The second half of Season 7 of The Walking Dead kicks off this Sunday (February 12, 2017, 9:00 p.m. on AMC). To refresh recollections, I am republishing a piece I wrote the day after this season’s premiere episode, one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of any hi-end TV series (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Sopranos, Lost etc.) in recent memory.
As a fan of the show, I don’t know that I’ve yet forgiven its creators for putting me through that. Be that as it may, I’ll be there again on Sunday night, parked in front of the set, hoping they might give us a reason to hope again, however briefly. And if we’re given a true glimmer of hope, I think I’ll take it; triumph seems out of reach.
In re-reading the piece, I now realize I erred when composing its basic structure. I wanted to talk about the devastating emotional experience of watching Ep. 7.1 – how difficult is was for long-time viewers of the show. I opted instead (inadvertently, perhaps) to write it as if it were intended for an uninitiated audience. The flaw in this approach is that the uninitiated are less likely to have any interest in the first place, and for devotees of the show, the stage-setting preamble likely provokes impatience, as in “yes, yes, we know all that, skip to the upper-division material.”
The essence of what I was trying to discuss is the show’s unique universe and the overarching questions of survival in such a world. This running theme is somewhat unique in current television. People don’t watch Scandal, for example, and ponder what existential life choices they might make in similar circumstances. Even other shows that create their own universe and populate it with characters, a la Game of Thrones, don’t pose the same ethical and existential questions week in and week out, regardless of however much the viewer might be drawn into the world depicted. This is true of lighter fantasy fare as well, such as Once Upon A Time.
The Walking Dead is decidedly unique in this aspect, and Episode 7.1 challenged viewers’ understanding of this interaction between show and audience at a whole other (darker) level.
Finally I’ll note that I wrote this piece with the base presumption that the reader has already watched the episode, though I endeavored to avoid spoilers. With those caveats in place, I ask you: Did The Walking Dead overplay its hand in Episode 7.1?
(From October 24, 2016)
Did The Walking Dead overplay its hand last night?
Longtime fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead already know that the key to the series is not the ubiquitous zombies that populate the TWD universe, but rather the show’s human characters and their struggles to survive such a nightmare world. It’s the human connection between the fans and the characters, and the interactions of the characters amongst themselves that maintain our interest week to week and continue to make it one of the most popular shows in modern television history.
True, the setting is a fictional zombie apocalypse – some alternate future Earth where a virus has not only wiped out most of the human population, but also turns the dead into flesh-eating undead monsters. So yes, zombies are one of the “stars” of the show. In fact, the very title of the show derives from one of the various nicknames used by the show’s human survivors to refer to the undead (they don’t introduce themselves, and are otherwise mute, save a guttural snarl they emit when stimulated by noise or movement. Other such names include: walkers, biters, growlers, infected, etc.
In addition, the show’s creators and special effects wizards have developed a skill set, well-appreciated by the fans, in creating for our viewing pleasure a multitude of varied, innovative, and ever more totally gross ways in which the walkers may be eliminated. (One of my personal ‘favorites’ was the head-crushed-by-the-hood-of-a-trunk zombie from an earlier season. F***ing gross!)
Yet the show’s creators have created an overarching theme of human survival (or sometimes not) under these apocalyptic circumstances. This theme is poked, prodded, revisited, explored and reexamined again and again during the show’s six seasons (Season 7 premiered last night in an episode devastating for longtime fans).
The Walking Dead’s focus on the stories of the survivors keep the faithful viewership faithful, always returning for more. We the audience can imagine ourselves in those circumstances and consider how we might respond to such an environment, as measured against the characters’ own reactions and decisions each week. (Many of us have already concluded that we’d be amongst the first to go in a real zombie apocalypse. I believe Chris Hardwick, show superfan and host of the very popular after-show show, Talking Dead, has confessed as much.)
Most fans of the show recognize and accept the basic terribleness of The Walking Dead universe, and the bleak, desperate aspect of survival in such a world. These inherent truths lend well to the dynamic tension and the core dramatic aspects of the show. How can the band survive in such a wretched world, with the odds so stacked against them merely staying alive, day-to-day. This foundational premise is an integral part of the show’s success.
Many of TWD’s most memorable moments come from watching the characters confront this basic survival challenge week in, week out. The basic premise that “the lead characters (nearly) always survive” (a bedrock of American television dramas) is scrapped in order to highlight the grim truth the survivors face daily – no one is safe. We’ve seen that dynamic played out again and again as one favorite character after another has met their ultimate fate, sometimes abruptly and even randomly. Their world is a dangerous place.
