Warning: The following contains spoilers from the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead. This should go without saying, but if you haven't watched yet, you might want to bookmark this page and return once you have. Proceed with caution.
Oh, The Walking Dead. What are we going to do with you?
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last week, you've heard that AMC's hit zombie apocalypse thriller roared back to life on Sunday with a season seven premiere that catapulted the series to dizzying new heights of violence with not one, but two remarkably brutal and graphic deaths at the hand of new villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). While The Walking Dead has never been shy about gore or violence—both have essential elements of the series—watching both Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) have their heads bashed in to a bloody pulp felt like the show marching into sickening new territory. Territory we're not so sure we want to follow them into.
But what was it about this episode, this moment, that had fans vowing to never watch again on Twitter? For a show that wallows in misery, that routinely forces beloved characters into grisly ends, why does this feel like the point of no return for so many people? Is it just a case of "enough is enough"? Maybe, for some. But for others, seven seasons in, we're finally wondering if there's a purpose to all this violence and, if we've tuned in for so long and there is no point, what that says about us.
By now, The Walking Dead's formula is clear: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his ragtag of zombie apocalypse survivors find some respite from the horrors of a crumbled world, settle into a false sense of security, are violently and tragically reminded that there is no security to be found anywhere, lather, rinse, repeat. What hope is there to be found in this world, for both the characters and for us the viewers? And if there truly is none—which really seems to be the case—why are we doing this?
In speaking to EW about his character's dark demise, Yeun attempted to defend the show's repeated reliance on graphic violence. "I wonder if the impact of the gore was not so much what you saw but what you felt, and so people aren't able to process what happened," he said. "I assure you, we're not in this just to be like, hey, how many eyeballs can we show exploding out of somebody's head?"
But aren't they, though? The major selling point of this show has been how supposedly cool and gnarly this apocalyptic wasteland world is. They are quite literally in the business of exploding/severing/biting body parts, whether they're of the living or the undead. But, OK—let's say we're taking them at their word and all this violence, specifically that of the premiere, is serving some greater story purpose. What would that purpose be, exactly?
The day following the premiere, executive producer and director of the episode in question Greg Nicotero, offered up this explanation for why Negan's brutality had to be so gratuitous. "In this instance, we felt that it was important to launch us into the season by showing the extent of what Negan is capable of doing because that drives so much of where the series is going from here on in," he said. "The haunting remnants of that episode are very, very similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and that futility to step in. Rick Grimes is unable to stop this and that's something that we've never seen in the show."
Really? We've never seen Rick unable to stop a massive act of brutality before? Sorry, but no. This is the man who watched helplessly as the Governor beheaded Herschel in season four. This is the man who, in season five, was forced to his knees above a trough in Terminus alongside many of the same people he routinely leads into danger, waiting to have his throat slit and be turned into food for cannibals, only surviving because Carol is a badass. This is the man who helplessly watched as his son was shot in the freaking eye in season six. If this man wasn't broken by the endless stream of loss and futility that's been his very existence since waking up in that hospital bed in the pilot, then surely he is made of freaking steel, someone this world will never break.
It's become clear that the show has only one lesson to teach Rick, and it plans on teaching it to him ad infinitum, while continuing to ratchet up the gore and violence each time so it can continue to top itself. So, what is our incentive to keep watching if, long-term, lasting hope seems just as futile for the viewer as it does for Rick? And what does it say about the show, the network that airs it, and the public who consume it that painstaking work went into making the act of two human heads being pulverized look as real as possible and no one batted an eye, while the word "f--k" was censored just an hour later on Talking Dead and heaven forbid a boob pop out somewhere?
With 17 million people tuning in for Negan's big display, just 300,000 viewers shy of season five's record-setting premiere ratings, The Walking Dead has little incentive of its own to deviate from its tried-and-true formula at this point. The viewers are there. But, while those involved may argue otherwise all they like, this sustained exercise in misery seems to be nothing more than a delivery system for hollow violence—and like poor Glenn, we can only be hit over the head with so much. This last blow may have just been one too many for some.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.