Torture porn is what most people call bloody, meaningless images of sadistic cruelty on a TV screen. The Walking Dead, unsurprisingly, calls it prime-time entertainment. Me, I call it exhausting. When real life already seems a few calamitous steps away from dystopia, surviving an hour of pure, relentless misery isn’t entertainment—it’s a chore.
The AMC zombie drama aired its all-time most unwatchable hour Sunday night in a mind-numbingly brutal Season 7 opener that finally, after some ballsy meandering, revealed the identity of Negan’s victim, who was clubbed to death with a barbed-wire baseball bat in last season’s much-maligned cliffhanger.
It was Abraham, the delightfully profane former Army sergeant who’d evolved into Rick’s right-hand man, who endured the first bone-crushing blow “like a champ,” to mimic Negan’s praise. Abraham, who had recently found happiness with Sasha and began dreaming of settling down. His head, distinct for its bright red hair, reduced to a bloody, pulpy, unrecognizable mess after one last gesture of defiance: “Suck my nuts.”
Cue the camera panning to a stunned Sasha (a woman who’s lost two loved ones violently onscreen and has suffered from PTSD) and Abraham’s ex, Rosita. For extra heightened onscreen trauma, Negan waves the bloodied baseball bat in front of Rosita’s sobbing face, yammering on and on about the most simplistic possible “reason” for all this violence: to teach Rick’s group a lesson.
But wait, there’s more! Glenn, one of only a handful of characters to have survived all six seasons, also takes a surprise blow to the head. This, ostensibly, to atone for last season’s infamous dumpster fake-out, in which the show went so far as to remove Steven Yeun’s name from the credits in an ill-fated attempt to convince viewers Glenn was dead. Now we get to see the beloved husband and father-to-be with a visible dent in his head and an eye bulging grotesquely out of its socket.
He trembles, blood gushing down his face, as his brain begins to short-circuit. Slurring, he gets out four last words, addressed to his gasping, grief-wracked wife: “Maggie, I’ll find you.” Then Negan swings again, and again, and again, until there’s nothing left to crush. (Adding insult to injury, this moment is accompanied by some of the worst dialogue of the hour: “Lucille is thirsty! She is a vampire bat!” is a real line uttered by Negan here.)
This all, by the way, happens in flashback as Negan torments Rick inside the RV, a framing device also exploited for maximum misery. The episode delays Negan’s grand reveal for an extra 15 or so minutes as Rick cobbles together mental montages of every possible victim, presumably to stoke speculation from viewers at home. Yay, artificial suspense! Even after we learn that it’s Abraham and Glenn who die, Rick hallucinates vivid, nightmarish visions of Sasha, Michonne, Eugene, Aaron, and even his teenage son Carl being clubbed to death, too.
We watch a noose-bound corpse torn apart at the neck; we watch Rick scream and cry and beg with naked, heartbreaking desperation; we watch Negan threaten to hurt his son; we watch every remaining protagonist reduced to emotional rubble, treated like animals by a group of abusive men.
Then we get to watch it all unfold in slow-motion, through a fog, as a sad song plays over the group’s rampant sobbing. We peer into someone’s bizarre soft-focus dream, in which every member of Rick’s group, including Maggie’s unborn baby and Glenn and Abraham, are seated around a farmhouse table for Sunday dinner. And then the screen mercifully fades to black and we wonder why anyone in their right mind would ever come back for more.
Did the episode accomplish what it set out to do? Yes. It showed us the depraved depths to which Negan (and this show’s writers’ room) will sink to make a point. Did it justify a year-plus of nonstop interview and promo hype for this skull-crushing moment? Could it ever? That Negan knocked out two victims was only half a surprise, after Jeffrey Dean Morgan accidentally let slip earlier this year the possibility of multiple victims.
For Negan to function as the baddie the show so badly wants him to be, we knew he’d have to murder a top-tier character, one whose loss would be felt throughout the show. Abraham, Glenn, Maggie, and Michonne were the only ones who fit the bill (Daryl, Rick, and Carl did too, but the show would never dare).
Even two murders in one episode couldn’t mask the mustache-twirling cartoonish quality of this small-screen Negan. He monologues with the stamina of a Bond villain on crack, yet the show’s network-mandated limit on curse words hinders the foul-mouthed charisma of his comic book persona (the kind of charisma it took on the page to pull off that "vampire bat" line, for sure). What we get instead is a watered-down impression, one carried solely by the cravenness of his violence.
And about that violence. It is, of course, nothing new for the show—this wasn’t its bloodiest or goriest episode yet, not by far. What feels new is the level of transparency with which the show now asks us to be entertained by pure, concentrated human pain and misery. Sunday’s episode left me feeling vaguely sickened and numb, like the emotional hangover of a 2016 presidential debate. That’s what this show wanted me to feel after spending an hour in its world. (At San Diego Comic-Con this year, visitors to the show’s booth posed with lifelike replicas of Negan’s kneeling, would-be victims. Its cross-brand Twitter emoji on premiere night was Negan’s bat. The show has gleefully done everything it can to amplify this experience.) And you know what? It just isn’t fun anymore.
The Walking Dead was never an optimistic slice of sunshine, but it did once offer escapist fantasy. It began as a story about ordinary men and women using their own ingenuity to survive in a suddenly savage world. Characters, for the most part, were drawn broadly enough that viewers could project themselves onto the screen and wonder: Would we harden and flourish under the rules of the new world, like Carol? Would we devote ourselves to others, like Rick? Would we be as staggeringly inept as Father Gabriel, or darken into vicious survivalists like The Governor?
The fun, at least for many of us, was in wondering and in relating to the characters, imagining ourselves rising to the occasion like them.
These days, the show has sparse pleasures to offer. Special-effects master Greg Nicotero’s work is still, seven seasons in, a grotesque wonder to behold. Actors like Andrew Lincoln and Melissa McBride routinely rise above the faux-philosophical dialogue and repetitive character arcs they’re given to produce raw, complicated moments of human pathos. (Lincoln’s performances in both the Season 6 finale and Season 7 opener are among his best work to date.)
But from there, reasons to keep watching dwindle fast. Events in the show mostly plod on endlessly from one torment to the next, from one false safe haven to the next Big Bad. It has frustratingly little to say about anything, rendering violent stunts like Sunday’s episode largely meaningless (and in that way, a little boring). Life, in The Walking Dead’s worldview, is fragile and short and full of inevitable and indiscriminate violence. It rarely offers deeper insight than that.
Seven years ago, with untold narrative possibilities ahead, that darkness felt edgy. Today, in large part thanks to The Walking Dead’s success, it’s drearily commonplace. We’ve reached a point of collective cultural exhaustion with grimdark genre entertainment (see: the DCEU) and no wonder. When our everyday political reality is already garish and demoralizing, escapism isn’t more torture and misery. It’s hope. The Walking Dead would do well to let a ray of it shine in every now and again.