“What did you expect?” is an annoying defense that I would not typically put forward, but where it concerns the season premiere of The Walking Dead, “What did you expect?” The Walking Dead essentially delivered what it had been promising for months: A violent, disturbing, grim, and devastating episode that saw not one, but two characters bashed to death with a baseball bat. Was it gruesome? Absolutely. Did it go too far? That depends, I think, on what viewers were expecting from the season premiere.
Fanatics of The Walking Dead, I suspect, were not all that shocked by the events of the episode. Sad? Sure. Grief-stricken? Probably. But shocked by the level of violence? This is a television show in which a kid shot his mother to death after she gave birth to his little sister. This is a show in which Carol shot a teenage girl in the back of the head because she’d lost her marbles. This is a show in which Noah had his flesh ripped from his face by zombies while Glenn looked on less than a foot away, horrified. This is a show in which cannibals cut off Bob’s leg and ate it, in which Rick killed a man by ripping his neck open with his teeth, and in which walkers tore Nicholas apart while he was on top of Glenn. I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of brutal, bloody zombie deaths.
The Walking Dead is not for the squeamish, but it never has been. I’m not suggesting that the series is not rife with empty, sadistic violence, but I am saying that the season seven premiere was not an aberration. The stakes were higher, the characters more beloved, and the sequence was drawn out for a ridiculous amount of time (12 minutes from the time Negan was introduced until the credits rolled in the seasons six finale, plus 16 more minutes before Abraham was killed in the seventh season premiere, plus the 7 months in between), but what happened wasn’t new. In fact, we saw in photographs what Negan was capable of last season, and what happened to Glenn and Abraham was consistent with those photographs.
I have seen on social media and in the coverage of other critics an enormous amount of backlash over the finale, and a number of people have angrily called it quits on the series. But to me, this is like the Republican politicians who withdrew their endorsements of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape as though they didn’t know what the GOP candidate was all about for the last 16 months. Viewers stuck with the show when Glenn and Rick killed people in their sleep. They were fine with it when Carol burned two people alive. When a little kid was ravaged by zombies last season, that was OK. When the Governor decapitated Hershel, that was fine. But when Negan did exactly what the show has been promising for the last seven months, suddenly that was a bridge too far?
I don’t want to turn this into a political post, but there’s another echo of the Republican party here. Just as the GOP shouldn’t have been surprised that Donald Trump became their nominee after years of pushing the birther issue, The Walking Dead fans shouldn’t have been that surprised by the level of violence in this episode after bloodthirsty fans spent the last year demanding that the series brutally sacrifice a character. Anyone who knew anything about The Walking Dead knew that Glenn died in this exact same fashion on the graphic novels. You know what? Glenn’s eyeball popped out in the comics, too.
There are a number of legitimate complaints viewers could’ve had over the season seven premiere — it forsook character work for violence; Negan’s extended mindf*ck with Rick robbed us of our opportunity to grieve over the loss of Abe and Glenn; and the way the episode glorified its sadistic villain was kind of gross — but expressing shock over the level of violence in this episode seems incongruous with a fandom that complained for six months because Morgan stopped being a killing machine, or went apesh*t because AMC bleeped an F-bomb in the fifth season finale. I might understand why a casual viewer who checked in to watch a huge television moment might have been appalled by the episode, but lots of viewers who watched this series consistently for the last seven years not only had to know what to expect, they demanded it.
As for complaints about the series’ wallowing in misery porn by putting Rick Grimes through a violent, terrifying psychological wringer, I can understand that gripe. Personally, I thought it served the story it was trying to tell. Look: Rick is a guy who killed his best friend, who lost his wife, who thought he lost his newborn daughter, who has seen a number of his closest friends brutally beaten and killed, and who witnessed his son get shot in the eye. Rick Grimes bounced back from all of those tragedies. For seven seasons, he has been indefatigable. He would’ve bounced back from the deaths of Glenn and Abe, too. Negan had to go further, otherwise Rick would have regrouped, rallied the troops and devised a plan to enact his revenge. Negan had to break his spirit completely. In forcing Rick to come to the brink of chopping off his own son’s arm, Negan accomplished that. He rendered Rick Grimes moot. He made Rick Grimes wish that he was no longer alive. Mission accomplished.
People — including Greg Nicotero — are trying to draw comparisons between the violence in The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and that comparison is not likely to do any favors for TWD. Game of Thrones is a better show, full stop, and the Red Wedding was a more effective moment than Glenn’s death, but what Ramsay Bolton put Theon Greyjoy through over the course of multiple seasons was much worse than what Rick had to suffer here. I won’t recount it for those who haven’t watched Game of Thrones, but Ramsay not only has more of a sadistic streak than Negan, but his sadism was more pointless and nonsensical. At least with Negan it served a purpose: To instill fear and command control. Ramsay just tortured for kicks.
The Walking Dead season premiere left me sick to my stomach. I was devastated, less over Glenn’s death and more over Maggie’s reaction to it. I thought it was a brutal episode, but no more so than the “Opie” episode in Sons of Anarchy and less so than the SoA episode with Tig’s daughter (SoA fans know what I’m talking about). Maybe I wasn’t disappointed in the season premiere because I don’t have the expectations that others have for the series. To me, The Walking Dead is a well-acted horror film with slightly more compelling characters. Indeed, the biggest difference between The Walking Dead and a typical R-rated zombie movie is that we actually feel something for the characters when they die because we have often spent years with them. I hardly consider that a strike against the Robert Kirkman series.
There may be legitimate reasons to quit The Walking Dead — chief among them the way the show needlessly toyed with viewers last year. The level of brutality in the season premiere, however, seems almost like an arbitrary line. Indeed, if viewers didn’t know exactly what to expect from the season premiere, then they haven’t been paying attention for the last seven years.