“The Walking Dead” might be the only show I watch in which my reaction to each episode is apt to wander afterward. Every other series I follow, I know what I think about it once the hour’s over. With TWD, sometimes I reconsider because I often can’t tell if there’s more or less to what I just saw than meets the eye. Was last night’s episode “torture porn”? Or was it more meaningful than that?
The beatings of Abraham and Glenn must have been one of the five most gruesome things ever shown on American television, and I don’t want to know what the other four were. Neither killing was surprising: Abraham was always a second-tier character, which made him more expendable in a big cliffhanger payoff like this, and Glenn was killed by Negan in the analog to this scene in the comics. What was surprising was how graphic the killings were — and, especially in Glenn’s case, how abrupt it was. I was expecting some build-up where Negan turned to Glenn, Maggie began shrieking, Glenn uttered some heroic last words, and so forth. And surely they wouldn’t linger on his death. I assumed there’d be one solid whack to the head on camera, just to let us know it’s really happening at last, followed by schmaltzy music, the requisite shots of Maggie crying, and a few seconds of implied action with the camera trained on Negan as he brings the bat down repeatedly. One of the problems of this show is how aggressively it protects its fan favorites even though, realistically, they should all be dying off semi-regularly through happenstance in a world as brutal as the zombie apocalypse. The great dumpster fake-out last season is the most notorious example. Daryl punching Negan in the face last night should have led to him being dismembered on the spot given Negan’s urgency to show Rick’s gang that no resistance will be tolerated. Instead Daryl got to live because he’s Daryl and that’s just how it goes for the fans’ heartthrob. Surely Glenn would be given a send-off befitting his own stature as a hero. Nothing too graphic, nothing too disrespectful. A departure as momentous as his required some respect.
But they went the other way on us. There was no warning when Negan turned and whacked Glenn; I don’t think Glenn had said a word to that point in the episode, in fact. The following shot, with his eye almost popped out, was the single most disgusting thing aired to date on a show known for gore, topped a few seconds later by a full-on view of his fingers twitching on either side of the paste that used to be his head. The shock wasn’t just the virtuoso FX, it was how completely the show repudiated its usual practice of protecting its favorites. They made Glenn’s death pornographically violent and hyper-realistic; even though the show is known for gore, typically it’s cartoon gore a la that noose-zombie’s head popping off last night when Rick leaped onto his body. Offhand I can’t think of another series that’s dispatched a major character as brutally as Glenn was. It’d be like Khan opening season two of “Star Trek” by suddenly blowing Bones’s head off and the camera lingering on the mess. And this is why I’m stuck on whether it was torture porn or not. The gore seemed wildly gratuitous at first — but was it? They wanted to set the stage for this season by showing as memorably as they could how vicious Negan is, and man, did they ever succeed. And I suspect they also wanted to atone for last season’s lame fake cliffhanger by the dumpster, where Glenn miraculously cheated death. The impression left by that sequence was that the show would never treat one of its heroes ignominiously. If Glenn or someone of his rank had to die, he would die sentimentally and epically. Last night’s scene took a baseball bat to sentimentalism and cartoon violence. It was, if anything, too real. Doesn’t this show have a speed between “boring” and “psychological trauma”?
I can forgive them one pornographically violent scene that expunged some of the show’s lamer dramatic excesses, but my worry is that this is going to be the new norm with Negan now in command and that the show really is going to devolve into torture porn. Sonny Bunch saluted TWD (sort of) in a piece this morning for effectively making its viewers feel what it’s like to live through the zombie nightmare, “break[ing] its audience’s spirit and get[ting] it to emotionally identify with people living through an interminable apocalypse.” I don’t know. I think the show has always effectively imparted what it would be like — through tedium, of which there would be copious amounts in a land with no electricity and an easily outwitted predator species. But yes, there’s a real risk that as the audience begins to go numb at the prospect of another season-long journey to nowhere as the Grimes Gang chafes under the rule of another Governor-esque supervillain, the writers will decide that the only way to keep things lively is with more virtuoso torture-porn scenes, until finally we’re basically watching a “Saw” movie with zombies. You just know little Carl’s going to lose that left arm before too much longer.