When it comes to killing zombies, The Walking Dead is the best show on television. Judged by most other criteria—writing, acting, characterization, storytelling—it’s certainly alright, but to put it kindly, airing on the same night as Boardwalk Empire and Homeland doesn’t do it any favors. That said, this year it’s definitely stronger than ever thanks to some new characters (who we’ll get into shortly) and a plot with far more forward momentum than all that nonsense on the farm from last season. All told, the recent improvements have done just about enough to raise it from the level of guilty pleasure to a viewing experience that, if not quite transformative, is at least plenty interesting. It also can’t be overstated that the zombie killing really helps hold my attention.
Not to say it’s shallow per se, but I can’t deny that most of my appreciation for the series can be attributed to its world class make-up and effects team. Thematically, it’s not going to challenge anyone too deeply, and previous attempts at doing so haven’t been anything to write home about (“Should we kill this guy?” “Yes.” “But what would that make us?!” “BUT WE HAVE TO!” “NO! ” Repeat for five episodes). So when a recent installment featured a scene of sexual assault, I was more than a little nervous. That’s not an easy event to tackle. In fact there are a litany of reasons that make it one of the most difficult: Trying to give it the desired impact, realistically portraying both perpetrator and victim, taking every measure not to exploit the act in the interest of titillating the audience or as a quick and easy way to provide character motivation. It’s not something to approach lightly, and needs to feel both necessary and natural to the story being told or else it’s just not worth the risk.
All that said, I was actually impressed (if that’s at all the right word) with the way they went about it. Before getting into specifics, though, I need to set the stage a bit.
With its third season The Walking Dead has been adapting the most renowned storyline from the comic book source material. Integral to these events is the Governor, leader of a group of survivors in a town called Woodbury. In the comics he’s a complete monster. A long-haired biker type who’s clearly bad news from the moment you see him, he’s an unrepentantly sadistic psychopath with no redeeming qualities. In bringing him to the screen, however, the makers of the show decided to add a few shades of grey. Played by David Morrissey, AMC’s take on the Governor is older, kempt, and charismatic. He shows compassion towards those who depend on him for protection, and though his methods are extreme enough to leave no question as to whether or not he needs to be taken down, he’s not quite the soulless villain from the comics.
Yet the show has this really weird thing going on where the writers want the Governor to be more believable, but aren’t willing to entirely sacrifice any of the bizarre, over-the-top character traits that made him so memorable in the first place. So on the one hand he seems stable enough that eighty or so people would put their trust in him, but on the other he has a giant aquarium full of silently moaning zombie heads that he stares at to unwind. It’s strange. Thankfully, at least one change was handled well.
The Governor as originally written is a violent rapist. After capturing Michonne (a total badass zombie slayer with a katana, of all things—as far as I can tell she’s nearly identical in the comic and the show) in the original version of the story, he repeatedly rapes and beats her as a means of torture, and there’s no question that he enjoys it. Robert Kirkman’s original comic, if it needs to be said, is some really bleak stuff—gut-wrenching on a level that I doubt the television series intends to fully embrace. Not that the show can’t be intense (one character death this season actually was darker than I’d ever thought they’d go), merely that the comic reaches a level of graphic brutality that sets it apart from just about anything else.
So the show’s dilemma here becomes how to keep the Governor less entrenched in the moral black zone than his comics counterpart while still including the proclivity for sexual violence that made him stand out as a villain in the first place. The way they go about it works quite well.
First of all, in the show it’s not Michonne who’s captured, but Glenn and Maggie—a romantically involved couple who, unlike the aforementioned katana-wielding badass, are not modern day samurai. They lack Michonne’s near-superhuman fortitude and, as such, it’s much more nerve-wracking to see them in danger (sidenote: Glenn was also captured alongside Michonne in the comics, as well as the lead character Rick. In that version, Glenn makes it through with the least trauma). The Governor and his men interrogate the two of them in an effort to learn the location of the rest of their party. Glenn is savagely beaten by the Governor’s Number 2 man Merle, and then has a zombie let loose on him while still tied to a chair (he kills it—awesome).
