WARNING: This article has spoilers concerning the premiere of THE WALKING DEAD’s seventh season, so you shouldn’t continue reading if you do not wish to know which character(s) died in the episode—seriously what rock do you live under? 

As a dedicated fan of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD since its conception in 2010, I can say that I, along with the other millions of fans, have been put through the emotional trials and tribulations the show is known for. Having seen many characters on the show die in gruesome ways—Lori being shot by her own son, the Governor severing Herschel’s head from his body, Beth being shot in the forehead—I can attest to the intense anxiety one suffers from watching THE WALKING DEAD. However, I have made a personal resolution to continue watching the show until either Daryl Dixon or Rick Grimes dies. Then and only then am I allowed to stop watching.

my-honies

Having been a fan of THE WALKING DEAD for six years now, I have seen countless gruesome ends to many of its characters, which acts as the reason for the rule. Now, one might question why I continue to watch the show even though it is known for its violent deaths. The answer to this is simple: development. While it never appears to be the most favorable way of conveying it, THE WALKING DEAD has manipulated death and its consequences multiple times to evoke plot and character development that, without it, couldn’t have been fostered.

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Look at Shane’s death. Before the zombie apocalypse, Shane was Rick’s right-hand man, his literal deputy. The man would have died for Rick, his best friend, and his family. As the world began to take on new dimensions and new depths with the introduction of the Walkers, though, Shane took on the role of protecting Rick’s family and turned it into becoming Rick. In many ways, Shane acted as a parallel to what Rick had the potential to become had he not had Lori and Carl and a reason to survive in this new world. When it came down to it, Rick had to protect himself and his family from Shane because he was no longer the partner-in-fighting-crime he once was. With Shane’s death, the character of Rick changed as well. Shane’s death fortified Rick’s resolve to protect his people—beyond Carl and Lori now—at any cost. It was a major moment of character development for the show and Rick.

Other deaths in the show have sparked character development, as well. Merle, Daryl’s brother, was symbolic of the past for Daryl, of a time where he was nothing to no one. With Merle’s death, Daryl was finally able to eliminate the bonds tying him to the past and fully immerse himself into his new identity as the group’s protector. While Merle’s death was bittersweet, it was the last ingredient to allowing Daryl to realize his potential.

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As the series progressed, the deaths became more and more targeted at driving certain themes in the show—sufficiency, survival, sacrifice—along with the characters coming into contact with those themes. We have seen every character on THE WALKING DEAD change in some manner, assuming a post-apocalyptic identity foiling what they had been in their previous lives.

However, in more recent seasons, the question has been raised as to whether or not THE WALKING DEAD is using death as a power play against its audience rather than as a viable resource for continued development. The show has always been gory, but within the fifth and sixth seasons it took on a new dynamic wherein the gore seemed to have no exact purpose. When Glenn nearly died during the attack on the dumpster in season six, there was no point to it other than shock factor. Have THE WALKING DEAD writers become tactless in their positions, thinking their audience would rather be susceptible to cheap thrills than the thought-provoking journeys we are accustomed to?

With the pending season seven premiere, this fear was brought to the forefront of many peoples’ minds.  Any fan going into the premiere knew someone was going to die at the hands of Negan and his ever cruel bat, Lucille. Since the show was inspired by the comics and loosely follows their plot structures, people began worrying about Glenn Rhee’s fate because Negan introduces himself by introducing Lucille to Glenn’s skull. It is by far one of the most horrific deaths in the comics series and acts as an inciting incident to the group’s next phase as victims rather than victors.

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Since season six’s finale left us to question who Negan’s victim was, the fans got to work and began theorizing. After months and months of analyzing who was going to die based on the blood splatter on Rick’s right cheek, we fans finally had the question answered for us.

who

Watching the valiant, hilarious, linguistically cringe-worthy Abraham be struck by Lucille was heartbreaking. It was especially awful to watch Sasha’s reaction to his demise, their budding love dying before it had the chance to fully bloom. While most fans breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t Glenn, I was still hurt by Negan’s—and ultimately the writers’—choice. Nobody will ever be able to ask Bisquick analogy questions or liken something to shit quite like Abraham. While I was sad to see Abraham go, I was ultimately relieved to finally know who Negan’s victim was. I won’t say it was a victory but I could live with the decision. Remember: it wasn’t Rick or Daryl so I was still an audience member.

