There’s no quicker way for a TV show or film to show you they mean business than with a bold, full-frontal male nude shot (a naked lady is old news at this point). That, or they can just savagely murder someone until their brains are leaking across the screen.
Subtlety: It’s not what it used to be.
The transcendence of taboo is the de facto way to announce edge. For whatever reason, Americans have always been squeamish about sex and nudity, while embracing violence and gore. (The rest of the world feels exactly the opposite.)
When Tomb Raider rebooted back in 2013 with a fresh-faced, modern Lara Croft, one of the most disturbing aspects of the game was its grisly death scenes — 35 in all. One memorable one involves Lara getting impaled from chin to scalp on a spear. She also can get strangled, ripped apart by boat propellers and eviscerated by tree branches. It’s disproportionate to the in-game violence by a long shot. Her face emotes her agony endlessly. It’s unbearable to watch. (And, oh god, I died so much. I’m so sorry, Lara.)
But it’s all supposed to convey the gravity of the situation! The death is gruesome so you want to protect her and, ideally, not die. (Or so they say.)
Just like how watching The Mountain stab his thumbs into Oberyn Martell’s eyes and squeeze until his head popped like a grape was supposed to show how brut al he was! Just like how Negan turning people’s heads to bloody mush with a baseball bat is supposed to show how dangerous he is!
The Walking Dead‘s example is particularly apt at this cultural moment, where a wave of backlash swept the Internet shortly after Negan waved his obviously phallic bat around. It’s too much, people cried, too eroticized, too gratuitous, just unnecessary — a prolonged exercise in sadism rather than good TV storytelling.
The argument often given is that we become desensitized to violence the more we see it, which is why modern media has compensated by making things wildly graphic. Our regular CBS cop procedurals feature people dying of gunshot wounds left and right, but that level of violence is so commonplace that, well, they’re on network TV.
However, I think this fascination with death is less about story development and more something akin to the concept of memento mori — “Remember that you will die.” The Romans, it is said, used to celebrate generals returning from victory with grand parades, and as the man marched, a slave would walk behind him, whispering reminders of mortality in his ear. It would later appear as a recurring motif in philosophy, literature and art. (Of modern shows, the one that embraces the concept most beautifully would be the canceled Hannibal, I think.)
And so, with every swing of Negan’s Lucille, is it not a proclamation that death comes for us all? Every act of violence is a reminder, a negotiation of the unspeakable truth that hangs over us all, every minute we spend in these fantasy worlds: Everyone must die.