Meanwhile, the Governor interrogates Maggie. After untying her, he opts first for the diplomatic approach, cordially asking for the information he’s after. When that fails, he asks her to stand up. She refuses, and he drops the polite facade, now ordering her to stand in a voice so icy you can practically see his breath. He tells her to remove her top, or he’ll chop off Glenn’s hand (a shout-out to the comics, where the Governor does just that to Rick). Once she’s standing there half-naked, he gets out of his chair, very deliberately removes his holster, and strides over to her. He brushes her hair with his fingers before forcefully bending her over the table and asking one last time whether she’s going to talk. But Maggie won’t break. She tells him to do whatever he’s going to do, and that he can go to hell. At that, the Governor backs off. He was bluffing.
The contrast between the two versions of the Governor is fairly clear. They’re similar in that they both find sexual assault an effective means of torture, but whereas the original had no qualms about raping Michonne, the live action version predominantly uses the threat of rape to get what he wants. He makes it apparent that he has absolute power over Maggie and could do to her whatever he pleases. It’s pure intimidation. He draws out the process, forcing her to strip and gradually building up to the moment when he actually touches her. The scene isn’t about what he does to Maggie, it’s about what he could do. It’s an exercise in suspense, made effective thanks in large part to strong performances from both actors—David Morrissey’s Governor dominates the room while Lauren Cohan as Maggie tries to stay strong in a situation where she’s utterly powerless (incidentally, much of The Walking Dead’s cast has some degree of British accent in real life, and these two follow suit—Morrissey more so). The anxiety from watching it play out is guaranteed to make even a mildly empathetic viewer’s skin crawl.
With this scene the show did exactly what it wanted to. The season’s antagonist is further established as a loathsome fuck who sexually assaults one of the female characters, but the way he goes about it allows them to avoid showing or implying graphic rape. There’s also no question that it makes the Governor more interesting, specifically because of the subplot involving the relationship between him and another female character with whom he has consensual sex. That he has no trouble behaving romantically one minute and using sex as a weapon the next might make him just as despicable as his original incarnation. In the scene with Maggie, his own physical gratification isn’t a factor. He does it purely because he knows it will hurt her. If he enjoys it on any level, it’s due to the rush of power he gets from threatening a defenseless woman.
Essentially, while the Governor on the show is different from the comics, that doesn’t mean he’s any better a person just because his actions are less explicit—he’s simply a bit more complicated. Does that complexity arise in part from the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too? To give us a grounded, charismatic antagonist with so many touches of over-the-top villainy that he isn’t quite believable if we try to take him in all at once? It’s possible, but I’d argue that at least in this one instance he’s been perfectly adapted into a Governor who, while less intense than in the comics, is just as big a threat and every bit as twisted as the source material dictates.
Now forgive me, but none of what I’ve just discussed inspired this post. I’m not trying to waste everyone’s time (purely incidental); that was all necessary set-up and contemplation better taken care of before we dive into the actual scene that got me thinking so intently about how The Walking Dead‘s adaptation process has affected its sexual politics.
It’s a scene of aftermath that occurs a few minutes into the next episode, which also served as the mid-season finale. Glenn and Maggie sit together, trying to hold it all together after their respective interrogations. When they were reunited, Maggie was still topless, shoved over to Glenn by a disturbingly affectionate Governor. Glenn knows nothing else of what she went through, so naturally the horrible mystery of it is killing him. More than anything he wants Maggie to be ok, and to know the specifics of whatever the hell she suffered. So he breaks the silence, starting to ask “Hey, did he—”, when she immediately cuts him off with, “No, he barely touched me.” She’s more concerned that Glenn’s alright—understandable, considering that Glenn looks much the worse for wear. But then Maggie, after briefly reflecting on the potential cruelty of man, comments on his appearance, to which Glenn answers “It doesn’t matter. As long as he didn’t…” and Maggie once again interrupts, assuaging his fears. “No, I promise.”
