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TV's Hot New Club Is Bashing Heads with a Club

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Alexander Zalben

Spoiler and content warning: graphic images -- and plot points -- from the latest episodes of The Walking Dead, Westworld, and American Horror Story: Roanoke past this point.

What's the hottest trend of the new Fall TV season? Time travel? Reboots of classic franchises, like Lethal Weapon, MacGyver or The Exorcist?

No, it's graphically bashing heads until they explode in a mix of blood and gore.

Or at least that's the impression I've been left with after the past two weeks, which featured heads (human and otherwise) being pulverized to smithereens in no less than three different high-profile TV shows.

The first you're probably aware of: The Walking Dead. For more than six months, fans of AMC thrillerknew that villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was going to kill a member of the cast when the show returned for Season 7. But even die-hard fans were shocked at the brutality of the violence, as Negan proceeded to kill two characters -- Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) -- in the most graphic way possible.

Don't believe me? Here's Negan smashing Abraham's head far beyond when you should stop smashing a person's head:


And here's Negan killing Glenn, and then continuing to kill him:


It was graphic and bloody, and the scenes led many long-time viewers of the show (and many, many critics) to say they were "done" with Walking Dead. This was too bloody, too gratuitous and too far, they said.

Curiously, there wasn't much of a peep about a similarly graphic head implosion just a week earlier. On HBO's Westworld, the extremely realistic androids are filled not just with circuits, but copious amounts of realistic looking blood. You might have guessed this by the fact that it's a science fiction show about robots, but something is wrong with the androids -- they're malfunctioning, and some becoming self-aware -- but as of October 16's "The Stray" they also turned self-mutilating.

The titular stray, after being tracked down by two of the behind-the-scenes puppet masters who control everything at the Westworld theme park, takes a very large rock and proceeds to obliterate his own head from his shoulders:


The next week -- at the same time as Negan was mashing Glenn and Abraham's noggins over on AMC -- we were treated to an extended scene of scientists examining the android's software for errors, while he sat in the foreground with a concave cranium.


Was it as bloody as Glenn and Abraham's demise? Not necessarily, particularly since Glenn was shown over an extended period with his eyeball half out, gasping a goodbye to his true love Maggie (Lauren Cohan). But we'll get more into that in a second.

First, let's talk about the hat trick that cemented this as a trend. Last night (October 26) on American Horror Story: Roanoke, Shelby (Lily Rabe) discovered her ex-husband Matt (Andre Holland) having sex with a woods witch (just stay with me for a moment here, I really don't want to explain the current plot of AHS) and in a fit of rage bludgeoned him to death with a crowbar.


Though the act wasn't as close-up or as clear as the beheadings on Walking Dead or Westworld, we still spent an awfully long time watching Matt's head get smushed beyond all recognition due to the whole thing being depicted found-footage style.

So are exploding heads truly the hot new trend? Almost definitely not. If anything, it's pure coincidence that three shows aired similar acts in such a short period of time. But it is interesting to look at how fans and critics reacted to all three shows; or rather, to Walking Dead's dual deaths, versus what happened on Westworld and American Horror Story.

The key, as always, is context. Westworld killed off an android. We know that what we're watching isn't a "real" person dying, it's a robot -- who we've just met, mind you -- killing himself. Even if the actor is a real person, your mind watching a fictional TV show is able to disconnect from both the act, and the character.

On American Horror Story: Roanoke, meanwhile, the death is human and meant to be emotional: Matt and Shelby's tortured relationship is central to the show, so seeing Shelby off Matt so suddenly was definitely a surprise. But it also comes in the middle of an episode that includes cartoonish disembowelments and one of the lead characters looking pretty surprised her face just got sliced in half. Seeing Matt's twitchy body is just par for the course.

AHS is always walking the line between camp and serious horror. Westworld demands that you remove yourself from the proceedings and look at things analytically, as the show is about what makes us (and robots) human. Walking Dead, despite the zombies, is treated as real.

That's not the only difference, mind you. Killing off Glenn, who had been on the show since the first season and Abraham, who was introduced in the fourth -- both beloved characters and actors -- was a punch in the gut. It's not difficult to say goodbye to Cowboy Robot #453, or even a one-season, barely fleshed out character like Matt. Glenn and Abraham had been welcomed into fans' homes for years when they were callously murdered.

And there's the second big difference: Glenn and Abraham didn't die heroically (though they each did get moments to say goodbye on their own terms). They died as Negan cackled and joked. Miles of digital ink has been spilled about Negan, and the Walking Dead premiere. But whether you loved it or hated it, structurally you are supposed to not like Negan. He's enigmatic, because he's played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a handsome enigmatic man. But the character is a reprehensible madman who treats human beings like toys. He kills Abraham by playing a child's game, and then suddenly kills Glenn because he was punched in the face by another character and didn't like it.

You're supposed to feel terrible watching them die. It's not meant to feel good. People focused on the gore, but ultimately the head exploding moments weren't that far off from what happened on AHS, or Westworld. The emotional weight of what happened, though, definitely was.

I'd argue (and I realize I'm in the minority here) that the dome-smacking on Walking Dead was more warranted than the ones on AHS or Westworld, as the gore and shock value weren't backed up with the same emotional weight in the latter two. Does that mean I want to see more emotionally driven, graphically depicted skull cracking on TV? Please no. Four in a two-week span was more than enough, and thank you.

In fact, we probably don't need to see it at all. There's a segment of the population that loves blood and gore, and more power to them. But you can get as much -- if not more -- power from not showing the act. When Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) off-screen bashed the Vice President to death with a chair on Scandal last season, it was horrifying, emotional and impacted all the characters in different ways.

Who would have thought an off-screen murder would seem quaint and tasteful just a few months later?

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Westworld airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO. And American Horror Story: Roanoke airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.