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“The Walking Dead” Is the Furthest Possible Thing from “Torture Porn”

There are few things I’ve come to hate more than the term “torture porn,” which was coined in the wake of mid-2000s films like Saw and Hostel. Basically, the term means what it sounds like it means, denoting films that exist for no other purpose than to subject the audience to graphic and gruesome torture sequences. Mind you, the story-rich Saw franchise doesn’t exactly fit that bill, but it’s nevertheless the film that led to the creation of the reductive and disrespectful term.

Of course, horror has since the beginning of time been looked down upon by film buffs, and “torture porn” is just another way to slam the genre for being the bastard stepchild of the entertainment industry. Granted, there are a handful of movies that can indeed be appropriately described as “torture porn,” but for the most part, the term tends to be applied in all the wrong places. It seems to have become a catch-all term for any piece of entertainment that’s violent, whether it’s a Tarantino film or, well, the latest episode of “The Walking Dead.

As we’ve already touched upon here on Bloody Disgusting, this past Sunday night’s Season 7 premiere of the hit AMC series was one of the most disturbing, harrowing, and grueling hours of television we’ve ever endured, and though we understood that it was exactly as upsetting and brutal as it needed to be, many viewers didn’t quite feel the same way. You’ve probably noticed that your social media feeds are presently filled with outrage about the episode, with many viewers feeling that the network went too far; some have even gone so far as to proclaim that they will never again watch the show. And worse yet, many have written off the incredible episode as, you guessed it, mindless “torture porn.”

What’s funny about this is that “The Walking Dead,” for six complete seasons now, has been mostly criticized for one thing: oddly enough, countless viewers have tuned out because the show is just a bit too story-dense. Horror fans hungry for nonstop zombie action have for years bemoaned the fact that the show is often as talky and dramatic as it is horrifying, if not moreso, and they’ve found themselves bored by all that pesky storytelling. But somehow, in the wake of Negan beating both Abraham and Glenn to death, many articles and social media posts have slammed the series for being nothing more than “torture porn”: a term that, I must remind you, denotes entertainment that is bereft of… story.

Okay, so a show logically cannot have both too much story and no story and all, so let’s assume that those currently criticizing “The Walking Dead” for being “mindless torture porn” are only actually referring to, specifically, the Season 7 premiere – which was, without question, the most brutal and hard-to-watch episode of the show to date. The murders of both Abraham and Glenn were incredibly graphic and downright torturous to watch, and yes, the entire episode was essentially devoted to those heinous acts of barbarism. But if you think what you watched this past Sunday night was mindless violence, nothing more, you surely must’ve been a first-time watcher.

What we saw this past Sunday night was the culmination, for several characters, of YEARS of slow-burn storytelling – of course, for Abraham and Glenn, it was the end of their stories, but for Sasha, Rosita, and Maggie, the direct loved ones of those deceased characters, it was the start of devastating new chapters that will play out in the weeks, months, and years to come. And then there’s the impact that all of this will have on main character Rick Grimes, which was very much at the center of the episode.

Negan’s primary goal was to establish dominance over the group and make Rick understand that he was no longer in control of anything, and by the time he nearly forced Rick to cut off his own son’s arm, that message was firmly beaten into our hero’s brain. The episode was all about the complete destruction of Rick and nearly every single character we’ve fallen in love with these past six years, both the ones who died and also the ones who survived, and the reason why so many viewers are so upset is, I assure you, because it was hard to watch the implosion of a family unit we hold so near and dear to our hearts. In other words, the only reason any of it was disturbing and upsetting is because of all the storytelling that came before it… YEARS worth of storytelling.

And all those individual stories, oh boy have they been forever changed.

So how can a series, and a specific episode, so rich with compelling narrative threads be reduced to “torture porn” by anyone who has any idea what they’re talking about? Honestly, it cannot be. There is meaning to literally every single thing that happens on “The Walking Dead,” whether it’s a character conversation or a character death, and to assign the term “torture porn” to the show is to disregard all the incredible storytelling that has kept millions of viewers, myself included, riveted to the screen for more than half a decade now. It’s a bloody show. It’s a violent show. It’s a cruel show. But no other horror property on either the small or big screen right now is telling a better story than it.

“The Walking Dead” is, simply put, the antithesis of “torture porn.”

If you think otherwise, you haven’t been paying much attention.

