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In the six years since its debut, the post-apocayptic horror series The Walking Dead has courted its fair share of controversy. Based on the violent graphic novel by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore and adapted by acclaimed filmmaker Frank Darabont, whose big screen version of Stephen King’s The Mist gained its own notoriety due to an unnecessarily bleak ending, the show has gained considerable critical acclaim and strong ratings throughout its six seasons.
However, earlier this year there was criticism over the fate of a homosexual character and how this was originally depicted in the source material. ‘In the comics, it’s Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), not Denise, who dies with an arrow through his eye,’ claimed Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson. ‘The comic book version of Denise does die, yes, but a little later on down the line. And while being a lesbian doesn’t mean a character should be bulletproof — anyone and everyone should be ready to die on The Walking Dead — the writers did decide to swap the gay character in for the straight, white alpha male.’
But now it would appear that the show has pushed the boundaries of acceptable taste a little too far with the gruesome and brutal opening episode of the seventh season. The finale of the last season was directed by renowned special effects artist Greg Nicotero and introduced audiences to a new villain, Negan. Initially created for the comic by Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, the character was portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, best known to television audiences for his role recurring role in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. ‘I’ve kind of become accustomed to playing sort of the good guy, you know, maybe a rough exterior with a heart of gold in there somewhere,’ explained the actor at last year’s PasCon. ‘I think the challenge for me in this role is going to be, ‘Is there any heart in Negan?’ And for me I look at that as a challenge as an actor and that’s the kind of thing I embrace and really look forward to.’
Last Day on Earth, the closing chapter of the sixth season, concluded with Negan taking several characters hostage and teasing the group over which he intends to kill before lashing out at one with his barbed wired baseball bat. Nicotero, whose experience in the zombie genre had included creating the gruesome make-up for George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, returned to the director’s chair for the seven season premiere The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be, which commenced with the barbaric murders of both Abraham and Glenn (Steven Yeun), the latter a character who has been with the show since its inception.
Regarding the cliffhanger of season six, which refused to satisfy fans with answering which characters would meet their death, Nicotero told Enertainment Weekly earlier this year, ‘I’d say in retrospect I don’t think we would have changed anything. I would have still supported doing it the way that we did it, because of the fact that the story doesn’t end there. If we would have shown the deaths, then they would have felt our characters in season seven the way they need to. And the thing that I think a lot of people will get out of it is how that moment changes the entire make-up of our universe with a split second. And it’s that moment that launches our entire season seven into that direction.’
But the explicit violence of the episode has caused a significant backlash. According to Polygon, while the episode was seen by seventeen million viewers, the second highest rating in its history, figures dropped off significantly for the following episode, mostly due to negativity surrounding the fates of Abraham and Glenn. In an article published by Forbes Erik Kain wrote, ‘The season seven premiere was deeply controversial and left me with complicated feelings of both excitement for where the show was headed and disgust at where it just went…The new antagonist is as cruel and wicked as anyone the group has encountered. Unfortunately, in an effort to keep crafting worse and worse villains, the show has fashioned itself a cartoon. Negan is the caricature of a villain, much like Ramsay Snow in Game of Thrones. Both characters exist in worlds defined by shades of grey, in which good people do bad things and bad people may be the only ones you can rely on.’Yet despite the shocking introduction of the new villain, co-creator Kirkman recently revealed to an audience at New York Comic Con that the comic incarnation of the character will not outstay his welcome, ‘When I run out of ideas for Negan, I’ll just kill him. Negan was supposed to die at the end of the Something to Fear arc. He was originally supposed to be in the book for only four or five issues…It was supposed to end when Maggie takes over the Hilltop. Rick was going to deliver Negan’s head in a box to Maggie to say, ‘I’m sorry.”
The episode is now facing new controversy following the announcement that its violence is being investigated by Ofcom, the regulator of British television, in which they had stated, ‘We’re investigating scenes of very strong violence shortly after the 9pm watershed and whether these scenes were justified by the context.’ Despite the scene being censored for UK audiences, the network have responded by issuing a statement via Digital Spy, ‘As Fox Networks Group is regulated by Ofcom, we have a duty of care to ensure all our programmes broadcast adhere to the parameters of the Ofcom Broadcasting code.’
For those too squeamish to watch the episode in all its brutal glory, one YouTube user has uploaded a video that depicts the scene with Lego®: