The premiere of Season 7 of The Walking Dead TV show on AMC has evoked some extreme reactions, as social media exploded Sunday night and into Monday with people talking about not just what happened, but how vividly and gruesomely it was depicted. I spent a good chunk of the day Monday discussing the episode with some colleagues at work, and I also spent some time actively not discussing it in front of others who hadn’t had a chance to see it. In that spirit, I should note there will be some spoilers in this essay, but they’re all contained after the front-page break. Please consider this fair warning for anyone who hasn’t viewed the episode in question — or even for those who might be way behind on their reading of the original comic-book incarnation of The Walking Dead or viewing of past seasons. Also, there are a couple of images (and some language) found after the break that will definitely prove to be too intense for some…
There have been past episodes of TWD that bothered me, but I applauded them as riveting and well-crafted television. “The Grove” from Season 4 depicted how the zombie apocalypse had twisted and broken two young girls, left in the care in central characters Carol and Tyreese. One of the girls kills her sister, confident she’ll come back to life, and Carol decides to the only way to protect others is to kill her. It was a heart-wrenching episode, but it was powerful and well written. I felt it should have merited the show’s first non-FX-related Emmy nominations, but that didn’t come to pass. In “Not Tomorrow Yet,” an episode that aired last season, the protagonists infiltrate an enemy stronghold, killing indiscriminately even before they were attacked. It was pre-emptive and brutal. On Facebook that night, I wrote, “Tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead was upsetting. My face is flush, and I’m bothered by what happened, by what the characters did. It’s powerful storytelling, daring even, especially for TV. Many will disagree, I’m sure, but I think the audience was meant to be put off, meant to be shocked. It wasn’t gratuitous. It was logical. Ugly, yes, but it made sense in the context of the current plot and the series as a whole.” I stand by those comments.
But last night, in “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” I felt differently. The story and visuals were visceral. Cruel and horrific. I knew some of what was coming thanks to having read the original source material, but some of it I didn’t, either because it was new or my memory isn’t what it once was.
The Season 7 premiere was a horrible misstep, because the producers and writers went too far. Mainly, though, the problem was that they’ve adapted material for live-action television that doesn’t work in that medium.
Glenn Rhee, a central character in The Walking Dead from the start, both in comic-book and TV form, met his first end in the comics series in issue #100. Artist Charlie Adlard’s depiction of the violence the villainous Negan visits upon the loyal and ethically centered Glenn was surprisingly detailed, overt and gory. The artist presented an unflinching look of brutality that spotlighted both the fragility and resilience of the human body. It was easy to see at the time it was his rendition of Glenn’s eye popped out of its socket as the most shocking and representative element of that ugly moment. It was a powerfully painful moment, but it was still a drawing, unreal. Sunday night’s televised adaptation of that moment was incredibly convincing and real. Honestly, I felt sick to my stomach watching actor Steven Yeun recreate that moment with some meticulously designed makeup and prosthetics. And this is coming from a guy who, as a court reporter, once watching a crime-scene video in a murder trial that depicted a real decapitated body and the severed head in a sack. The fiction from Sunday night was more disturbing than that ugly reality, at least for me.
But that death wasn’t the only upsetting and unnecessary horror in the premiere. Negan’s psychological torture of Rick Grimes, forcing him into an impossible choice between mutilating his own son and prompting the deaths of his entire group, was disturbing, and not in a way that contributed significantly to the plot or characterization. It was cruel, not just to the characters but to the audience as well. And I think I know why. Again, it’s a matter of the TV show being too realistic as compared to the source material from which it draws.
In the comics, Negan is almost a cartoony figure. With his wide eyes, simple grin and ridiculous overuse of the term “fuck,” he’s a darkly ludicrous, extreme figure in the story. There are times when he’s been portrayed with certain depth, but for the most part, devious and extreme nature separated him from the rest of the characters in the comic. He’s a monster, yes, but not an entirely believable one. And that contributed to his popularity in the comic series, no doubt. Negan is something of a Deadpool in the Walker-verse.
But on TV, he’s human. He’s intense and calculating. He’s harsh, but he’s not so over-the-top so as to seem cartoonish. Jeffrey Dean Morgan embraces the role as maniacal malevolence. He relishes ever cruel taunt, every violent gesture. And he doesn’t say “Fuck.” Not once. Some other choice, particularly unpleasant swears also populate his speech. He can’t use those profane terms on TV. Some other curse words are allowed on AMC, but there’s nary an F-bomb to be found. And Comic Book Negan’s foul mouth somehow makes his hideous actions more palatable. He’s not believable as a threat in the real world. He’s entertaining and dramatic, but not plausible. But TV Negan is flesh and blood, not paper and ink. He was a villain that was never meant to step beyond the two dimensions of a comic book.
Throngs of viewers have announced they’re quitting the show after witnessing the horrors of which TV Negan is capable. They won’t, certainly not in the numbers they claim. The Walking Dead‘s reign of the top of TV isn’t in peril — at least not based on a single episode. TWD has had disappointing and even off-putting episodes before, and they haven’t broken the brand. But the writers and producers will need to be careful as they craft as the rest of the season, bringing balance to the ugliness and gratuitous events of Sunday night. Believing it’s what the audience wants, the producers likely feel the pressure to offer larger threats, more shocking developments as time goes on. It could threaten to take its toll on the audience, though, because the audience doesn’t really want something bigger, badder and bloodier with each passing season. It hungers for a balance — between hope and horror, between togetherness and tragedy, between community and combat. Those responsible for the show have demonstrated they can achieve that balance; hopefully, they haven’t forgotten do so this year.
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