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The Walking Dead producers claim they did not tone down violence due to backlash

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Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd raised eyebrows on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at the National Association of Television Executives conference in Miami when she seemed to confirm suspicions that producers may have toned down some violence on the show after the reaction to the gruesome season 7 premiere in which two characters were bludgeoned with a barbed wire-covered baseball bat. “We were able to look at the feedback on the level of violence,” said Hurd on a NATPE panel, first reported by Variety. “We did tone it down for episodes we were still filming for later on in the season.”

However, two exec producers tell EW that they did not change their approach at all after many viewers were critical of the graphic nature of the premiere. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple points out that the explicitness of that premiere baseball bat beating was intended to be above and beyond what the zombie drama usually does, and that nothing that came after was ever intended to come anywhere close to it.

“The violence in the premiere was pronounced for a reason,” says Gimple. “The awfulness of what happened to the characters was very specific to that episode and the beginning of this whole new story. I don’t think like that’s the base level of violence that necessarily should be on the show. It should be specific to a story and a purpose, and there was a purpose of traumatizing these characters to a point where maybe they would have been docile for the rest of their lives, which was Negan’s point. But I will say again, the violence in the premiere was for a specific narrative purpose and I would never say that that’s the baseline amount of violence that we would show on the show. If we’re ever going to see something that pronounced, there needs to be a specific narrative purpose for it.”

Executive producer and director Greg Nicotero answers with a flat “No” when asked if anything was toned down later as a result of fan feedback, and he also says that if they could go back, they would not change a thing. “As brutal as that episode 1 was, it’s still part of our storytelling bible, which is what the world is about. I don’t think we would ever edit ourselves, and I think — even after looking at that episode 1 again — as tough as it was for people to watch, I don’t think we would have done it any differently. I don’t think we’ll ever pull ourselves back. There is definitely a difference between violence against walkers and human on human violence, but truthfully, we’re serving our story.”

We do know courtesy of Fat Joey actor Joshua Hoover that he was on the receiving end of a violent beat-down courtesy of Daryl Dixon, a more graphic version of which was cut from the Dec. 11 midseason finale. “Yeah I took a hit, Hoover told ComicBook.com. “I took a hit on the head from Mr. Norman Reedus, and it was a good hit.… I got hit right square in the head. There was the special effects that they do with the blood packet. They had a blood packet on the pipe and it just went everywhere. Everybody said it looked so awesome, but also pretty graphic. So I’m assuming that’s why they didn’t show that angle, they probably had a little too much already with Spencer’s guts.”

Of course, it is entirely possibly that the Fay Joey beatdown was simply cut for time or because of a specific editing choice. Also, as Hoover notes, producers certainly didn’t appear to skimp when showing Spencer’s guts spilling out of his body in that same episode, which certainly was not PG fare.

But then there is the infamous iron scene in episode 707 (“Sing Me a Song”), where Negan puts an iron to the face of one of the Saviors for hooking up with his former girlfriend (now one of Negan’s wives). When this big comic book event was presented on the show, it pointedly did not linger on the moment, and instead featured a lot of cutaways to other characters while the actual incident took place, before finally cutting back at the end to see the iron pulling off the face.

Did producers show less of that horrific moment because of reaction to the premiere? “Specific to that scene, I guess specific to everything, no,” says Gimple. “Greg Nicotero is the greatest makeup special effects guy in the world, but… what you don’t see sometimes can be so much more horrible than what you see, what you imagine. And with the iron, that’s a really good example. That’s something that I think the audience should do a little bit more of the work on. Also because as far as that kind of moment, the reality of what that would look like is strange looking. We’ve been in fist fights when we were kids on the playground and there’s amalgams to that violence, but that kind of strange burn, the audience doing that in their head, even hearing it, it’s just a different moment.”

So you can believe Hurd that the violence was intentionally toned down because of fan reaction to the premiere, believe Gimple and Nicotero that viewer reaction played no part, or believe that the truth is in the nuances somewhere in between. Either way, you can expect there will be more victims when the show returns to AMC on Feb. 12.

For more Walking Dead scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.