Sunday night, "The Walking Dead" returned with a brutal seventh season premiere that finally answered the question: Which beloved character was bludgeoned to death with a bat on television? However, in what has become "Walking Dead" fashion, the series didn't stop with just one character execution, there would be two horrifying reveals for the fans. Which led a lot of folks to wonder, when is a horror show just that? When do countless character deaths stop being entertaining and just become misery porn?
Warning: Spoilers from the season premiere follow.
After 83 episodes, and countless gruesome death scenes, it would seem the only way to shock the "Walking Dead" community is to turn the grotesque murder into a morbid "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" guessing game. But Sunday night, some fans expressed uneasiness with being served up so much blood and despair.
The new episode re-introduced newcomer Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the nefarious Negan. The leather-jacketed villain was last seen in the season finale cracking open a character's skull. The whole scene was shot from the point of view of his victim (complete with a blood-covered lens) to mask the mystery of the death. So who died?
In a twist from its comic book origins it was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) who was the first to meet the wrong end of Lucille (what Negan christened his weapon of choice, a barbed wire-covered bat). It was a bloody demise, and after two shots of the fleshy mound where Abraham's head once was, the show threw another curve ball at the audience. Negan turned and killed off another character, Glenn (Steven Yeun), who has been on the show since its first episode.
Where Abraham's death was a surprise, Glenn's demise was a ghastly re-creation from the comic panels. His eye bulbous from the blow, he ended his screen time sputtering out the name of his wife, Maggie, before being further mutilated. It was a deeply disturbing replication of his final moments from the comic, but unlike the black and white source material, audiences witnessed this live action retelling in color.
It was too much for many audience members to bear. Fans took to Twitter, "Wow that was gross & violent even by ('The Walking Dead') standards. I can't even love to hate Negan. He's just a bully, plain & simple," wrote @widowwinchester.
Others lamented not only the grisly manner in which "Walking Dead" ended Glenn and Abraham, but the despair the copious death scenes filled them with. Jenny Martin (@readjennymartin) posted, "I can handle grim. I can take descents into darkness. But a show that cleaves every scrap of human joy, & pulps it into misery? Enough, #TWD."
Some just wanted answers. Lanie James (@JLanie) directed her query to the creators on the live after-show, "The Talking Dead": "Currently question if I can go on with the show. It hurts. So dark. So brutal. Ask the EPs why I should stay."
And others gave up on the series entirely.
For a series that started off as a bloody survivalist horror show, "Walking Dead" has transformed into an elaborate execution drama. "Sadism pure and simple. Question is, are we all masochists in the audience?" wondered @javachik.
So why keep watching?
Some fans said they wouldn't.
What's the point of investing in any character or rooting for the "good guys" when the series has made their chances for success (or even survival) less and less likely as the seasons shamble on? The pattern has become familiar: The gang gets to the farm (the farm is destroyed, people die); the gang gets to the prison (the prison is destroyed, people die); the gang gets to Alexandria (Alexandria is destroyed, people die). Now "Walking Dead" brings in Negan, and his actions weren't a surprise.
This was a heavily marketed double murder. Tweets with the kneeling survivors labeling each potential victim as the "moe" to Negan's game filled the internet. Replicas of Lucille were sold at Comic-Con. The appeal is understandable for comic book fans; Jason has his machete and Freddy his glove of blades. But for most, Negan wasn't a household name yet, and he wasn't butchering a bunch of slasher film expendables. Or is that what the main cast of "Walking Dead" has become now? One wonders if the uninitiated non-comic-readers might feel a little weird about their bat purchase after witnessing Lucille in action?
Negan was clearly touted as the exciting addition to the new season of "Walking Dead." Marked with a sexy casting decision in Morgan and heaps of advertising, the executioner was what fans were supposed to be looking forward to. To some extent it worked. Fan theories with elaborate charts mapping out the final frames of the last season filled the Internet. A video analyzing the actors' screams in slow motion went viral.
Now that this mystery is solved with one of the more savage scenes in the history of the series, are folks satisfied? Or did it leave them much like it left the remaining survivors of the group: Gutted.
Sure, you can't have an authentic universe of half dead, flesh-hungry monsters without a good helping of violence, loss and gore. Unfortunately, there are only so many times one can watch a hapless victim fall prey to a pack of walkers eaten alive until audiences become desensitized to the horror. If Negan truly is the apex of terror in this show, what could possibly be waiting in the next episode? Did the folks behind the scenes forget what we've lived through?
There was Andrea, who cradled her walker-turned little sister, Amy, in her arms before shooting her in the head. Carl accidentally set free a walker that then ripped open Dale's bowels. Hershel was partially beheaded by the Governor. Lori died in childbirth after Maggie cut her open with a knife to save baby Judith. Noah was torn apart by walkers against a revolving glass door, so all could see the horror. And just last season, a whole family was eaten alive in front of the gang because their youngest son wouldn't stop screaming in fear. We don't blame him.
There are plenty of instances in which misery and dread certainly worked for "Walking Dead." Season four episode "The Grove," for example, was a crushing look at what happens to the children raised inside the apocalypse. The character Lizzie was killed by her caretakers after it became apparent that she didn't comprehend the danger of the walkers. Witnessing the adults struggle with the harrowing realization that this child was a danger to those around her was absolute agony. Their decision was a lightning rod of anguish and impossible to turn away from.
That was a long time ago. And since then, the gore has been has only ramped up and the deaths heightened. In fact, Glenn's death had previously been faked; the show set it up to look like he died pinned under the body of another survivor. Glenn was fine; fans' nerves were not.
It's discomfiting to see "Walking Dead" double down on misery when there's already been so much of it. "Game of Thrones" employs its fair share of violence and grief, but at least it takes breaks to ride dragons now and again.
Not all fans were dismayed by the disheartening run of events. Several audience members praised the acting chops of Andrew Lincoln (who plays lost sheriff Rick Grimes) and demanded an Emmy nomination for the episode.
Others argued that this is a story about the zombie apocalypse, what did the audience expect? Even within those parameters, the violence depicted is too much, and what is the payoff for six years of loyal viewership? Glenn's horrific death?
Fingers crossed the new cast members and their pet tiger can inject some semblance of hope into the new season. The villain has already promised, "I'm just getting started" to his new prisoners, and AMC seems to back that promise with their own crop of billboards with the words, "We're just getting started," painted across his image.
If this is just the start, it's frightening to contemplate what might be next.