The Walking Dead is a cable-TV show about the zombie apocalypse and the brave band of survivors who are barely clinging to hope and their humanity. It airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC, and millions watch—season 4 averaged 13.3 million viewers per live episode and last week’s season 5 premiere set a record with 17.3 million. By definition, it’s a gruesome show that doesn’t flinch from grotesque violence, and always has been—in the very first scene of the series’ very first episode, a shaken Rick Grimes, still wearing his crisp police-officer duds, shoots a little-girl walker in the head.
That was four years ago, and Rick is now a completely different man. The Walking Dead‘s audience has changed along with him, and it’s become harder and harder to shock them. But that’s a challenge the show’s creatives have gleefully accepted. Last season, a marauding gang of villainous predators threatened Rick’s teenage son, Carl, Deliverance-style while Rick was forced to watch, and his “Hail, Mary” response was to rip out his captor’s throat—with his teeth.
This season, in just two episodes, we’ve witnessed the unvarnished horrors of Terminus, the promised sanctuary that turned out to be a spider web of sorts for a ruthless community of cannibals. First, we saw their slaughterhouse kill floor, where victims were bound and gagged, hit over the head with a baseball bat, had their throat slashed, dumped into a trough to bleed out, and then hung from a hook and butchered into portions. “You’re either the butcher or the cattle,” explained Gareth, the leader of Terminus.
Then, last night, Gareth and his minions returned as a band of hunters, stalking our reunited heroes. They pick off a careless Bob Stookey, and if it wasn’t clear what their M.O. at Terminus was before, there’s no longer any doubt. Bob wakes up, tied up near a crackling fire, but that bump on his head is the least of his problems.
“We’re out here like everybody else, trying to survive, and in order to do that, we have to hunt. It didn’t start that way, eating people. It evolved into that—we evolved. We had to. And now we’ve devolved into hunters,” Gareth says matter-of-factly. “But… at the end of the day, no matter how much we hate all this ugly business…”
Cut to wider shot that reveals that Bob’s left lower leg has been amputated.
“…a man’s got to eat,” Gareth adds, while chewing on a barbecued piece of the man sitting in front of him. “If it makes you feel any better, you taste much better than we thought you would.”
The Walking Dead has always lived in uncharted television territory, and you can’t say that viewers weren’t warned that this season was determined to go even further beyond Thunderdome. “I do think it’s worth stressing—we’re really earning our rating this season,” Andrew Lincoln told EW in September. “There are families that watch it together, but just so it’s on record, guys: It’s a grown-up show this season. And some of the violence is moving into a territory where it’s human violence, the most scary aspect of this show.”
But is it too far? And is The Walking Dead getting a free pass because its explicit depictions of violence are framed within a zombiefied landscape?
Killing zombies has always felt more like videogame violence; hence the Zombie Kill of the Week, which celebrated the most creative and gratuitous beheading or arrow through the eye. From that season 1, episode 1 bullet to the little girl’s skull, though, Walking Dead‘s determination to feed what they perceive to be our appetite for zombie mashing has taken on an almost pornographic sheen. Last night, Michonne knocked down a walker—and with the camera focused on the fallen zombie—she steps on its back and bashes its head with the butt of her rifle. Twice. Did you flinch? If not, perhaps human-on-human cruelty is the only place The Walking Dead has left to go.
To be fair, the show is based on Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series, which depicts most all of these horribly dark elements and storylines. To be fair, the characters in Walking Dead might be behaving the only way that characters—both good and evil—could be expected to behave in such a real-life scenario. And, it can also be argued that our desensitivity as viewers parallels the descent that Rick and his companions have had to endure since civilization collapsed. Doesn’t our increasingly numb reaction toward the show’s increasing hyperviolence and ghastly deeds validate the characters’ actions as well as the storytellers’ efforts to bring us into this Hobbesian world?
Maybe. But where are we going with this? If cannibals are chewing on Bob’s tibia in episode 2, where will we be by the time the season finale rolls around? Where will we be in season 6? Where will we be by the time the show finally calls it quits? The Walking Dead boasts some of the most compelling, most complex characters on television, but for a show that relies more and more on shock value, the scariest thing to me is the knowledge that we’re nowhere near the end—or the bottom.