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The Empty Violence of The Walking Dead

>>> NOT TO BE USED UNTIL 10/24/16 at 1:00 AM EST <<< Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa, Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee - The Walking Dead _ Season 7, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Photo: Gene Page/AMC

If nothing else, the seventh season premiere of The Walking Dead gave audiences a metaphor for the show’s methods: a bat to the head. Whunk! Whunk! Whunk! Splat! Goooosh!

After nearly seven months of waiting, fans finally got to see which beloved cast members would get their brains bashed in by the post-apocalyptic warlord Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the preening thug leader of the Saviors. The unrelenting sadism of this episode was calculated to test audiences’ stamina, somewhat like the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones.

But the stark difference in quality between the two shows can be seen in their treatment of scenes where powerful people torment the powerless. Where Game of Thrones’s Red Wedding episode focused exclusively on the shock and pain of the victims of a massacre and its ramifications for the surviving characters (and packed the entire incident into less than ten minutes of screen time), The Walking Dead made Negan the star of the premiere and turned the whole thing into a prolonged power-trip fantasy, of a type that some viewers (young dudes, mainly) love, especially if they’ve never experienced violence outside of the “cool” context of video games and movies.

The brutality was nearly eroticized, with loving inserts of the villain’s bloody weapon, lingering images of hostages’ tearful, terrified faces and low-angled shots that made Negan loom like a conquering badass hero. Casting the matinee-idol handsome Morgan further glamorizes the character: In the comics he’s drawn more like the meathead ex-teacher and ping-pong coach that he was before the apocalypse, with the sort of bullet head and wrestler’s body that would’ve fattened up on beer and barbecue had the world not gone to hell.

Negan is a crushing bore already  —a bullying chief henchman from an R-rated action flick inexplicably promoted to Big Bad status. Unfortunately, this is a storytelling move typical of The Walking Dead — a fourth-rate zombie movie stretched out over 83 hours that has produced just one halfway interesting antagonist for the heroes during its seven seasons, David Morrissey’s the Governor (Jon Bernthal’s Shane Walsh, an honest-to-goodness character whose complexity is still missed, was ultimately more of an antihero). That most of the characters and situations are drawn from the pages of Robert Kirkman’s comic doesn’t blunt charges of bad faith; like Game of Thrones, a vastly superior (though still problematic) adaptation of existing genre fiction, the show’s producers are free to embellish and change things, but in this particular case they chose not to.

Kudos, I guess, to the series for making us think that a minor, latecomer character, Michael Cudlitz’s Abraham, would be the only character to get pulped, then hewing to the source after all and killing Glenn (Steven Yeun), who miraculously (ridiculously) survived death just recently and is the soon-to-be father of a child with Maggie (Lauren Cohan). But let’s not kid ourselves. This show has always seen its characters as targets in a shooting gallery. The only compelling question is which of them will live or die during any given season, and how gruesome and protracted their death will be, and whether there will be any redeeming nobility to it.

I’ve been writing about this medium for 20 years and watching it for more than 40, and I can’t recall a major TV series marketing cruelty and trauma as cynically, even gleefully, as this AMC saga. The rampage was hyped by a lengthy, thorough ad campaign spotlighting not any regular cast member, but Negan and his weapon. If you lived in a major city during the past seven months, it was impossible to spend a day outdoors without seeing a bus ad or subway poster featuring the grinning Negan and his bat, christened Lucille, after his late wife.

This is revealing: AMC’s marketing department generated suspense by asking who would live and who would die after Negan’s bat-fest, yet the emphasis was not on the potential victim(s), but Morgan’s George Clooney smile and Negan’s substitute phallus. The only restraint the series demonstrated was in declining to write Negan’s sexual taunts from the source into his show dialogue. In the comics, Negan claims to be anti-rape but coerces women into becoming his “brides,” constantly compares his bat to a penis, and fills his threats with talk of rape and sexual terror — he taunts the broken and humiliated Rick Grimes with “I just slid my dick down the back of your throat and you thanked me for it,” and reassures the swordswoman Michonne that he won’t kill her because of the “race card,” but tells her, “There are a lot of things I’d like to do to you, and killing you is at the absolute fucking bottom of that list.” (Who knows, though: Maybe they’re saving the rapist-who-thinks-he’s-not-a-rapist side of Negan for next week or the week after. I wouldn’t put it past them.)

