Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the Season 7 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” titled “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.”
It wouldn’t be another big episode of “The Walking Dead” without some controversy.
Social media was rife with criticism Sunday in the wake of the seventh-season premiere that the hit AMC show had simply gone too far in its gory depiction of the long-awaited murders at the hands of new arch-villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). With a bat wrapped in barbed wire, Negan crushed the heads of two key characters to a bloody pulp in a manner so savage that it’s hard to believe the network’s standards-and-practices division allowed the footage to be viewed in primetime on an ad-supported basic-cable channel, including multiple shots of brain matter dripping off the bat and stained on the ground.
The complaints came fast and furious. “It’s increasingly difficult to escape the idea that this is a show that gets off on torturing its audience,” wrote Sam Adams in his recap for Variety.
“I have never felt guilty about watching an episode of TV before, but I feel bad about watching #TheWalkingDead’s torture porn episode,” tweeted Christine Champagne.
But as gratuitous as so many found the violence to be in this episode, what should be apparent to any true “Walking Dead” fan was that it was quite the opposite: a clearly, carefully considered creative choice that made perfect sense in the context of this series.
If you’re just a casual fan, Negan’s attack may have been jaw-dropping. But if you’ve seen every episode of the series since the beginning, you know that the levels of violence on “Walking Dead” have been gradually escalating the entire time. It’s a reflection of the increasing danger Rick and his group of survivors face every day in the post-apocalyptic danger zone that is their lives.
But what needs to be understood to appreciate the daring decision executive producer Scott M. Gimple made to ratchet up the violence Sunday was that it follows a few seasons in which the protagonists have embraced a philosophy that they need to kill with impunity in order to survive. It’s a philosophy that was put into stark relief last season in some great episodes in which Rick and his team savagely murdered many people from Negan’s team in a way that was far from TV’s typical justification of extreme violence: self-defense.
Along the way, “Walking Dead” crew has come across almost untouchable. While a few secondary characters have been struck down, the core group has seemingly floated through battle after battle relatively unscathed. So it came as no surprise that a long-delayed moment of reckoning came at the end of season six as they knelt on the ground under the business end of Negan’s bat.
Were the stakes less high, maybe a cast member could have been killed off with a considerably less grisly bullet to the back of the head. But the whole point of what “Walking Dead” was setting up in this episode was that Rick, his people, and by extension, the audience, needed to have the entire value system by which they’ve lived brought to a screeching halt. And that’s not going to happen by utilizing the same-old techniques; Gimple had to crank up the violence quotient by a quantum leap or else the shock simply wouldn’t register.
The storyline is clearly going in a very different direction this season than in previous ones. Characters who had become invincible and fearless had to be rendered impotent and fearful. Only a bloodbath of massive proportions is going to make such a transformation believable.
For those who swore off the show after being appalled by the season premiere Sunday, here’s some advice: give “The Walking Dead” another chance and stick around for another episode or two to fully appreciate how the bold creative choice Gimple & Co. made was necessary to pave the path for where the story is going next. I don’t know where exactly that is, but I have enough faith after spending years watching this show that what might seem gratuitous today will make more sense in the fullness of time.
And even if you take my advice and still disagree with what “Walking Dead” did, at least give the benefit of the doubt that what might be misinterpreted as depraved pandering on the part of its creative team actually comes from a place of honoring the integrity of the show’s narrative. In the increasingly risk-averse world that is primetime TV, that “Walking Dead” even dared alienate its massive audience with something so controversial should be commended.
Video: “The Walking Dead” actor Michael Cudlitz takes fan questions after shocking premiere: