The writers of the hugely popular TV series The Walking Dead — now in its seventh season — established very early that in a world where civilisation has been all but extinguished by flesh-eating zombies, the most dangerous creatures are not the zombies, but the survivors. Survival is an exercise in brutality and cruelty, and the main characters’ humanity diminishes from one episode to the next. As a viewer, you are aware that this is not going to be an easy ride. That this is a journey through a road so bleak that your emotions can be trampled on at every corner.
Even with this in mind, nothing can prepare you for the emotional and visual trauma delivered in the first episode of the seventh series. Nothing can prepare you for the brutality, unleashed with unprecedented amounts of gory, graphic violence, on characters we have grown to like over several seasons. Critics have hailed and booed this episode in equal measure. It has been described as torture porn by the haters and as turning point in prime-time television by those who liked it. I’m still torn on this; I watched it with a strange combination of disgust and excitement, kind of like a freak roller-coaster ride where you question the reason for doing this to yourself, while the thrill is so palatable you can taste it.
There are definitely questions raised by this episode regarding the limits of depiction of violence and the boundaries between visual storytelling and bad taste. There is also a discussion on the desensitisation of a modern audience that — in the age of live beheadings on YouTube — needs increasing doses of gore to be ‘entertained’. What I found truly astonishing was the calculated confidence with which both director and writers chose to deliberately traumatise their audience as a means of raising the show’s ratings. It was emotional trauma as entertainment.
What I also found very interesting was an article in Forbes magazine suggesting that Trump’s recent victory in the US presidential elections was partly due to his advertising team deliberately targeting the vast Walking Dead audience. They apparently figured that people who thrill to the idea of battling flesh-eating human-like monsters will also be against immigration and very sympathetic to building a huge wall. I think this is a simplistic analysis. If anything, this series is quite open-minded in its depiction of interracial relationships. It also features strong female characters and gay couples, hardly the kind of mix that an alt-right audience would find to their taste.
There is, however, more than a hint of politics in the way power and governance are depicted in the Walking Dead dystopia. After the global breakdown of government and the collapse of the justice system and law enforcement, people group together in small, protectionist clans, which build walls to protect themselves from the undead and from other clans. Communities are run by psychopathic dictator figures who use extreme violence, fear and manipulation to rule over terrified and vulnerable citizens who have lost all hope and lack a moral compass. This is where the horrible baseball-bat sequence fits in. It is a form of primeval politics of trauma.
I think that The Walking Dead is the meeting point of two very dark sides of the human condition: the use of trauma as entertainment and the depiction of trauma as politics. Whether this is a good place to be is of course up to the audience to decide. Despite the onslaught, classic Hollywood storytelling is not dead yet — the writers are already setting the ground for the protagonist’s big comeback, and the bad guys will probably get what they deserve. But right now, The Walking Dead is (maybe unwittingly) also the place where we can get some valuable insight into who we are and where we are heading as viewers, as individuals and as a society overall.