There are really no spoilers at all ahead, except in the broadest general terms. I wouldn’t screw you like that. All you need to know, going forward, is that season seven began this week. And many long-time fans weren’t happy. It wasn’t just what went down this episode, though. It was more about tone.
The Walking Dead has been accused of jumping the shark several times now, but that’s not what happened on Sunday night. Nobody jumped the shark. Nobody nuked the fridge. What the show did was hop the track. No, it didn’t derail, it jumped onto a whole other track. Hard.
For six seasons, The Walking Dead coasted along as everybody’s favourite example of a particular sub-genre. It was a horror show and, specifically, it was a zombie-apocalypse horror show. And we got what was advertised, exceptionally well done – thus the popularity. In a zombie apocalypse, you expect to see some of your favourite characters get munched on, or die in battle against rival survivors who have turned into marauding maniacs since the collapse of civilization and all the rules and laws that go along with it. That’s been a staple since the genesis of the genre, under its originator and master, George Romero.
But this season premiere wasn’t zombie-apocalypse horror. Sure, there were zombies in a dangerous-scenery sense, but they were window dressing. This episode was a different sub-genre of horror entirely. It was torture porn.
Now, I like torture porn just fine when it’s done well. I like the Saw series, I think Martyrs is something of a horror masterpiece. But a lot of people are not cool with the oeuvre at all, thus the derisive name. “Torture Porn,” a moniker initially slapped onto this not-really-so-new wave of horror by displeased critics, has since been adopted as an official title of dubious honour. Like the term “Spaghetti Western” fifty years ago, similarly meant as an insult, it has now become its own thing, with its own fans.
There is not a lot of crossover between zombie-apocalypse fans and torture-porn fans, even if they’re both horror sub-genres.
What we saw last episode was a bunch of beloved characters being mercilessly terrorized and brutalized with no recourse. They were victims being victimized for a whole hour. They couldn’t fight back. They couldn’t help themselves. Rescue was not forthcoming. And it was hard to watch. By the end of it, even I felt a little ill, and I’m damn near unflappable when it comes to these sorts of things.
A lot of fans did not care for it. They didn’t necessarily know why. Surely we’ve seen awful things happen on the show before. Perfectly nice people have been torn to shreds right in front of us on many occasions. But this was different. Our heroes were helpless, and we were helplessly watching them suffer.
And that’s going to be an emotional deal-breaker for a lot of viewers. You can’t swap out genres like that. Sure, you can do a single fantasy episode of your sci-fi show, or a film-noir episode of your teen-comedy show. But you can’t drop torture porn on unsuspecting viewers and expect it to sit well with them. It’s too harsh – even for people who like their zombies with extra guts and arterial sprays.
“But it’s just following the comics,” is what I’ve heard in response to the shocking number of fans who have announced, “I’m never watching another episode.”
Yeah, fine. There have been developments to bring the TV show more in line with the comic-book story arc, but they have always been two entirely different entities with the same brand name. The comics are many many many times more brutal and horrific and uncompromising than the show. The comic books are like hell, the TV show is like the Disney-resort re-creation of hell. It’s just not the same. A lot of the people who love the show probably couldn’t stomach what goes on in the comics. And there are probably people who read the comics who think the show is for pussies.
This last episode left me feeling depressed and gut-punched, even though I had predicted much of what would happen months in advance and was prepared for a deeply uncomfortable hour. I thought it was well done, and it certainly established Negan as the new, improved, worst-threat-they’ve-ever-faced villain. But the show’s producers were playing with fire, and they may have been burned. In an effort to demonstrate how hardcore they’re willing to go (on a show where you’re still not permitted to say “fuck” mind you), they may well have cut down their viewership by numbers they won’t ever be able to recover.
Season seven, still in its infancy, hasn’t jumped the shark. Not yet. But did I just spot Fonzie strapping on a pair of water skis?
On a side (and more spoilery) note: I’m still spot-on with my call from nearly three years ago, marking The Five Most Unkillable Characters on The Walking Dead. I always know something bad has happened on the show whenever that post gets a spike in clicks. Don’t read it unless you want to know some of the names of who survived this season’s opener.