Oct. 23 is a day that will live in infamy for fans of “The Walking Dead” -- infamy, or in their memories.
I believe I speak for most fans who agree “infamy” would be preferable to “memory.”
Consider: The death of two fan favorites, arguably one of them of them the most fan favorite, by force of bat sheathed in barbed wire, under the guidance of an arch-villain named Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
There was actually one moment of levity Sunday night. When Negan couldn’t turn over the engine of the van, he muttered under his breath, “what a piece of (junk).” Spoken like the true used car salesman he was in pre-apocalyptic life.
Otherwise, Sunday’s seventh season launch was desperately grim -- and “grim” in ways not necessarily “good,” but rather in ways deranged, unconscionable and inauspicious. The cycle of vengeance begins anew. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand. Most certainly an eye for an eye.
AMC promised a quick answer to the cliffhanger of the year: Who did Negan kill? Fans were dropped off that cliff at the end of the sixth season, and left howling at the bottom. “TWD” fans don’t like cliffhangers, and certainly didn’t like this one -- the possible death of Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) whose death had been preordained in Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, but not necessarily in the series, which has occasionally found ways around key plot points.
A quick answer was not forthcoming. The first four minutes had already been pre-released on the web, as an extended tease. Then, three minutes of commercials. There was some more back story to the fore-story after that, consuming about 10 minutes of clock. Another three-minute ad bloc, and then ... the horror began, at about 22 minutes after the hour.
First to go was Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz), former military guy who joined two seasons ago and initially appeared to be a rival to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) before he established himself as a stalwart ally with a heart of platinum. The end was painful, extended, graphic and red. Negan had chosen to execute one of Rick’s “people” because they had led a brutal raid on Negan’s “people,” in a hilltop compound, where they were slaughtered one by one as they slept.
But at the end of last season, Negan had seemed to indicate retribution would be limited to a single person. That was not to be. When Daryl (Norman Reedus) jumped him, Negan decided another example needed to set.
That’s when he turned his bat (“Lucille”) on Glenn.
The death of Glenn was -- clearly -- expected. This particular twist was not. While kneeling, along with the rest, Glenn did not see the bat until a dozen million viewers saw it: His head caved under the blow, one eye slightly protruding, rivulets of blood streaming over his face, he stared into the camera for a solid 30 seconds. It was to be the shot of the entire series -- burned into our collective cortexes, as some sort of scarlet letter that marked us all as complicit in his death.
Glenn would die for ratings, for our blood lust, for our own craven need to be shocked out of our senses.
A scarlet letter indeed.
As a character, Glenn was special: The sweet-faced pizza delivery guy who was the only core character left from the first season, along with Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs). Glenn was the good guy, and in a sense the reminder that while goodness had vacated the world, it hadn’t entirely vacated the world. After all, he was evidence to the contrary.
Glenn, as father to Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) child, was also a symbolic part of the post-post-apocalyptic world, if there was to be one. Together, the three of them represented the future. They represented hope. Even the darkest of horror stories need hope. That is now extinguished.
The problems for fans -- and for “The Walking Dead” -- now seem self-evident. While the show arguably evolved from horror to grindhouse a couple of seasons ago, it is now officially grindhouse. The walkers are chattel, easily dispensed. The real action now is human on human.
“The Walking Dead” -- with its evocation of “The Lord of the Flies” and ineradicable if more sanitized episodes from the Bible -- is now going into places some of us may not care to go with it. King Ezekiel -- Khary Payton -- joined the series this season with his CGI pet tiger. One does not introduce a pet tiger -- CGI or otherwise -- without plans to use it.
But the death of Glenn and Abraham point up a much larger problem, for the show as well as the story. If nothing is sacred, then no one is sacred: Viewers have tumbled into the abyss along with the characters. There is no way out, just a long, continuous fall into the darkness.
If that prospect isn’t grim enough, perhaps we have to look inward as well. If this is what a hit TV series is about -- the slaughter of the sacrificial lamb on occasion to draw us in, to watch, to gape, to write reviews -- then maybe we should ask ourselves why we are watching.
After Sunday, that seems like both a reasonable and urgent question.