As I was watching it, their entire exchange simply didn’t sit right with me. I could tell the writers were trying to be as tactful as possible, but that they’d definitely made some misstep. By all rights I should have shrugged and moved on (especially considering a moment later Glenn rips a bone from a corpse’s arm to use as a weapon GAH have I by any chance mentioned that this show handles violence in a highly compelling manner okjustchecking), but I just couldn’t help contemplating the scene and its exact choice of dialogue over and over again and now here we are.
The problem is that the phrasing of Glenn’s questions puts the emphasis on the exact logistical nature of the Governor’s actions. It’s not “Are you ok?”, it’s “What did that man do to you?”. Now don’t get me wrong, his behavior is incredibly realistic. In terms of accurately portraying how most men in his situation would word their concerns, that’s spot on. And Maggie’s response also makes sense. All of the characters on this show have gone through a hell of a lot just to survive, and while the sexually threatening nature of the Governor’s interrogation was a different kind of trauma than the series has previously depicted, Maggie being able to hold herself together jibes well with the fact that, frankly, if these characters weren’t all incredibly level-headed in a crisis they’d be dead.
Not to mention she could even be feeling guilty, in a way, as Glenn certainly had to endure more physical punishment than she did. Her language backs up that interpretation. In her own words she was “barely touched,” while Glenn is drenched in his own blood. One objective of the scene that I wholly commend is how it establishes that they’re both primarily concerned for each other’s well-being. I must admit it makes their relationship more involving; I never really had strong feelings about the couple either way until they were put in danger, whereas now my response to a small portion of their arc has just crossed the two thousand word mark. My issue, then, isn’t with the portrayal of the characters, but with the way the show executes what I perceive to be the scene’s other objective.
This is a big episode, with a lot of moving pieces. Rick is leading a group into Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie, Michonne is out to kill the Governor*, and a new group of survivors are introduced in an entirely separate storyline. Juggling it all isn’t easy, and if there’s one thing that viewers need to have clear it’s the emotional and physical state of the characters. Primarily, this means establishing that recent torture victims Glenn and Maggie are able to cope with the action to come.
And that’s admirable. It’s important that Maggie’s emotional state wasn’t taken for granted, but instead communicated to the audience. Unfortunately, the language of the scene suggests that Maggie is ok specifically because she wasn’t actually raped. The questioning is emphasized in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel like the writers were popping their heads out and letting me know everything’s really alright, don’t worry, because a penis never went inside her, you see, so she was only violated in a superfluous and tasteful manner.
Now once again, the fact that she’s able to cope with the event is perfectly acceptable, but the implication here is that Maggie is still functioning because the Govenor spared her. It’s not about her personal reaction to the assault, but rather where her experience belongs on some scale of objective sexual trauma. As if, purely by knowing what happened to her, we’ll somehow suddenly understand how she feels. In no way is that the case. There is no easy way to deal with trauma because it isn’t a routine, predictable thing that can be easily assessed. Every scenario is different because the people involved are different. Knowing what happened is next to useless when compared with how the person actually feels, and though the scene is clearly concerned with Maggie’s reaction, it goes about it the wrong way, using the event as an indicator for what she’s “supposed” to be feeling instead of assessing her reaction as a consequence of what happened. It goes backwards. “This is what happened, ergo Maggie will be ok.” instead of “Maggie is ok because this is how she feels in regards to what happened.”
It’s an easy, all too common mistake. The scene was done with the best of intentions, and the characters were behaving realistically. In terms of sexism and misogyny on TV there’s infinitely worse content every day, and there’s just as many things to praise about the way The Walking Dead handled the subject matter as there are to criticize. Maybe even more.