It was when Daryl launched himself at Negan and I witnessed the resulting consequences that I questioned my allegiance to the show and my rule once again.

glenn-with-a-bat

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As Negan had promised in the sixth season’s finale, another outburst would result in another death. And what a death it was. Watching Negan bring Lucille down upon Glenn’s head time after time, in between bouts of him trying to get out Maggie’s name, I was horrified. Sure, THE WALKING DEAD had crossed lines before. But season seven’s premiere made me question not only the writers’ boundaries but my own.

In the aftermath of Glenn’s death, in the blood and gore and brain matter, a single question popped into my head: am I a good person for being a fan of THE WALKING DEAD?

lucille

Think about it: as fans, we choose characters to favor and we ultimately watch the show/read the book/see the movie for them. And as that fan, we are willing to participate in the cultural phenomenon so long as our favorites survive. Is that the right way to approach entertainment, though? To cheer for certain deaths because we have avoided others?

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Look at THE WALKING DEAD: Moral lines have been crossed countless times by every character on the show. Don’t forget that the reason that Negan targeted Rick and company was because they killed a group of Saviors first. While there was the motivation of food and medicine provided to them from the Hilltop, Rick and the others were still in the wrong. For the first time, they had no right to claim self-defense. Their actions became the inciting incident to their own demise.

Watching the season seven premiere, I realized I was able to justify these actions in the past because there was a purpose behind them. Whether it was to protect the group, to change a character, or to progress the show, death before season seven always had significance. When Rick and the group went to go looking to take life rather than save it, though, the show took on a different dimension I hadn’t previously associated with it. They may have undergone these actions in the name of survival, but now I cannot confidently say it is not their time to begin paying for that survival.  

Season seven’s premiere changed my views on not only THE WALKING DEAD, but television at large. Watching Glenn Rhee die, I witnessed hope become extinguished on the show. Glenn was the show’s light and a testament to the existence of humanity even in their cruel world. He was the proof of the goodness humanity was capable of even in times of harshness and savagery. And now he is gone in the name of “entertainment.”  

rick

This brings me to question my integrity as not only a fan but as a person. As a fan, is it okay to root for certain people to live and others to die? We aren’t committing an atrocity by doing so, but we are rooting for another character to perish in order to save another. Does that mean we live in the mindset of the ends justifying the means, as long as it is in a fictional sense?

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Having a personal rule that I can stop watching THE WALKING DEAD when Daryl or Rick dies, I cannot help but question what my own boundaries are. What about the people in between Rick and Daryl who die? What justifications can I allow myself to excuse their deaths in order to further my own personal enjoyment? Is it morally okay to justify some carnage in favor of avoiding others?

negan-vs-rick

Essentially the question I am asking is if we, as an audience, can say it is okay to weigh the lives of characters? Personally, I treat the characters in my fandoms as everyday people in my life, attaching myself to them as I would real people. At the end of the day I know they are not real, but the sincerity and respect I give them is real. Having nerds for friends, I know I am not alone in this trend. So, this being the trend, the logical next step would be stepping away from characters and weighing the lives of one human versus another in the pursuit of survival.

This question of morality concerning the line between fiction and reality has come into play before in the entertainment industry. Suzanne Collins, author of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy, said the book series was inspired by her channel surfing between reality TV shows and actual war coverage, young people being present in both. Both programs began to blend together for the author, and Katniss’s story was born. Seeing as the whole existence of Panem is dependent on the Hunger Games—a televised fight to the death wherein only one minor survives—its concept bears an eerie resemblance to many themes and plot points of popular television shows today. To quote Gale Hawthorne from THE HUNGER GAMES, “You root for your favorites, you cry when they’re killed. It’s sick.”

