Walking Dead is pissing me off. Again.
The problem started with the final episode of Season 6, when Negan finally appears. The show had been building up to this for several episodes, as Rick’s group had a series of run-ins with Negan’s minions. In this episode, several of Rick’s group were captured by Negan’s much larger force and hauled into a clearing where they were forced to kneel as Negan gave one of his long-winded speeches.
Negan blathered on about how Rick and his group thought they were on top, but they were about to learn that they weren’t, and that he was going to punish them by beating one of them to death. He went on to taunt them with what was coming, and how much it must suck for them not knowing who would die. Then, as promised, he beat one of them to death with his baseball bat.
That’s where I got pissed off.
It’s not the killing itself that bothered me. Like every Walking Dead fan, I was well aware of the show’s willingness to kill off major characters. This was one of the things that made Walking Dead so intense: When bad things happened, no one was safe.
Obviously, Walking Dead is scripted television, so we know that the characters die because the writers decide to kill them. But until this moment, it always felt like a natural part of the story. People died because of decisions they made, or because of things they didn’t know, or because other people made decisions for which that they paid the price, or because they lost a fight with one of the show’s villains. The illusion of the fiction was working.
But Negan’s scene ruined that. In his speech, he made it clear he was calculating how to kill one of Rick’s group with the intent of causing them emotional pain, and that was weird to me, because I realized the Walking Dead writers had also been calculating how to kill one of Rick’s group to cause some strong emotions in the show’s audience. Negan was basically acting out the writers’ subtext right in front of us. The only way the authorial intrusion could have been more obvious is if series creators Robert Kirkman and Scott Gimple had come out and simply fired one of the actors.
(This was made ten times worse by having the episode end just as Negan started beating his victim, without showing the viewers who it was. We had to wait for the opening episode of the next season to find out. This cheap trick only served to emphasize how blatantly the writers were trying to manipulate us.)
Nevertheless, I continued to watch the show through two dismal years of the conflict with Negan, hoping that it would get good again. This season, under new showrunner Angela Kang, was really starting to show some promise. At least until last Sunday’s episode, which did pretty much the same damned thing the season 6 finale did.
In this episode, the Whisperers capture some of the good guys out on a patrol. Instead of killing them, the Whisperers give them a portentous warning and tell them to stay out of Whisperer territory, which would now have a special border marker. As the captives leave, they come upon a row of stakes, with a head mounted on each one. These are revealed to be the heads of various cast members, conveniently arranged in order of importance and shock value.
Since the Whisperers just grabbed a more-or-less random selection of people from the Kingdom, this feels just like Negan’s random choice of who to kill. But of course, neither of these killings were at random: The writers were doing it. I can imagine them sitting down to calculate how many minor characters they could kill without it seeming like a cop-out, and which major characters they could kill without hurting their ratings, and which ones they had to keep around for plot purposes…until they had just the right combination of dead characters to shock the viewers without driving too many of them away.
The big shock might still have worked if we had seen the action, if we had seen them captured, seen how they fought, and seen how they died. But all of that happened off screen (except for a hackneyed flashback narrated by one of the survivors). All we got to see was the proof that they were dead. This is only slightly better than if they’d ended with a white-on-black text epilogue that said “While you were watching this, the writers have decided to kill the following characters…”
Things like this make the whole show less enjoyable. Instead of being enthralled by the ups and downs of the story, I just feel silly for ever having cared.