The Walking Dead

I got into a bit of a debate last night on Facebook with a former colleague (and FB acquaintance) who is a big fan of “The Walking Dead.” He and his son have taken pilgrimages to the Georgia locations where the hit AMC series is filmed, and even met (or at least exchanged pleasantries with) a few cast members. Their passion for the show is refreshing to see, and even though I don’t watch the show regularly, I enjoyed bantering with them a little bit.

I did watch the first three or four seasons of “The Walking Dead” before my interest hit a wall and my viewership fell off. This was shortly after The Governor made his big, bloody debut and all but demolished Rick Grimes and his crew, who at the time were living in a gloomy prison that seemed strangely susceptible to zombie infiltration.

I enjoyed the first few seasons of “TWD,” and even got friends and family to watch the show. I became hooked on it, especially when I lived alone and had plenty of time to wrap myself up in the story. I think I watched the first season in little more than a couple days of marathon viewing, and hungrily devoured the second season. Then finally I hit the saturation level and couldn’t even make it through the first episode of season four (or five). Sorry, “TWD,” but you’re no “Breaking Bad.”

Still … at the end of the most recent season, when the good guys were rounded up by a gang known as the Saviors, led by a bad ass known as Negan … I became peripherally interested again. Negan was played by an actor of unusual intensity, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and he seemed to have the small band of regulars on the ropes … for real, this time. Of greatest interest to me was the cliffhanger the season closed on. One of the characters got beaten death by Negan, wielding his barb-wire-wrapped baseball bat, nickname of Lucille. Which character was it? And how bad would the death be? Needless to say, I was intrigued, if not a fan.

Well, now I know who the characters were, and I can say that I was appalled by the graphic violence used to dispatch them. Let’s be clear, “TWD” has never been the most humane of shows. In fact, it is the most inhumane; gory indifference to human life became its hallmark years ago. The show offers a smorgasbord of barbarism on a weekly basis, so much so that at last you ask yourself: is this entertaining?

The answer is, yes, it is entertaining, and yes, you care about what happens to the characters because horrible things befall characters that we like. (Which I suppose happens in real life.) But do we require all of this to fill up our free time? Is this the stuff of our dreams? Man’s extreme inhumanity to man?

I dunno. You can write it off as a horror story (or horror soap opera, really), and I guess that covers a lot of ground. Certainly the filmmaking is powerful, professional and emotionally engaging – I remember being shaken to the core by many of the events of the first three seasons. The acting goes beyond any superlative I can assign to television (or horror, for that matter). I can spot no technical flaws; on the level of sheer craftsmanship, this thing is miraculous.

But what is it all in service of? An ongoing saga in which everything you love gets butchered in a way that not even livestock animals undergo in the slaughterhouse? I just ran a quick Internet search covering all or most of the seasons I’ve missed, and I count one partial-to-full decapitation (all while the victim is still alive), an impalement, a shooting, a stabbing, a neck-breaking and a beating. Though set during (or perhaps after?) a zombie apocalypse, the survivors have still not learned to band together and share resources against a common enemy. If two groups of humans meet, they instantly suspect one another’s motives, spy on each other, make plans to crush each other, and eventually go to war – culminating in some uncomfortably intimate violence between two passionate combatants. If this is what we have to look forward to, what the fuck was the point of the Louvre? The Jupiter Symphony? E.T.?

Episode 1 of season seven certainly provides no answer. Indeed, it digs the hole deeper, so to speak. Two of the most popular characters on the show get their brains pummeled out – faces hammered off – by Negan, who gleefully pounds their heads until he’s basically just stirring up dirt. The director not only shows the viscera hanging from the bat but revels in the meat piles of destruction, all while witnesses cower on their knees, screaming silently for mercy. The only person entertained by all of this, who’s having any fun at all, is the murderer himself, whose goal is psychological torment and alpha-male domination. (He wants to turn Rick, Daryl, Carl, etc. into mere employees.) The level of gore goes beyond what it takes to tell a story and passes into what can only be called the abstract; Negan flings blood off the tip of his bat as if it were paint.

I can’t imagine what kind of person this Negan fellow is – at least, not pre-zombie. Was he a former cop like Rick? Is he ex-military? Was he a member of the priesthood? We can’t begin to guess. All we know is that he takes what you might call undue pleasure in bashing people’s brains in. His joyful mocking of victims (“that is gross as shit!”), his sexualized taunting of the survivors, gives the scene a legitimately cruel undercurrent that takes the entertainment value right out of it. Do we need this? Is this what it takes to get us to feel something?

I can’t blame the actors. After all, gotta eat, and all that. To say that they are excellent in their roles is kind of … beside the point. Yes, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is superb as Negan. But did he have to be? Do we have to be asked to like the psycho killer with the baseball bat? Our heroes don’t even get a say in what is happening to them, not one word of dialogue. The show, like Negan, simply sees them as potential meat. What kind of signal does that send? Is this what A Clockwork Orange portended 40 years ago? The desensitization has not only begun – it’s won. And it’s gross as shit!

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