Watching the return of The Walking Dead this week was a bit like taking a baseball bat to the face
A baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire and dripping with blood is the look every post-apocalyptic road warrior must have this season, and new Walking Dead antagonist Negan wields his with haughty insouciance.
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has just killed a character you love but the Walking Dead’s (Monday, Fox) creators are a little slow to reveal who it is. They left us at the end of the last series with a humdinger of a cliffhanger. Negan and his crew had encircled our heroes and then Negan battered one of them to death with the aforementioned bat.
This was presented from the point of view of the victim, suggesting that the viewer him/herself was among this circle of shuddering, crying people, all terrified by what might occur in the immediate future (it reminded me of a workshop I attended about journalism in the digital age).
And so in the first episode of the new series, the writers toy with us for a while by flashing forward to after the killing. Was the victim, Negan asks our hero Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Rick’s “right hand man?” Oh no! Not taciturn, greasy-haired, ridiculously unquestioning Daryl! Who will help oversee Rick’s stupid, morally suspect plans that don’t make sense, if Daryl is killed?
It’s not Daryl. Daryl survives. The teasing continues, until eventually, after much waffle from Negan and some snotty weeping from Rick, we get to see a flashback in which Negan chooses a victim from the circle and beats their head into a bloody pulp.
It’s Abraham. Yes. The big ginger military one. His last words: “Suck my nuts.”
Ah Abraham, nothing became him so well in life as the leaving of it. “Suck my nuts” indeed. These words will no doubt be etched on his gravestone and inspire a poetic movement in this new zombie era – the Nutsists.
Abraham was a big ginger whinge, so his death feels like a cop-out. But we don’t really have time to think about this as Negan drags Rick off to give him a sinisterly smiley lecture about how he, Negan, now owns Rick’s “axe”, and then makes Rick retrieve that implement from a gathering low-front of slavering zombies (zombies are now barely commented on and are akin to a weather system in The Walking
Dead; characters practically wet their fingertips, hold them in the air and say, “It’s a bit zombie-ish out, you should wear a hat”).
Anyway, there’s something amusingly homoerotic about all of this coveting of another man’s axe. (Maybe it’s the echo of the words “suck my nuts”.) But the writers are just trifling with us again, because after much grunting from Rick, and some high-energy speechifying from Negan, we get another flashback in which it is revealed that after killing Abraham, Negan smashes Glenn’s head in with the bat.
No! Not Glenn! Not the last major character left with a figurative moral centre but also a surprisingly gooey, bloody and fleshy literal centre!
Yes folks, Glenn. That’s television. I mean, it’s not good television. But it’s certainly television. And who amongst us doesn’t think that Magnum PI would have been improved by the disemboweling of Higgins, or that The Smurfs could have been enhanced by the slow starvation of Gargamel?
It calls to mind John Logie Baird’s oft-quoted line: “Someday people will use this device to watch beloved characters have their heads smashed in with a baseball bat and frankly that’s why I created it.”
On a basic level, killing Glenn was a shocking move (this is what happens in the comics, but the TV show usually remixes the source material). He’s one of four beloved, arguably three-dimensional characters in this show (along with Michonne, Daryl and Carol). But art is all about getting the viewer to ask questions, and as I look at Glenn’s gibbering, caved-in head, his eye popping from its socket, his television wife weeping, I ask questions too. Questions such as: “Is this what a serious head trauma actually looks like?” and “What the hell am I watching this for?” and “What is the Walking Dead even about anymore?”
Worse than zombies
Zombies are beside the point now. “People,” the writers have no doubt underlined on their writing room white board, “are worse than zombies.” The writers hate people, not least the viewers.
“What terrible things will people do in order to survive?” the writers wonder hysterically, but increasingly, I feel like the characters’ lives would be improved if they concentrated more on the husbandry of livestock and less on badlythought-out revenge fantasies and despair. There’s a growing sense that our heroes are among the stupidest possible disaster survivors and that Rick is the worst possible leader.
Everywhere they go they bring chaos. Alexandria (their current home) was, before Rick arrived, an idyllic utopia. Since Rick arrived everyone there has lost loved ones and learned the true meaning of grief. It wasn’t the first place to be Rick-rolled. Hershel’s farm in series two, the little colony of prisoners and the Governor’s autocratic but perfectly ordered town in series three, were all operating just fine until Rick stumbled along with his crew of tooled-up, emotionally scarred depressives.
Even the cannibals in series five had a nicely functioning society and farmer’s market until Rick arrived with his small-minded squeamishness about being eaten and had them all killed.
Rick, like all true monsters, believes himself to be a nice guy and thus he cannot see that he’s as bad, if not worse, than Negan. He’s basically the type of post- apocalyptic strong man that grumpily tweets comments with the hashtag #notallpostapocalypticstrongmen.
In the last series, Rick oversaw a massacre of Negan’s men that involved knifing several of them in their beds. After that, Negan is actually showing commendable restraint by just smashing two of our heroes’ heads into paste. Horrified as I was by these deaths, I also found myself saying, “fair enough” and “this is what leadership looks like”.
Negan coolly operates a terrifyingly ordered, Clintonian diplomatic policy built on rules and consequences and doesn’t just flail around wildly and impetuously in response to whatever angry bubbles of fear and suspicion are percolating in his brain like Rick “Trump” Grimes. He also has a lovely smile and I would totally vote for him or fatalistically submit to his rule if given the opportunity.
The episode ends with another threatened act of ultraviolence when Rick is asked to chop his son’s hand off (like Abraham in the bible; “Suck my nuts,” sayeth Abraham). Ultimately Negan doesn’t make him do this. Instead he takes Daryl as a hostage and our traumatised survivors sit in a circle and weep (like I said – a hollow form of escapism if you work in print journalism).
Anyway, my emotions blunted by horror, I no longer care what happens to these self-destructive dimwits and I increasingly suspect that there’s no compelling dramatic reason for these repetitive cycles of darkness beyond neverending Walking Deadlines (the title of The
Walking Dead, isn’t a reference to zombies at all, but to the poor writers). That said, if the programme finally accepts what it has only hinted at so far – that Rick is the real villain and not a tiresome, ends-justify-means tough-guy archetype – I’ll come back on board.
Until then, for my zombiepocalyptic japes, I’ll stick with the low-budget, good-humoured and joyously creative Z-Nation (Tuesday, Pick), a show in which a human-zombie hybrid fathered a “Zombaby” and several undead trudgers were crushed beneath a giant, rolling cheese, and which I feel is ultimately more realistic, humane and relevant to my way of life #notallzombieshows.
There’s a growing sense that our heroes are among the stupidest possible disaster survivors and that Rick is the worst possible leader
Smashie, not nicey: Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Walking Dead