How to Break a Person: Is ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 7 Examining Slavery?

Despite claims by both villains and producers, can people really be "broken" so quickly?

On AMC’s The Talking Dead last night, following the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead, executive producer Scott Gimple explained why the episode had been a torturous exercise in unmitigated sadism. Perhaps anticipating negative reactions to the episode, he said they had been “looking for a way to break” the characters, and “looking for a way to break the audience”. Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) brutalizing of Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group for the entire episode, he said, was a way to explain why Rick and his friends might now indeed be “under Negan’s thumb”.

OK, that sounds good. In truth, the episode was, to repeat myself, brutal. I looked at my watch at something like 9:48 and realized that the episode was almost over, and we were still in the midst of watching the characters get tortured. I felt suffocated. I wanted out. I had my strongest reaction against this show (which I love) ever.

But, and this is my crucial point here, even I didn’t feel broken! My response to what I saw was to want Negan gone with every fiber of my being. (Kudos to Jeffrey Dean Morgan on that, but I hope you’re not on the payroll for long!) So what we actually saw when Negan and his men finally left didn’t surprise me in the least: the stunned survivors, inchoately at first, try to come to grips with what they’ve been through. Then Maggie (love Lauren Cohan even more) slowly stands up and says that while she’s going on alone to Hilltop, the rest of them need to go back to Alexandria to “get ready”. For what? Rick asks, and she says: “To fight them.”

Maggie, at least, isn’t broken by the night she just went through, and neither is Sasha (love Sonequa Martin too!), who was the first implicitly to go along with her plan, to say she’ll go with Maggie: “I’m going to take her there. I’ll keep her safe.”

The opening episode of season seven was brutal and sadistic. Scott Gimple gave a reason for that — so we would all see that Negan had “broken” the characters — but it’s a reason that makes no sense and that’s blatantly contradicted by almost the first words we hear after he and his men leave. The first evidence we have is of characters who aren’t broken. So what does that do for Gimple’s justification?

I wondered for perhaps the first time if the series wasn’t pandering shamelessly to the worst impulses of its viewers: keeping us in suspense for seven months and then dragging out that suspense over essentially the entire episode, offering up one “shocking” horror after another (if you’d managed to avoid the spoilers). If so, the producers may have, as someone in my Twitter feed put it, overestimated the audience’s masochism. Or even overestimated the audience’s enjoyment of the adrenaline rush they may experience on seeing brutal violence and knowing they, at least, are still alive and unscarred.

More seriously though, the producers may have drastically underestimated what it takes to break someone. It’s here that the series is potentially getting into some interesting terrain involving torture and even slavery.

Torture is one activity in which people try to “break” other people, and Negan is engaging in a form of torture to get the survivors to do what he tells them, and to disarm resistance. Thus, Rick dutifully gets the axe for him. Yet, is this actual compliance or just Rick appearing to comply to get Negan to stop? The latter is more likely, and it’s why torture is generally admitted not to work: people just say whatever their torturers want them to say so they’ll stop the pain.

A truly authentic fictional representation of the kind of sustained torture it might take to break a man was offered in Game of Thrones, when Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) spent pretty much all of season three torturing Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) — and succeeds … for a while at least. Proving how hard it is to break a person, though, Theon throws off the thrall of his torturer at the end of season five, when loyalty to and love for Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) proves stronger. What Ramsay did to Theon was much more sustained, brutal, and total than what Negan’s done so far. One episode isn’t enough to break anyone, despite what Scott Gimple said.

The thing that really got me thinking about how hard it is to break someone, however, was the way Gimple’s words resonated with those of Frederick Douglass. In his 1845 autobiography, Douglass describes being sent to a slave-breaker, Covey, and he writes: “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit … the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” Again, though, even with the entire political, legal, and economic weight of the American slave-holding system behind Covey’s brutality, Douglass finally resists, later writing perhaps the most famous line of his narrative: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” So far, Negan’s threat isn’t such a total system: he’s just a man with a baseball bat and lots of other people with guns. Is he really going to break anyone?

Nevertheless, I started wondering if The Walking Dead isn’t heading in the direction of exploring the politics and psychology of slavery with its Negan storyline. So far what Negan’s enforcing isn’t slavery exactly, in that he’s telling Rick’s group they have to give him half (not all) of what they have. If things go like they did in the comics, however, Negan is going to start saying some things that sound a lot like he’s got the group enslaved: stuff about how he “owns” them and everything they have.

The Walking Dead has made a point of consistently exploring how humans organize into political systems, and from the beginning, it’s explored the limits of democracy. Is it now going to explore what it takes to brutally and violently enslave people? If that’s what Gimple meant when said that the season seven premiere was about “breaking” his characters, that may be interesting after all.

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