WTF TWD?: AMC’s Hit Series Takes a Dark(er) Turn

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Photo Credit – The Walking Dead

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.

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Photo Credit – The Walking Dead

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.

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Photo Credit – The Walking Dead

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 seeIt 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?    

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WTF TWD?: AMC’s Hit Series Takes a Dark(er) Turn

12 thoughts on “WTF TWD?: AMC’s Hit Series Takes a Dark(er) Turn

  1. Pablo Bueno Mendoza says:

    Glenn’s murder by Negan was expected by those who have read the comic. I gave up on TWD during the fifth season. The increasing use of violence on Rick’s part made me lose interest. For another perspective, you should read Angry Asian Man’s piece on the murder of Glen. From the perspective of Asian American social justice, we just lost the only Asian American on American Television who was not a foreign alien.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I did hear that about the comic books – after I saw the episode, however. As far as you quitting TWD, you quit just in time. Rick becomes increasingly more violent and aggressive with less provoking or justification. The Angry Asian Man piece sounds compelling. I thought Glenn was hands-down one of the best characters on the show. I’ll have to check the piece out.

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  2. While the tv series has departed quite a bit from the comics, Glenn was the one that Negan killed in the books, and his death was a turning point in the series. It would have been a cop out to keep him alive, despite him being a fan favorite. But…it did not have to be shown in such a graphic manner. So not necessary!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I just saw your comment Jeff. I must have missed it when you posted. Yes, I did know that. There’s a dark, twisted side of me that wants to stick with it, but I’m no longer so sure that it’s worth my time.

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  3. Walker says:

    I too found Sunday’s episode to be graphic, but now, after thinking about it for a while, I can defend Kirkman and Nicotero’s decisions in regards to the gore enough to play devil’s advocate. The purpose of this episode is to break Rick, to instill a fear of Negan to both Rick’s group and the audience and to show how powerful and downright psychotic Negan is.
    The fact that the episode continues to become more grotesque to a point that people consider turning off the TV and never watching the show again shows how strong Rick is. After Abraham dies, Rick looks Negan in the eye and says “I will kill you.” Whereas I would have given Negan “the look” shortly after Abraham’s first blow, Rick holds on to hope until Negan makes him pick up the axe to injure Carl. Six seasons have been spent building up Rick as this Goliath that will do anything for his people, and in one episode we have seen his demise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Verrrry interesting point. It’s certainly true that we haven’t seen anything break Rick up until this point, which gives the plot an unusual turn. I think as long as there’s a purpose to their writing, I can partially get behind it, and what you suggest makes sense. I also agree that Rick takes a shockingly long time to break. I still wonder if they had to show such graphic images of Glenn to achieve their purpose. Again, I’m not “morally” against it. However, it might just be too much for me, and I imagine it’s more than a lot of viewers were bargaining for.

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  4. […] But the introduction of Negan wasn’t okay.  I felt a tonal shift.  Watching the premiere felt like sadism for the sake of sadism.  I agree with the others who have called it torture porn.  To taunt a dying man as his head was split open, his eye dangling just isn’t okay with me.  Last season we saw Rick and company embrace the role of villains themselves, killing Saviors in their beds as opposed to helping farm for food from Hilltop.  I wasn’t okay with that.  Then, in the finale, Morgan casually throws his nonviolent approach away for a contrived plot point.  I wasn’t okay with that either.  Now, Season Seven begins and it’s all about Negan and his bat.  On Twitter, The Walking Dead hashtag is still paired with the bat emoji.  All the advertisements over the summer focused on Negan, his bat, and who he killed.  It was clearly the killer and the killing that’s become the star.  I felt sad.  I felt sick.  As I’ve said above, in watching something I give my mental assent to it.  And I can’t, in good conscience, give my mental assent to this sort of show anymore.  There are better things to do with my Sunday nights.  In fact, I’ve finally started watching Luke Cage on Netflix instead!  If you’re interested, Kalie’s written a far more thoughtful reflection on The Walking Dead here. […]

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  5. Good post. I wrote my own post about this but I came to much the same conclusion. I’m done. It was torture porn and unnecessary. The show pretends it’s pushing boundaries but it’s not. If it had it would have followed the comic and killed Judith in crossfire.

    You don’t need that level of violence to ‘break someone’. It’s lazy story telling and crassly manipulative

    Liked by 1 person

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