The Walking Dead has never been accused of being a happy show, but it’s one of the few series to be called “misery porn”—an exercise in watching characters face tragedy after tragedy until their eventual horrible deaths. I’ve never thought this was true... but having seen this Sunday’s mid-season premiere, I wonder if the show has finally earned that label.
Mild spoilers for this Sunday’s episode, “No Way Out,” may follow.
I’ve been watching The Walking Dead since the beginning, so I can promise you that I haven’t been laboring under the delusion that it’s a “happy” show. It’s violent, it’s depressing, it regularly features human beings in dire straits and humanity at its worst. This is not a light-hearted show. I know that beloved characters can die at any time, and that lesser characters will die pretty regularly to keep the tension high. That’s fine. I’m a big fan of zombie entertainment; I know how it works.
And yet “No Way Out” disturbs me in a way The Walking Dead has never done before.
Look: It should not be a surprise to learn that a few characters shuffle off their non-zombie coil on Sunday; AMC and series creator Robert Kirkman have gleefully been announcing the deaths for weeks now. Having seen the mid-season premiere, I can assure you that they are not lying, and I can likewise promise you that this is not a Glenn situation, where they exist in a Schrodinger’s Walking Dead box, and we don’t really know if they’re alive or dead. They dead. It’s not up for debate.
I don’t want to get too specific—I’ll be plenty specific in The Walking Dead recap on Monday morning—but there is/are a character(s) whose death feels wrong in a way I don’t remember having encountered from the series before. And perhaps the largest reason for this is because the deaths are, in a word, dumb.
Not that every member of Rick’s group makes a smart decision every time, lord knows, and the Alexandrians are painfully naïve. But generally all the survivors have a general core competency that keeps them from needlessly, senselessly putting themselves in danger. (E.g., they may run into a crowd of zombies to save a friend without thinking of the consequences, but they wouldn’t just try to get a zombie to slow-dance.) Between the zombies and evil humans populating North America, there are more than enough threats for Rick and the others; they don’t need to be stupid to add to the danger.
And yet that’s exactly what happens in “No Way Out,” a death (or deaths) that suddenly requires a character (or characters) to be an idiot(s!) to take place, which in turn creates another problem: It makes the death(s) gratuitous.
Yes, I’m aware that I’m calling a death “gratuitous” in a show about the zombie apocalypse, but bear with me for a minute. The thing I’ve always enjoyed about The Walking Dead—and one of the main reason I believe it’s been such a popular show—is that it’s incorporated the violence and the horror of the genre, but has actually managed to use them to produce story, drama and character development. When a major character dies, it serves a narrative purpose beyond a “Gotcha!” moment. Minor character exists almost solely to die horrifically, to keep the stakes high and the threat omnipresent for viewers. Either way, there’s a purpose being served.
But the death scene in “No Way Out” feels like a scene that exists solely to upset viewers, as if to proclaim, “Betcha didn’t think we’d do that, huh?!” It feels crass and exploitative, which is somehow not something I’ve felt even in TWD’s most insane moments. Seriously! When Lori goes into labor during a zombie attack in the prison, and demands that Maggie perform a C-section and that her son shoot her in the head immediately afterwards, before she becomes a zombie—guys, that was ridiculous. And yet it worked, partially because the narrative really made it feel like Lori was backed into this corner; that it redeemed her problematic character a bit to sacrifice herself for her baby; and that it had a profound, lasting effect on Rick and Carl. Her death was one of the most brutal in the series, but TWD made it mean something.
And when Carol was forced to kill Lizzie back in season 4, it was horrible, but it worked because the narrative had forced Carol into a situation with no other solution—and it still devastated her, even though she was already Stone Cold Killer Carol. It was definitely upsetting to watch Carol execute a kid because she was a danger to herself and others (especially baby Sofia), but the show treated it with the appropriate gravity, and didn’t exploit the scene by filling it with gore, or putting it in slow-mo, or wallowing in its horror. That the event actually occurred at all was horrific enough.
My point here is that when I tell you that “No Way Out” features the first death(s) that actually disturbed me, I hope you know it’s not because I’m a delicate flower who can’t handle a man being eaten alive by the living dead. But what I saw in the mid-season premiere was, for all intents and purposes, “misery porn”—a violent, disturbing scene that exists for no other reason than to be violent and disturbing. Like TWD feared it was losing its reputation for being brutal, and felt that it had to re-assert its horribleness in the most brazen way possible.
My real concern is that if The Walking Dead does cross a line in the mid-season finale, it does not appear to have any intention of walking it back. Speaking with EW, Andrew Lincoln said this about the season six finale:
“I felt sick to my stomach when I read the script. It was the first day in the whole six years of working on The Walking Dead that I was late for work because I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was so angry and frustrated and I felt sick. And that was just after reading it.”
Given that Lincoln actually has had to make the damn show, I imagine he’s even more inured to TWD’s darkest nature than I am. And note his language; he isn’t just sad or upset, he’s actually disgusted at what happens in the finale. For the first time ever. Since Lincoln was presumably hunky-dory about what happens in “No Way Out,” I am not looking forward to the season finale to discover whatever made him so “angry” and “sick to his stomach.”
It’s possible Andrew Lincoln and I have wildly differing sensitivities, and the two elements which upset us aren’t tonally related. Or maybe what upsets him is something completely bizarre, like the TWD finale is super-racist for some reason. I have my doubts. I believe The Walking Dead is beginning to put the most upsetting things on TV that it can, with no other reason than shock value. And I suspect if whatever horror awaits us in the season finale actually served a good narrative purpose, Andrew Lincoln wouldn’t have reacted as viscerally as he did.
I don’t know for sure. All I know is that for the first time since season 3 that I’m not particularly looking forward to watching The Walking Dead (and back then the problem was that it was boring). The show has always relied on horror and violence and tragedy—I mean, it’s a show about the zombie apocalypse, for goodness’ sake—but they always served the story, not the other way around.
If that’s changing, then I don’t think that’s a Walking Dead I care to see. The lives of Rick and the others are plenty miserable enough, thanks.