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Other past and present popular TV shows—BREAKING BAD, THE 100, GAME OF THRONES, etc.—are also proponents of eliminating threats through any means possible. In doing this, the characters are expected to put a price on the lives of people around them. By extension, the audience weighs in with their own opinions on the matter, finding characters they connect with in some way and hoping those characters find a way to survive until the show’s end through any means necessary.

While these shows are fictional and do resemble a world in which their audience never intends to live, certain shows like THE WALKING DEAD are known for showing the capacity for evil that humans have. Think about it: before the zombie apocalypse, all these people had jobs, families, mundane lives. That’s one reason why we can relate to these characters. We essentially are them before the Walkers arrived to turn the world upside down.

Is that why we excuse them? Because, when put in that situation, we would want the same pardons?

laying-down-the-law

Whether or not we pardon them because we like them or because we see bits of ourselves in them, the cost of morality and higher conscience is at stake when it comes to THE WALKING DEAD and other shows. Yes, at the end of the day they are fictional, and we can return to the regularly scheduled programming of our lives. However, underlying that crucial fact is the ultimate burden of being able to bear the same amount of integrity and conscience you had before watching these shows.

As an audience, it is within our rights to dictate what kind of consumption we are willing to partake in. By tuning into THE WALKING DEAD, going into each episode in fear of Lucille, are we conveying the message that this is the direction we want TV to go? My answer to that question is no. The point of television is to entertain, not to desensitize its audience to the point of numbness and careless heartbreak. THE WALKING DEAD’s seventh season is founded in petty violence and hollow victories. Even if Daryl and Rick are still alive, I refuse to go on being another casualty of the show. The degradation of my moral fiber will no longer be a victim to a psychotic bat-wielding villain or a group of writers waving their pens in much the same way.

One Comment

  1. sba

    January 15, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    An Abundance of stuff that could and should be said in reply. However, since this is a mere comment and I do not own the place, I mostly wish to convey that being (or not being) a fan of a particular work of art is not really of moral concern at all.
    My major reason for that stance is the sheer multitude of posible, plausible and real reasons for people to like something (or dislike it, respectively). The only moral failure in this kind of affairs I would accept as such were, if someone would not care to figure why they like or dislike something (as off this criterion, I want to clarify that I do not see such a fault with the author, since she made her reasons unambiguously clear — some possible objection to that reasons springs to my mind but since I have not seen all of the show yet, I could not defend it)

    So to the essential question, “if we, as an audience, can say it is okay to weigh the lives of characters?”: This is more specific in an aspect (certain priciples have to be applied), and more general in another (we go beyond the series), than the question in the headline and I do not dare to answer it on anyone else’s behalf (if they can say it to be okay).
    Yes, I myself can say so.
    First of all I understand that process to be ingrained in storytelling as soon as death plays a part in it’s resolution of the conflict. There are stories, that cannot be told without this. As soon as the situation is set so that “neither can live while the other survives” the creator (and subsequently, the audience) cannot help but weigh the characters’ lives. Because someone WILL die and there better be some good reason for it (however the encounter ends). The situation may seem easier if the antagonism has clear goody/bady-labels atached to it (Potter vs. Voldemort) and more complicated when we see characters transgress standards we have accepted ourselves in our everyday lives, but it all comes down to each side trying to survive on the other’s expense. At it’s base it is a wartime-scenario. In general as well as in The Walking Dead (Humans vs. Walkers; Competing bands of humans vs. each other (the latter being my own main point of criticism)).

    Mutually exclusive survival still is far to frequently a reality to people, thus it will stay a recurring trope in storytelling. If we accept that art reflects life, this is just how it is. The purposes it serves this way are, again, manyfold, and not entirely the creators’ to determine, so desensitizing may be a side-effect on parts of the audience. But then, people also use stories to make sense of things. Or as a relieve (e.g. as a reminder that situations can be resolved). Or as tokens of something they want to achieve or avoid.To forget about the fact that it is up to each single member of an audience to decide what a given work of art is good for in their own, real lives (and be it on the expense of some billions of fictional characters (looking at you, Douglas Adams)) leaves some bitter aftertaste reminiscent of one-dimensional plot design.

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