I’ve been a loyal and devoted fan of the hit AMC TV series The Walking Dead since the very first episode. I’ve even hosted viewing parties for my friends so we can share the thrills and adventure of the show. The Season Six finale (“Last Day On Earth”) was tough to watch, with its cliffhanger about which of the original group would be killed by the sadistic new character Negan (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but I was eager to see it.
The Season Seven opener was last Sunday, and like many fans of the show, I was eager to find out what would happen in the story and slightly anxious about how the savage Negan would proceed. This time, however, I wasn’t pulled back into the Walking Dead universe. I was appalled and disgusted, both at the show and at myself for not having the strength to switch channels once it got really horrible.
The episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” was an exercise in unrelenting sadism, with Negan not only reducing group leader Rick (Andrew Lincoln) to despondent, hysterical tears and forcing him to maim his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), but also savagely beating two other long-time characters to death with a barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat—all in graphic, slow motion detail.
And it didn’t stop there, because the approach to storytelling in this opening episode included a confusing narrative timeline and quick dream sequences that created ambiguity as to who had been killed by Negan. This was a manipulative and sadistic method of story-telling that was perhaps perfectly matched to the crescendo of Negan’s rage and animalistic actions, but it was difficult to endure as a viewer and show fan.
As the episode progressed, however, I couldn’t help asking myself, “why am I watching this?” That was a question that proved tough to answer. The show is no longer gripping, thought provoking, or even entertaining. As “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” demonstrated, the writing team has created a sadistic relationship between the show and its apparently masochistic viewers.
I’m opting out.
Any action thriller has an element of voyeurism; think about the way a film like the sly Rear Window requires the viewer to contemplate his or her own voyeuristic role in the story. There comes a point in any story, however, when it’s time to stop and ask whether or not you want to revel in the sordidness of being a voyeur, or whether you would do better to spend your time on something else.
Modern media keeps pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable to portray on screen, whether it’s graphic sex or graphic violence. It’s difficult to imagine how much further shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, or Girls can go to tease and taunt us, given how extreme they have already become.
In shows from the early years of television, for example, the scene would change as soon as the couple walked into the bedroom. By the 1970s and 1980s, the camera was following them into the bedroom as they shed clothes or helped each other undress while laying on the bed. By the twenty-first century, it seems like the camera is never kicked out of the bedroom.
The same holds true for the portrayal of violence on screen. Where once characters were killed off camera, today they are torn apart savagely after being horribly tortured in Technicolor detail. The improvements in makeup, prosthetic effects, and computer graphics mean nothing is left to the imagination. There’s even a sub-genre of horror movies known as “torture porn” built around these hyper-realistic depictions of violence.
Which brings us back to The Walking Dead. Yes, it’s a show about a group of people trying to survive both the zombie apocalypse and the savagery of other people in a world without laws. But the core question still remains: Is it fun to watch? Is it a good use of my time? Is it entertaining?
Unfortunately, with the storytelling, character violence, and unrelieved sadism of the Season Seven opener, the answer for me as well as for many other viewers is a resounding “No.”