So we accept that premise at the outset, and still watch. Most fans realize that to tell the story otherwise (where the key cast of characters is essentially safe) would be to weaken the believability of the tale, and dilute the dramatic impact of the series – perhaps to the ultimate demise of the series itself.
Enter last night’s episode: Season 7, Episode 1. And not to give away any plot details to those who’ve not yet watched it or were planning to binge-watch the entire series on Netflix at some later date, but last night’s episode leaves me to ponder the following question:
Has the show taken it’s bleak foundations too far this time, and pushed people beyond the limit of tolerance in pursuit of entertainment?
Given all of what I’ve set forth above as the foundation of the story and the willingness of viewers to accept that foundation as a starting point for being entertained by the narrative’s dramatic unfolding, did the show’s creators take things one (or several) steps too far last night if nonetheless keeping true to the basic realities of TWD universe?
One thing last night’s episode did masterfully was to convey the anguish and desperate hopelessness of the main characters in the situation in which they found themselves. We ached and felt despair right along with our protagonists on screen. Neegan wiped that defiant look off our faces just as he did Rick’s, and we were so profoundly beaten down by show’s end, just as were our on-screen surrogates. We felt their pain.
Personally, I did not shout, or cry, or express any of the emotions displayed by the live audience at the screening of the episode at a Hollywood cemetery, as later shown on Talking Dead. But my face was genuinely frozen in horror, shock and despair for much of the hour. It was truly so awful to contemplate and absorb that I just stared at the screen, slack-jawed, while the inescapable and horrible truth of what I was witnessing, along with the accompanying anguish, just washed over me.
We invest so much of our own emotions into this show’s characters – we revel in their triumphs, and agonize in the tragedies that befall them – all in the name of being entertained, because, at the end of the day, an episode ends. Outside our living room walls, a zombie apocalypse is not in fact raging on. We can go about the rest of our night and through the next week of our ordinary lives, until we pick up the story again the next Sunday night.
Yet watching last night, I was struck by a nearly singular thought: Is this entertainment? Am I entertained by this? To be candid, entertainment was most certainly not the core of my emotional experience. I, like many others, was sickened, nearly physically so, by watching what transpired. It was awful – by design and in fact. Dreadful.
But look, I get it. Zombie. Apocalypse. Bad. And once a society’s core structures are destroyed as it has been in the TWD world – no power grid, no government, no system of law and order – once those things are removed, it is perfectly reasonable to contemplate what kind of social order might rise up to fill the void. In many ways, a violent, lawless “might-makes-right” tribalism is a natural progression of such circumstance. Thus the show’s depiction of how such tribalism might actually play out was wholly consistent with the stark reality of such a world that the show creators have elaborately established. As we have been shown over these last several seasons in particular, the greater danger in this new world is not the zombies, butother living humans.
In staying true to this grim reality that grips the TWD world in general, and the show’s characters in particular – staying true to the nth degree – might the shows creators have touched on a blackness that in the end pushes viewers away, as a cinematic experience simply too bleak to bear or contemplate on a weekly basis?
On screen, we have seen characters come to this same conclusion, and make similar fatalistic decisions for themselves – one of the survivors, a woman, who stayed behind at the CDC in Atlanta, opting for a passive suicide rather than face the terrible, terrible world outside and the suffering all too likely to accompany a life in such a world. Other characters have siezed on an opportunity for martyrdom as a way to confront the desolate reality, to make their life have some meaning or purpose even as it is extinguished. In addition, the survivors have come across in their journeys numerous dead or walkers who quite apparently opted for suicide rather than face the world. All of these are but a few examples of various ways characters have addressed their own existential crises. The show’s core group of survivors have opted to fight for survival, another choice.
Fortunately, as fans we need not face such dire choices. But after sitting through last night’s episode in its entirety, one parallel option did present itself. I could change the channel.
I know that for dramatic purposes, the rebound that might typically follow such a low point for the characters will undoubtedly be exhilarating. We might reasonably expect that the pendulum might swing back in the direction of Rick and the gang, eventually – though that’s by no means a given in this particular apocalypse.
So in the aftermath of 7.1, I am left wondering, will the audience have the stomach to endure the continued abuse, humiliation and sickening violence that must likely stand in the way of that possible triumph? Will I?
After last night’s episode, changing the channel seems – for the first time – to be a viable alternative.
– Atticus West