You can be mad about that 'Walking Dead' death, but you shouldn't be surprised

Mashable

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This story contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 7 premiere. 

If you're feeling traumatized by the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead, you aren't alone. 

After the long-awaited episode aired, countless fans took to Twitter to express their horror and outrage over the deaths of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), with many declaring that they want to quit watching the show altogether.

It's a cycle we seem to go through after every major death on the show — dating all the way back to the earliest seasons, when we lost the likes of Amy, Dale, T-Dog, Lori, Andrea and even love-to-hate favorite Merle. 

Of course, some fans probably have followed through on their promise and stopped watching the show after losing their favorite character, but judging by the juggernaut ratings for The Walking Dead (it's still the highest rated show on television among adults 18-49), while many may threaten to "rage quit," they still come back for the next episode once their shock has worn off. 

The producers sympathize. While showrunner Scott Gimple admitted that he had purposefully tried to break the audience just as the premiere broke Rick, executive producer and episode director Greg Nicotero weighed in on fan reaction during a Monday conference call with reporters.

"I would say that that means that we have done something to affect these people in a way that they don’t necessarily know how to process," he told Mashable, when asked how he felt about fans' declarations of quitting. "I’m a big Game of Thrones fan, and I’ve been shocked at the turn of events on that show, but I still love it and I’m still committed to seeing where that story goes."

Ultimately, Nicotero said, fan outrage is just proof that the producers are doing their jobs. "I think it’s a kneejerk reaction that people have, because they care about these characters. If we killed someone and they didn’t care, like, 'no big deal, just gonna go have a bagel and not worry about it,' that means we haven’t done something to connect our people to the characters. 

"It’s a tribute to every single actor on our show that has perished, and it goes back to Emma Bell and Jon Bernthal and Laurie Holden and Sarah Wayne Callies and Michael Rooker. They’re all fantastic actors and after every one of them died, people were upset, and people were like 'oh, how can you do that? That’s it, I’m finished.'"

Nicotero said he doesn't take the extreme reactions personally, but agrees, "I guarantee that there are people that are like 'that’s it, you killed off a character that I love and I’m not gonna watch the show anymore' … It’s unfortunate if that’s really what’s going to happen, because the show still has a tremendous amount to offer." 

With all due respect to Abraham (and Michael Cudlitz's scene-stealing lines), much of the anguish seems specifically reserved for Glenn, who has been with the show since the beginning, and, perhaps most importantly, was one of the few Asian-American lead characters on a primetime series — especially since he was never hamstrung by the kind of racial stereotypes that still plague mainstream roles for actors of color. 

Nicotero described Glenn's death to reporters as necessary for Rick's arc in Season 7. "Part of the whole show is, we really needed to drive Rick and Negan’s story throughout the season, and we felt that one death would do the trick, but the second death, Glenn’s death, really propels us into a very different direction," he explained. "It’s really about Negan laying down the law and saying, 'the bottom line is, if you listen to me, you’ll be fine, but if you step out of line, that’s not gonna fly.' Glenn’s death has a lot to do with Rick’s future story, Maggie’s future story and certainly Daryl’s future story because Daryl was the one who launched himself at Negan ... so it made for a more rich overall story arc for a lot of these other characters."

The fact that Glenn's death was used, in part, as a catalyst for the growth of the white characters around him is particularly galling for many fans, as was the fact that the show employed yet another "fake out" scenario with the character, which saw Negan killing Abraham before dispatching Glenn as a "surprise" death afterwards. 

But was it really a surprise? 

Last season, Glenn appeared to die after falling into a horde of walkers in episode 603, with tricky editing designed to make it look like the fan-favorite character was being torn apart by zombies. To further manipulate the audience, the show even removed Yeun's name from the opening credits for several episodes, as it has previously done whenever a main character dies.

Still, the producers' decision to play coy with Glenn's fate during the subsequent episode of Talking Dead meant that viewers were kept in suspense, uncertain of his status. It took four episodes to learn that Glenn actually survived the seemingly unsurvivable situation by using the body of Nicholas as a shield before climbing under a dumpster and hiding out until the walkers dispersed, all without getting a scratch or bite. It was a narrative contortion that undermined the show's credibility.

As I wrote at the time, "I’m having a hard time seeing the narrative benefit of keeping Glenn alive after faking his death. Contrary to what producer David Alpert told us following episode 603 (“I feel like, regardless of what happened to Glenn, he paid a tremendous price for having been human to Nicholas, and that, to me, from an emotional point-of-view — whether or not Glenn is alive or dead or something else — the Glenn that we knew, the one that believed in the better side of humanity, I think is dead”), nothing about how he behaved in “Heads Up” gave me any indication that he’s any less hopeful, any less inherently good than he always has been. There’s little character growth to be gained from yet another near-death experience after five seasons of constant near-death experiences, and because he has a baby on the way, Glenn arguably has even more reason to believe in humanity’s better angels than before."

That is even more true now, since Glenn had very little character development following his last close encounter with the grim reaper, aside from taking a questionable step towards the dark side when he finally took a human life during the group's attack on the Saviors' compound.

We never really learned about Glenn's backstory or saw flashbacks to his past, and when last season's fake out occurred, he knew Maggie was pregnant, so the stakes were already high for him. To make matters worse, we now have to witness Maggie going through the trauma of losing him twice

And the fact that Scott Gimple revealed that these deaths have been planned for about two years only makes that previous dumpster dive seem more manipulative. Was it the producers' way of counteracting comic book fans' predictions that Glenn would follow the path laid out for him in the comics? Despite the fact that Glenn's death was foretold, that doesn't lessen the sting — the show has deviated from the source material before. Maybe some viewers thought that after last season's bait-and-switch, there was no way the show would toy with fans in the same way yet again — but of course it would. 

The Walking Dead is emotional torture porn, and it has been since the very beginning. 

Lori dying from blood loss after an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter, and her son having to shoot her in the head to prevent her from reanimating? Carol feeling compelled to kill a little girl who had been so warped by the apocalypse that she murdered her own sister? Beth being shot just minutes before she would've reunited with Maggie? That final dinner table scene with our group living happily ever after?

This is just mean.

This is just mean.

Image: AMC

The show calibrates its deaths for maximum anguish. It loads up on gratuitous gore for stomach-churning revulsion. Much like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, stinging us is in The Walking Dead's nature, but we still choose to go along for the ride. If we've developed Stockholm syndrome because we love these characters so much, do we really have the right to vilify the show for doing what it has always done? 

None of this invalidates your feelings of grief and anger over the deaths of Glenn, Abraham or any of the other characters the show has dispatched over the past six years — you should care, because empathy makes us human. But as Steven Lloyd Wilson wrote for Pajiba almost a year ago (further proving the repetitive cycle of abuse this show puts us through):

"The fact that the writers are able to make you actually care about these characters while they torture them for your viewing pleasure shouldn’t be taken as a evidence that the show is any good as a story. It’s a shell game that convinces you to empathize with characters as they’re ground into dust. The empathetic characters are an essential part of the sadistic machine. But it’s only a treadmill of emotion to keep you marching towards the nonexistent dangling carrot ... Constant death and hopelessness isn’t a story."

The only question is, how much suffering are you willing to put up with? Was Glenn's death a turning point for viewers as well as the show? Only time, and ratings, will tell. 

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