I’m no fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can handle violence, but I just don’t have the stomach for the unique brand of gore presented by TWD, so I’ve never started watching the show.
What I have done, though, is follow very closely others’ reactions to major plot points as they reveal themselves. One of the overarching themes of this exercise is that I now constantly see people throwing up their (virtual, Facebook) hands and proclaiming they are done with the show because someone died and they can no longer go on supporting such nonsense. This is not limited to the average viewer, either. Especially since Noah’s death in season five—you know, the one where his face is graphically ripped off—articles have been cropping up wondering whether “TWD went too far this time.”
Such questions have now reached a fever pitch, as it was revealed in this week’s season-seven premiere that the beloved Glenn met his demise at the end of arch-villain Negan’s “vampire bat.” A popular blog titled “The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club” has now proclaimed (after several prior events that tested the authors’ commitment) that there is a 100% likelihood they will never watch again.
With such a fierce reaction to an admittedly unpopular decision, people like me are left to wonder what compels TWD viewers to keep watching. If one death can be so heartbreaking in a show whose bread and butter is sucking the hope out of everything, what could possibly entice someone to stay on board?
To answer this question, I took to Facebook (that home of good empirical studies) and read comments made in response to Glenn’s death. One of the most common fan responses, perhaps unsurprisingly, was “It’s a zombie show. Get over it.” I was struck by such a matter-of-fact view of what was clearly a traumatic incident for many. My first reaction was to peg TWD viewers as desensitized. However, the dismissiveness of the first response, was often interestingly juxtaposed against comments affirming the investment in the characters and in watching the human stories play out.
So which is it? Is TWD just a “zombie show,” one we watch for mindless entertainment, or do we gravitate toward its depiction of how real people respond in the most dire of circumstances? It seems most fans would agree that the story arc is what compels them to come back on a weekly basis.
This is the exact point many of the aforementioned articles are making. In lieu of story, TWD’s showrunners are being accused of exploiting their viewers’ fondness of characters in some pretty tortuous ways, to the point where viewers aren’t sure whether a pregnant woman will be beaten to death. And, to that point, I received comments on how that very characteristic is appreciated because it accurately represents how indiscriminately a zombie apocalypse would kill both “good” and “bad guys.” Point taken, but at what cost?
Zombies are still, for now, fictional beings. That means that any “rules” established by TWD are completely made-up as well, and they can be bent or changed at any time. Why do we need consistency form this show? Just because a pregnant woman could, in theory, have her head bashed in on television doesn’t mean she should. Call me old-fashioned but it seems that brutally killing children or a pregnant woman would still constitute “over the line.”
Luckily, the showrunners so far agree, as Carl and Maggie are both very much alive, but that doesn’t change the fact that TWD is consistently making its own viewership question the limits of what they’d watch on TV.
In short, they knew what they were getting into, and if none of those previous red flags were enough to shake them, then I don’t know if it’s merited for them to cry foul now.
The scary part of all this is that when I step back from the whole idea of Glenn’s overkill, I actually agree with the Facebook comments. I agree with those who on first blush seemed the most desensitized. Not because we think the same, mind you, but because the only plausible position at this point is to say, “Hey, it’s a zombie show and they can do what they want.”
TWD is, for lack of a better phrase, a show built on going too far. Its unprecedented levels of gore speak for themselves. Anyone who bought into this show has signed on for watching human flesh get ripped off and devoured in unspeakably bloody ways. They have signed on for watching their favorites meet an untimely demise. In short, they knew what they were getting into, and if none of those previous red flags were enough to shake them, then I don’t know if it’s merited for them to cry foul now.
I’m going to make a comparison here that I’m sure will incur the wrath of many, many people.
TWD fans are a lot like Donald Trump supporters.
Hear me out. Please.
Donald Trump has been a polarizing figure, to say the least, since the Republican primary season began in 2015. He has continually said and done things that no other political candidate in recent memory would think of doing. Multiple commentators have pointed to bumps in the road of his election and observed that certain events would have derailed any other candidate’s campaign. Trump built his campaign on such moments.
