I've been reading some of the criticisms of the latest episode of the Walking Dead, and there have been a lot of accusations of bad faith on the part of the show's creators. You see that a lot with any show or movie that people are invested after it takes a new direction. People assume that if a show or movie made them feel bad, that the creator of the show or movie either made a mistake, or were intentionally trying to "punish" their audience. In this case, the creators of The Walking Dead are being accused of taking a once well meaning show and turning it into meaningless torture porn. While I can't claim to know what the intentions of the show's creators are, I can tell you that I have a lot of respect for what the cast and crew of The Walking Dead did with the Season 7 premiere. It made me feel terrible and I never want to watch it again, but I in no way felt like I was supposed to "get off" on seeing terrible things happen to good people. The depiction of violence and death on the show wasn't meaninless to me. It felt undeniably awful, and when you're telling a story about the stages of grief, denial (or lack there of) have to be part of the equation if you want to be effective.
The episode doesn't actually start with any character death (or deaths). It starts us seeing Rick Grimes immediate reaction to a huge loss. The show so far has often focused on Rick's transformation into someone who can tolerate ever increasingly intense threats and losses by reacting in a strong, capable way. Where other's may cry, or go into shock, Rick immedietely fights. By grabbing on to just enough denial to keep him from breaking down, he's able to skip over sadness and bargaining and goes right into a cold, calculating anger. Acceptance is not on the table for him until he wins. Instead of fight or flight, it's fight or die. This mode is how he has managed to keep himself and his group alive. It's one many of wish we could go into when we're scared, sad, or angry.
That way of handeling threat and loss doesn't work in this situation, and I love that, because that's much more true to life than many of the conflicts from past episodes. In real life, the more you fight back, the worse things often get, and that's exactly what happens to Rick when he tries to defy Negan. Rick is forced, through the course of the episode, to process all five stages of grief (denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and acceptance), guided and controlled by Negan at every step of the way. Negan's idea of acceptance for Rick is to accept his powelessness and to just fall in line. It's the first time in the show's history where this has happened in such a complete and definitive way. There is no victory, or no stalemate. It's a definitive loss for our heroes, one that they must either adapt to or die.
Now could they have achieved that by making us feel as they did with the intense violence and gore shown in the episode? I don't think so. The sense of total loss, faliure, and inevitabilty of death would have been suggested, but not felt. I really felt like part of me died when I watch this episode, at least for the moment, when I looked at (blank character) in their last conscious moments. If their death had been off screen, or less brutal, I would not have felt that death in as real of a way.
This is just ne of the ways that this episode of the Walking Dead was not entertainment. It's real, actual powerlessness, and how we are affected by it. In hearing the creators of the show talk about it, it doesn't sound like they intended it to be anything more than that. They sounded afraid that they knew they were going to push audiences away with an hour of television that is in no way enjoyable to partake in, but they were hoping that we'd have enough faith in them to see what happens next anyway. It's easier for me to see that because I have an idea of what will happen on the show for the next few years, assuming the show at least loosely follows the comics. This episode was a necessary chapter in a larger story about grief, loss, and rebuilding your humanity. It wasn't just a goofy gross-out fest like Ash Vs. Evil Dead, or a mindless atrocity exibition like one of Eli Roth's worse movies. At least, it wasn't for me.
Maybe in a few years, after people see how Negan is finally "delt with" by Rick, people will see this episode in a better light, as it definitely makes more sense in that larger context?
Ah! Baby's pooping. Gotta go.