decide if I want to put myself through such emotional upheaval again. And the good thing about a television is that you can always turn it off or walk away from it, so I’m never committed to a decision about the show. I’ve been impressed with the show’s brilliant writing and characterization since I started watching it. So I ask myself: do I risk further feelings of disheartening disgust to follow its story? Are the characters really worth it? And right now, I don’t know the answer to that question.
Did you watch the season premiere of The Walking Dead? What was your reaction? Do you think it crossed a line? Will you continue watching the show?