Whether it was the early-on mocking of a disabled journalist, the revelation that he was being sued for fraud while running for president, or the insinuation that his running mate be shot, Trump has been nothing if not consistent in his commitment to speaking his mind. In short, Donald Trump’s campaign is built on going too far.
This is why his most recent controversy—the “grab them by the p—y” comments and subsequent accusations of sexual assault—present an interesting point of contention. Yes, Trump’s hot-mic comments to Billy Bush are disgusting. Yes, this is undoubtedly the worst scandal Trump has been embroiled in throughout the course of the election season. The question arising from the fiasco, though, should be why this was the final straw for so many former supporters. Anyone could see where Trump’s misogynistic comments toward Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz, and others including his own daughter, might lead.
Furthermore, his aggression toward entire nations (Mexico) and religions (Islam), themselves large portions of the population, should have signaled that he would have no problem speaking dismissively and offensively about a full 49.5% of the world’s inhabitants. Trump’s comments were awful, yes, but who at this point is surprised? And what can be said about the group of defectors who waited until this controversy to jump ship?
The long-running satire South Park addressed the same question in its most recent episode. Mr. Garrison, foul-mouthed teacher-turned-presidential-nominee, is standing in as the show’s portrayal of Trump. Garrison, having gained support by venting his frustrations, now realizes he may actually get elected and seeks to purposely derail his own campaign through increasingly offensive rants. In recent weeks, though, his plan has been backfiring: support remains strong, because people have subscribed themselves to his extreme way of thinking.
Finally, Garrison decides to take a shot at women. He turns a rally into a stand-up comedy atmosphere, and says something so offensive I won’t print it here. When nearly all of the women present storm out of the rally, Garrison asks where they are going. They were okay with his suggestion about how to deal with immigrants (“F— them all to death!”) and cheered loudly at his references to “all the freaking Muslims” and “black thugs from the inner city,” but somehow this comment was the nail in the coffin.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a point here. Everyone possesses a certain threshold at which they can no longer tolerate something offensive—a line, a marker of where good taste veers into poor taste. This in itself is not a bad thing, but what’s to be said of those who will partake of everything up to and including “the line,” even when it becomes clear that the line will soon be jumped?
Trump supporters who left the camp after the most recent comments are baffling. Having put up with so much to this point, having explained away such patently vitriolic speech about such a wide array of subjects, how could one justifiably abandon ship now?
As an evangelical Christian, I can’t help but notice the much-deserved knock on evangelicals for selling our souls on nearly everything we believe to support the current Republican nominee and defend his indefensible comments. But if it is true that Trump supporters buy into his brand of rhetoric, then they should be all-in. One can’t pick and choose what is unethical after putting one’s lot in with a man who advocates mass deportation and caricatures Mexican immigrants as rapists. If you were ever going to support Trump and none of those previous occurrences were red flags, you have forfeited the right to cherry-pick this one instance as “going too far.” It’s all been too far.
Likewise, and on a much less important scale, those crying foul about Glenn’s death don’t have much room to speak. Your viewership over the years has condoned every action the writers of TWD have taken. If you had really objected to what you saw, you could’ve stopped watching. But you came this far, right? And if it took you six years and some change to figure out where the “line” is, it’s probably too late to play prude.
In the end, it’s either never okay, or it always is.
Maybe the point here is that instead of lamenting when something or someone crosses our line, we should examine why we’re so strangely okay with allowing others to flirt with our lines. We’ll watch a loved (if new) character get an arrow through the eye, but we can’t handle an old standby getting clubbed to death. We can support someone threatening physical violence against those who disagree, but somehow seem surprised when that same person brags about sexual assault.
In the end, it’s either never okay, or it always is. Once we sign on and commit to something—a worldview, a television show, a politician—we have accepted its truths and its trajectories as our own. It does no good to reevaluate after the fact without losing credibility. Make your bed, lie in it; or, as Negan puts it:
“This is your way of life now. The more you fight back, the harder it will be.”