12:30pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Walking Dead': Why the Season 7 Premiere Was So Violent
[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the season seven premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be," as well as the comic book series it is based on.]
AMC's The Walking Dead delivered its most shocking and violent episode to date with Sunday's season seven premiere. The episode, which picked up with the events from the divisive season six finale, featured the shocking and brutal deaths of two series regulars.
The episode featured charismatic psychopath Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) proving a point to Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) group that they are no longer in charge. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) went first, the result of Negan's random selection — with his death coming after the former Army sergeant volunteered to take one for the team. And take one he did: Negan used Lucille, his barbed wire covered bat, to beat him to death. But not before he got in one last line: "Suck my nuts!"
After Negan taunted Rosita (Christian Serratos), Abraham's ex-girlfriend, Daryl jumped to her defense and punched Negan. As payback, Negan turned around and delivered a moment diehard fans of Robert Kirkman's comic book series had feared (and expected) since its landmark 100th issue: He beat Glenn (original series regular Steven Yeun) to death with Lucille.
The episode saw both men have their heads bashed in with a bat to the point where all that remained was a graphic puddle of blood, brains and skull. Glenn's death was so horrific that, in a nod to the comics, the first of Negan's blows forced his eye from its socket.
Executive producer Greg Nicotero directed the season seven opener and worked on the VFX and prosthetics. To hear him tell it, the violence was necessary to prove that Negan means business and establish the new world order.
"It's intense," Nicotero told THR during a conference call with reporters Monday. "A lot of people that read the comic book and graphic novel, these moments have been ingrained in their brain. I remember sitting next to Steven when I read the 100th issue and talking with him and Robert about it and to me what struck me was that it was horrifically graphic, senseless and brutal. I wanted to try and capture those moments."
Nicotero's comments came during a Monday morning conference call and before conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council blasted the show for its "brutally explicit" violence.
The exec producer, who first directed the season two episode in which Dale (Jeff DeMunn) died, said the series has long laid the groundwork to establish new characters and threats using violence. Those include Woodbury with The Governor (David Morrissey), the cannibals at Terminus — including the trough where Glenn nearly had his head whacked off by a guy with a bat — and the so-called Claimers.
"This is by far the most despicable villain we've ever encountered," Nicotero said of Negan. "He's doing all of this to prove a point and show that 'This is my world; these are my rules.' … We felt it was important to launch us into the season to show what Negan is capable of doing. That drives so much of where the series is going from here on in. … Yeah, it's graphic and horrible."
Nicotero noted that the season seven premiere mirrored how he felt after reading the 100th issue of Kirkman's comic series — full of loss and futility — and sets the stage to see a Rick Grimes that the show has never illustrated before: fearful and broken.
"The violence and brutality are a part of it but I think there's a helplessness: seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence to me," he said.
Nicotero also explained why producers felt the need to remix the source material and kill off not one but two series regulars in the episode. The AMC series often takes a remix approach to Kirkman's comics and in Abraham's case, saw the onscreen character outlive his comic book counterpart. (Denise on the series died the way Abraham was killed off in the comics.)
"We really needed to drive Rick and Negan's story throughout the season and we felt that one death would do the trick but Glenn's death really propels us into a very different direction," Nicotero said. "It's really about Negan laying down the law. The bottom line [for Negan] is if you listen to me, we'll be fine but if you step out of line, that's not going to fly. Glenn's death has a lot to do with Rick's future story, Maggie's future story and certainly Daryl's future story because Daryl was the one who launched himself at Negan. It just made for a more rich overall story arc for a lot of these other characters."
Nicotero defended the season seven premiere, which many critics and fans alike have blasted as manipulative thanks in part to seeing every character being beaten by Lucille and having to wait 20 minutes for the cliffhanger from the polarizing season six finale to be resolved. Sources tell THR that producers filmed all the characters being killed off in a bid to protect the popular series from leaks.
"It certainly wasn't intended that way," Nicotero told THR during the call. "Picking up moments after the death and going into the beginning of Negan going to try and break Rick … Negan realized what he has just done did not do the trick. … The episode is 100 percent designed for you to go on this journey with Rick and start thinking as he did about what happened [with Glenn and Abraham's deaths]. When he starts reliving it, it's the beginning of him being broken. By the end of the episode, that's where he ends up."
Nicotero noted that the entire episode was seen from Rick's point of view — including when Glenn and Abraham were killed — as a bid to not let Negan kill anyone else in that situation. "When Rick imagines everyone else — Rosita, Carl and Daryl — that's his traumatized way of balancing what to do next. Everything that he does is based on the fact that someone else could die and he can't let that happen."
Many diehard viewers have also said that the violence in Sunday's episode was simply too much and have vowed to stop watching. Nicotero has heard those claims before — typically after the onscreen death of fan favorites including Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Andrea (Laurie Holden), Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Michael Rooker (Merle). He sees that threat as a compliment of sorts.
"That means we have done something to affect these people in a way that they don't know how to process," he said, comparing the narrative to Game of Thrones and the HBO drama's long roster of violence and character deaths. "If you kill a character and nobody cares, that means we haven't done something to connect our people to the characters. It's a tribute to every actor on our show that has perished. … It's unfortunate that people want to take a negative spin on it but as far as I'm concerned, I'm dedicated to watching a show because I want to see where the story goes next."
As for what's ahead, Nicotero noted that Glenn's death will deeply impact his pregnant wife, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), while Abraham's passing will see Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) carry on his memory.
"There's more story to tell with the result of what happened with those people," he said. "I guarantee you there are people who said, 'That's it, you killed a character I loved and I’m done.' It's unfortunate because the show still has a lot to offer."
Nicotero, who has been in the industry for decades working on special effects on horror movies and TV shows, compared the season seven opener to Untouchables and the moment when Robert De Niro gets up and kills a guy with a baseball bat to prove a point. "That's much more of where our world is because it's about a balance of power and a shift in power and Negan is clearly 100 percent in control," he said.
As for what's ahead, expect The Walking Dead world to expand beyond Alexandria as the show will further explore the Hilltop and introduce Negan and the Saviors' compound on top of introducing the so-called Kingdom, led by Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and his pet tiger, Shiva.
"We're about to be introduced to different communities and that's the crux of the season: meeting these new groups and people and seeing how the balance of power plays out," he said, noting that producers don't want The Walking Dead to feel stale and repetitive. "Introducing Negan in the comic, the comics took a completely different turn. It's an exciting time for us."
What did you think of The Walking Dead premiere? Are you upset by the violence? Sound off in the comments section, below. Click here to read Michael Cudlitz's parting words. For more Walking Dead coverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead.