Surprisingly explicit, tonight’s The Walking Dead midseason premiere, aptly named “No Way Out,” was a clear reminder to viewers that the show they enjoy so much is unabashedly a part of the horror genre. Predictably, online criticism over the brutality of the episode was swift. If you haven’t yet watched the episode, now would be a good time to stop reading because we are going to talk in detail about what transpired and why viewer reaction was likely so strong…and mixed.
The complete evisceration of the Anderson family comes as no surprise to readers of the comic books. Jessie’s death, in particular the scene in which Rick hacks off her arm, is a significant part of comic lore and so was met with a level of excitement not commonly associated with a character’s death. A large number of feminist bloggers decried the way some fans responded with humor to the scene (labeling it the #GreatChop), suggesting that the celebratory reaction at seeing the characters killed, especially Jessie, was misogynistic.
To my mind, there are actually two issues going on here. The first involves examining whether the Anderson family was only introduced to facilitate grief on the part of both core characters and the audience and whether, if that’s true, the show has now become misery porn. The second issue is whether viewers are wrong to get excited by and celebrate depictions of carnage on a horror television show.
The Problem with Jessie
Now that Jessie’s arc has concluded, it is startlingly obvious that the character was developed to further Rick’s storyline and not to exist on her own merits. What could have been an exploration of how a woman with two troubled children rebuilds her life in the apocalypse instead became the excuse to help Rick move on from his grief over Lori. Certainly, fan reaction to Jessie was notably extreme, ranging from Richonne shippers arguing the Jessie/Rick pairing was the result of racism to character bashing decrying Jessie as promiscuous and a bad mother. And to be fair, those criticisms are not unwarranted.
For as much hate as Lori received for her dubious mother skills (hate I would argue is undeserved), Jessie is positioned as an even more extreme version of disengaged motherhood. Not only does she dismiss a grieving Ron’s concerns over having Rick in their lives, but her overtly laissez-faire approach to dealing with Sam’s obvious PTST illustrates that not only is she not tuned into her children’s emotional states, she is actively disengaged. Scenes such as the ant-encrusted cookie in Sam’s room not only suggest Sam’s increasingly unstable mental state, it highlights that Jessie is not aware of what is happening with her son and hasn’t been for some time. Her focus on a budding romantic relationship with Rick was alienating to viewers because it was rushed, didn’t feel earned, and seemingly came at the expense of her children’s well being.
Given this narrative, I wholeheartedly agree with feminist bloggers who found her death reductive. Jessie become a plot function and not a well-developed character, which, given her backstory as a domestic abuse survivor, is especially problematic because her only purpose was to fuel Rick’s inevitable man pain. Sam too is an especially concerning death because his clear struggle with PTSD was ultimately reduced to a scene of him chanting “Mom, Mom” at the worst possible time. Interestingly, when I was in New York for the TWD event last Monday night, this scene elicited a lot of laughter from the audience. That right there should tell us something. Audiences laughing at what they perceive to be Sam’s stupidity are doing so because the show never explored his underlining issues to the point where it generated true audience sympathy. It was a missed story beat that colors the spectacle of his death.
As much as I adore The Walking Dead, the show does have a frustrating tendency to skip character-developing storyline beats in favor of action sequences. It’s why we have never seen a conversation between Michonne and Carol over lost children or why Daryl, someone who is trying to recover from childhood trauma, never shared any scenes with Sam. And so when online outrage decries the way the Anderson family was used in facilitation of the story, I appreciate the anger and even agree with most of it.
Spectacle Matters in Horror
That being said, and for as much as I dislike the show’s handling of Jessie, I did rejoice in the spectacle that was her death.[i] For many online fans hostile to the anticipation some of us viewers felt at seeing one of the comic’s bloodier scenes come to life, such an excitement seems perverse.
There is an aesthetic of confrontation that is inherent in those creative works designed to be experienced as repulsive. Horror historian Adam Lowenstein notes that there is a difference between spectacle horror that is engineered to provoke direct, visceral audience engagement and ambient horror that is more passively enjoyed.[ii] Certainly, the #GreatChop qualifies as the former.
But I reject wholeheartedly the argument that my enjoyment of spectacle makes me of dubious moral character and that I shouldn’t be allowed to be around children. Yes, both of those arguments appeared fairly frequently today on social media. Explicit horror provides a sensory experience much akin to riding a roller coaster. In fact, researchers have found that physiologically speaking those two experiences are quite similar.
And here within lies the inherent contradiction that is the Walking Dead fan base. Yes, the show is inarguably horror, but that doesn’t mean its viewers are fans of the genre. In fact, what the #GreatChop controversy suggests is that the narrative is being consumed from two very distinct perspectives. On one side are the fans who are unhappy at watching the slaughter of a family, in particular a child, which likely serves no overarching point but to upend Rick’s emotional state and cast Carol in a questionable light (seriously, that voiceover!). On the other side are fans, like myself, who enjoy the spectacle of horror just as much as dissecting the show’s philosophies.
The intersection of feminism and American horror film is not easily unpacked. Despite the perceived misogyny of the genre, it is not easily labeled. From the rise of female horror directors (Leigh Janiak, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent) to films that explore female relationships (Ginger Snaps, 2000) and are overtly feminist (Sister, 1973), the rise of so-called feminist horror is marked.
So what then are we to make of those sub-genres of horror that are distinctly fueled by the female-in-peril trope, such as slashers and torture porn? Conventional wisdom dictates that women respond differently to images of carnage than do men. Certainly the opposition to the #GreatChop anticipation building on social media was decidedly coming from female voices.
For me, a feminist fan of horror, the bloodshed last night isn’t so much about celebrating a family’s demise (although I’m sure there is some of that amongst fans), as it is an appreciation for the way the genre uses violence to upset the equilibrium of the narrative. The Alexandria storyline was constructed to show how the survivors fared upon reaching a perceived “safe place” to call home. But as we viewers are well aware, no such place truly exists. Graphic scenes such as the ones we witnessed in this episode function to engage the audience on an instinctual level.
Part of the impact experienced by horror fans comes from the sense of anticipation. What the #GreatChop does for horror fans is build that excitement outside of the narrative so that when the climactic event unfolds on screen, the release experienced is even greater.
Obviously, though, this mindset presupposes that those watching the show are fans of horror and welcome, and even encourage, this physiological reaction. But what we know is that not all fans of The Walking Dead consider themselves fans of horror. For many, the show is an aberration in their viewing habits. They do not gravitate toward the show because it is horror, but despite it. Perhaps they identify with one of the characters (and yes the show does contain some extraordinarily nuanced character arcs) or because they appreciate a dystopian setting. Whatever the reason non-horror fans view the show, their experience is inevitably different than those of us who see value in the horror genre.
And so we’re left with this divide within the fandom that suggests the show’s narrative is being experienced and consumed in two distinctly separate but parallel ways. With Negan coming and the threat of extreme violence only increasing, I’m curious to see whether these two viewer experiences can ever be successfully merged.
[i] The issue of Sam is slightly complicated by his age but my point of spectacle extends to his death as well. The issues inherent to how the show portrayed his mental decline are extensive and will be dealt with in another piece.
[ii] Lowenstein, Adam. “Spectacle Horror and Hostel: Why ‘Torture Porn’ Does not Exist,” Critical Quarterly 53.1 (2011): 42-60.