Even though I love the zombie sub-genre of horror, The Walking Dead lost its appeal as a zombie apocalypse survival series early on. The first episode was stellar, but the show quickly drowned in melodrama with too many characters fighting for air time. And yet, I’ve watched almost every episode – mainly in the vain hope that the next episode would somehow amaze me and capitalize on the show’s potential. Instead, I get an entire episode of Daryl and Beth having a therapy session in a dilapidated house. The only time the show ever felt interesting was when someone died.
If there’s one thing that the transparent Glenn fake out that happened last season has taught us, it’s that the only substantial draw the show has left is character deaths. The relationships aren’t that interesting. Most of the characters aren’t that interesting. And their actions throughout the series are sometimes baffling. All we’re left with is wondering who might die next and if that character might be one of the mainstays. The problem for the show is that we’ve seen characters die before – the show has copped out on us before (see the Glenn fake out above). The Walking Dead had to do something to up the ante and get some of that sweet, sweet social media buzz going again.
What was the show’s solution? Misery. Just unrelenting misery.
I was actually fine with Abraham dying. Despite what the show tried to build around him with Sasha, Rosita, and Eugene, he always felt like a filler character who was destined to one-dimensionally get things done in place of Rick whenever the writers needed Rick to do something non-actiony to help round out his character.
Glenn’s death was where the episode – and I fear the entire season, if not the rest of the series – went wrong. Glenn dying was acceptable, especially since it is aligned with the comics, but it was probably the most gruesome thing I’ve seen on television. Moreover, the death was protracted and the camera stayed on it unflinchingly until the end. Even after it was over and Glenn’s head was just a mound of beef and bone, the show thought we should have one more shot of Glenn’s body with his fingers twitching, grasping at the last remnants of his life. If we compare the scene to the comics, then we see that it was almost a shot for shot adaptation:
The question is, did it need to be? The television show has always taken liberties with the comic book storyline. Why not give Glenn a decent farewell? Or at the very least spare us the mangled face with eyeball popping out and impotent crying of his wife’s name? We already see the unbelievable agony on everyone’s faces. We got the message. Unfortunately, tasteful framing was too much to hope for. To take the violence out of frame wouldn’t get people talking about the show the next day. It wouldn’t get me writing this article. So, instead, we get something very close to torture porn.
From a writing perspective, dealing with a long-running show that has a group of people who have survived the worst of human kind, like racists, sadists, and cannibals, I understand the urge to present a villain who is more villainous than all the villains in the history of villainy. So I can accept an entire episode where a character like Negan kills a hero and does other sadistic things to prove and exert his power. There is a point, however, where it’s just too much – too much to watch and too much to expect the heroes to endure. And that’s when the episode rang false for me.
Rick’s group was not slapped together yesterday. Most of them have been with the show for several seasons, and we’ve watched them risk their lives for each other – even willingly face situations they couldn’t be sure they would survive – if it meant protecting each other. There always seemed to be an unstated “you go, we go” pact among the group. So to see the group watch in anguish as their friend is beaten to death and only Daryl do something about it felt like the show was purposefully making the characters act uncharacteristically just to manipulate the audience into feeling helpless. As such, the season premiere of The Walking Dead was as close to watching torture for entertainment as any show has ever gotten. It was oppressive to watch.
Ultimately, what bothers me the most about the episode is how hopeless it was. Rick and company have been in dire circumstances before. They have been grievously injured. They have lost people. They have been helpless, but they were never hopeless. I recall when the the group was captured at Terminus and thrown into a boxcar. Rick turns to the group and defiantly states, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” That’s all missing from Sunday’s episode. I had hoped to see a glimmer of fire in Rick’s eyes at the end, but it never came. Instead, he’s just a broken man with no answers.
I didn’t keep up with the comics, so maybe this is all aligned with the source material and this is all fan service. Maybe pure and unabated suffering is all that the writers can come up with. Whatever it is, the show has finally crossed into a territory where I don’t want to watch anymore.