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COMMENTS

16 Comments
  • Seeing everyone hostage in a circle almost the entire episode was so nail biting and intense, i dont know how this can be seen as mindless torture porn when it was emotionally and physically gripping. Everyone was afraid of this show, everyone was afraid their favorite would also bite the dust, it was almost that unpredictable. And they waited the right amount of years to do it.

  • LRenae

    Even if you view the episode in a vacuum, the psychology and intentionality behind Negan’s actions give it too much depth be devoid of story. Both of his victims were chosen for a specific purpose. Abraham was clearly the physical strength of the group and he likely didn’t appreciate him being the only one standing tall. He was a threat. He couldn’t directly punish Daryl because it wouldn’t teach as much of a lesson so he chose another member that had a clearly strong relationship. Then he made Rick continue to fight instead of just shutting down by making him get the ax. Maybe we wouldn’t know quite so much about the importance of his choices without previous episodes but it’s still pretty obvious.

  • Shawn McLoughlin

    I’m glad that the acting was excellent coming from Rick and Maggie in this episode, because it was the only thing that was decent about it.

    I don’t think the show is torture porn at all, and I don’t think it “went to far.” I just don’t think it’s good, at all. (And yes, I’ve read the books). I can’t think of a popular dramatic show in history that has had so many ups and downs tonally. I still think Negan is a cartoon character villain of barely any interest, and he’s kept around far too long in the book. The show, for all it strays from the book, never strays far enough to be interesting. This episode proves it. The hand tease at the beginning, the killing a character who switched-deaths with a different character two episodes ago, the “oooooh, you thought it was Glenn, but now it wasn’t, haha just kidding, yes it’s Glenn” that was so plainly telegraphed that the framing was PERFECTLY ON GLENN when his moment started.

    The “culmination” rarely ever happens in this show. It’s just travelling from set piece from the book to set piece from the book. “Time to kill that guy who killed one of our guys” played out time and time again. That is a great way to start, but it’s just spinning wheels at this point. For me it’s gone from enjoyable entertainment, to just boring me.

    But I’ll keep watching, because my wife is still interested in it. I just hope it improves.

  • Matt

    Great piece John, bravo. I couldn’t agree with you more. This show has it all – zombies, violence, gore, zombies, a solid story, great characters, zombies, personal relationships, emotion, and oh, it’s got zombies!

  • Josh Blitzenbrox Myers

    No, it is not torture porn…it’s misery porn. Subtle difference.

  • Mr. Dry

    Ok, TWD might rely way too much on the shock value, its story arcs sometimes are way too long and there are at least 6 unnecesary episodes per season but saying it is torture porn because of that pair of deaths is like saying that a romantic movie is just regular porn because of a sex scene.

  • plutohiller

    I love your point, John, and I’ve been saying the same thing on other websites in defense of the episode. “Too violent” or “shock value” does not take into account context. Both context of the plot and emotional impact. I fail to see how a show about a post apocalyptic world caused by zombies can be too violent or depressing. I think the people that expect anything less are ridiculous. The premiere episode was really brilliant when you look at all the outrage. Viewers were unsettled, perhaps only a fraction of how the group actually felt witnessing it in the show? Clearly, Neegan broke the viewers as well as Ricks group. I’ve never had an episode of a show stick with me throughout the week like this show.

  • Ash Housewares

    I’d like to reply. But in order to do so, can you cite some examples of what you call “a handful of movies that can indeed be appropriately described as “torture porn.” It’s impossible for anyone to challenge you when you refuse to tell us where you draw the line between horror and filth. I’m hoping it’s above “A Serbian Film.”

  • disqus_uPh3WDxbQy

    Thank you. The Walking Dead is well-written, wonderfully acted and shows so much heart. TWD is the furthest thing from “torture porn”. This will go down as one of the best shows of all time.

  • LOX TO THE DEATH

    The reason a lot of horror fans tuned out from the walking dead are the characters i have watched all of it and the only one who is interesting is Carol i would not care if the whole cast was wiped out and replaced

    • Trippy Leatherface

      Fail.

  • The Drucifer

    I dunno, sitting through this show is torture and I often have my wiener out. It’s like a mental bdsm. Both involve me being insulted by people in latex.

    • Trippy Leatherface

      …?

  • Dan

    John, I am so glad BD has a staff member that actually enjoys the show & doesn’t trash it to be cool. If people don’t like it, tune the F out & go bitch on a anti TWD page.

  • Fr0gg0

    People are so pathetic these days.

  • Leslie Rushforth

    Couldn’t have put it better myself. Excellent article.

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