Why do I watch this series, you may rightly ask? These days, I don’t. The Walking Dead is the reigning example of what I call a Bad Relationship Show, taking its audience for granted or treating it like garbage for weeks, then doing or saying something that momentarily makes you think the series is delivering on its promise, only to backslide quickly and become ostentatiously mediocre again. I stuck with it through season four with occasional dips into season five because many colleagues I respect kept insisting, “No, you should watch it, it’s good now,” or “It’s good again” or “They finally figured things out.” Fool me four or five times, shame on me.

Still, I checked back in with Walking Dead again last night because, as a TV critic, I’m expected to have an opinion on the most popular program on cable. Every time I’ve revisited it — for a couple of episodes at a time, to test the pulse, or aortal spray, of the series because my friends and colleagues were excitedly talking about it — I’ve only been reminded of why I stopped watching.

It’s not a matter of the level of violence; that in itself doesn’t bother me. It’s almost never the kind of violence or relative explicitness that turns me against a movie or a television series. It’s always about the worldview of the people presenting it. That’s what’s offensive to me — not the gore, but the sensibility behind it.

Hannibal — one of the bloodiest shows in TV history, and a series I love — enshrouded the entire story in a dreamlike sensibility and created moments of great beauty, terror, and tenderness, so that the show never felt like a litany of viciousness; in fact, most of the time it felt unreal, like a series of paintings come to life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, shows like The Sopranos and The Shield took a blunter approach without losing track of their moral compass, creating an attraction-repulsion effect that made the audience sympathize with casually cruel individuals and then feel horrified for having done so. I don’t see much of that on The Walking Dead, only platitudes about dehumanization and moral choice wrapped around endless, pornographically explicit sequences of zombies getting eviscerated, shot, burned, etc., often in close-up (which is “okay” because they’re zombies), plus scenes of human-on-human cruelty that are drawn out for maximum oomph, so that we can all savor the electric excitement of watching people commit emotional and physical violence while telling ourselves it’s a moral fable about the collapse of decency in the aftermath of civilization’s collapse. There’s none of the philosophical inquiry that the new Westworld or even the vampire series The Strain (FX’s answer to The Walking Dead) bring to stories in which violence is visited against and by nonhuman characters. The best bloody genre fiction really does pose questions like, “What makes us human?” and “Is humanity a biological condition or a moral one?” and “At what point does the obligation to survive, and to help loved ones and the species survive, become pointless in the face of all the horrible things you have to do to get there?”

I don’t see any of that when I watch The Walking Dead, only opportunistic genuflection in that direction by a show that’s always been more interested in all the different ways it can rend flesh, living or undead, then giving us a few minutes of characters (whose psychological depth wouldn’t cut it on an old-fashioned daytime soap opera) talking about their issues, pausing occasionally to spell out the show’s main themes. The longer this series goes on, the more obvious it becomes that the violence is the point, and everything else is an intellectual fig leaf. The show is not really about the slow process of desensitization to violence that occurs after disasters, during wars and so on; it’s (inadvertently, I think) about our own desensitization as audience members in a country that is, despite pockets of deprivation and violence, basically a soft place day to day, compared to the hellholes we see on the news and read about online. You get to come into your job Monday morning and talk about that awesome kill last night, or that sad but awesome kill of some character you liked.

All of which makes Negan a horribly perfect (and literal) poster boy for The Walking Dead as drama, and the parting image of a walker bending down to lick up the brains spilled by Negan a metaphor for audiences’ addiction to this series. There’s something deep in the collective American unconscious that wants to kill and maim and destroy the Other without guilt, while telling ourselves it’s a necessary part of life, that it’s about survival, that it’s for our own good, and hey, now let’s talk about how sad we are that we had no other choice, to show that we’re not just getting off on it. We get to do that week after week and year after year while watching AMC, and now there’s a spinoff.

I will never forget the time a couple of years ago when my washing machine broke on a Sunday afternoon. I took my kids to the local laundromat. There were four TVs, and they were all playing The Walking Dead. The place was filled with individuals, couples and families, including young children. They washed and dried and folded while Rick and company blasted and fried and ripped apart walkers, spreading their guts on the ground, splattering the foliage and each other with their blood. RRRRrrrraaagghhh! Blam! HhhhnnUUHHHHHGGG! Blam! Blam! Splat! Gush! Blam! This went on for an hour, with periodic pauses for heart-to-heart talks. This is our background now, the fabric of American life. We’re the real zombies.

The Walking Dead’s Empty Violence