But fuck that’s why it’s so damned upsetting. Here, even in one of the most supposedly mature series out there, in a scene where they were obviously conscious of the difficult ground they were walking and trying to get things right, they still wound up with dialogue that could be uncharitably interpreted as “Now be honest with me, were you legitimately raped, or can I stop worrying?” So that’s kind of not good.
Of course, I didn’t actually want a twenty minute scene of heartwrenching empathy with Glenn and Maggie baring their souls and weeping into the night. Like everyone watching, I wanted them to get the fuck out of there and kick some ass. But that could have just as easily happened after Maggie said she was fine for now. Or that she wasn’t fine but they had more immediate things to worry about. Or that she was more worried about him. The fact that she had to swear to Glenn that nothing had happened to put his mind at ease, of all things, was just so frustrating. Just think about what it actually means for Glenn to have said, “As long as he didn’t—”. Well hey, what if he did? What if he had raped her? Then what? Then that’s not ok, she’s doomed, there’s no coming back from that?
I understand that his character wouldn’t be thinking—in that particular moment—about everything that his statement could possibly imply and that he has no experience with a situation like this. But the authoritative perspective of the show seemed to me to suggest that it was the right thing for him to say in his position and it wasn’t.
Why is that a big deal? Why do I care? Because no one watching The Walking Dead is ever going to have to survive the zombie apocalypse. And that’s alright. Few people believe in the value of the fantastic more than I do. But if you’ll permit me to take a moment to step away from heightened reality, genre fiction, and gleeful carnage to say this:
I guarantee that hundreds—hell, make that thousands—of people who watched this episode are, at some point in their lives, going to have to help someone cope with sexual assault. Like Glenn, there’s a very good chance they won’t be sure what to say in whatever scenario they may be facing. It’s not something we prepare for. As minimal as it might have been, there was an opportunity for this show to do a bit of genuine good simply by depicting positive, supportive behavior. I’m not saying it should have been a wholly didactic scene, or a “very special installment” of The Walking Dead or anything remotely that extreme. I’m only saying that stories matter. We learn from them, even (and especially) when we don’t realize it. They influence our behavior. So it upsets me when this scene, which could have been truly progressive, instead propagated what I perceived to be mostly negative attitudes in response to sexual assault. I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but if we want to make things better it’s most important to address the passive errors, because they’re the ones that we have the greatest chance of fixing.
It’s possible I’m overreacting—that I misinterpreted things, or even that they plan to explore Maggie’s feelings in greater depth. But I doubt it. Believe me, I don’t relish the chance to be offended. This isn’t the sort of thing I go looking for. It was just there, and I couldn’t ignore it. I can’t deny that it got my head absolutely spinning about the adaptation process the series has gone through (something I thoroughly enjoy pondering) and at the very least it allowed me to start what I hope can be a useful dialogue. Because ultimately, if such a short scene—so innocuous at first glance—can contain so many upsetting implications, the odds are we’ve got a long road ahead if we want to make things better.
So please, share your thoughts whether you have a response to this specific example or to some other story where you couldn’t help but notice the ways in which it dealt with attitudes towards gender, feminism, assault, sexuality, or anything that this post brought to mind. Because really, the only thing I know about improving this stuff: We have to talk about it.
*Another interesting point: The fact that the Governor doesn’t rape or torture Michonne in the show is notable considering that she kills his zombified daughter and gouges out his eye at the end of this episode. Whereas in the comic she was getting revenge (and did far, far more damage than David Morrissey’s portrayal suffers here. Oh he loses the eye, sure. But from a glass shard. In Kirkman’s black and white pages she scooped it out with a goddamn spoon. After she nailed his genitals to a board. Yeah, really can’t stress this enough: Comic is fucked up), on the show she beats him in a fair fight. A brutal one, but it’s not torture. And at the end of it, she’s done more to him than he ever did to her. A much different conflict from the way it was originally depicted, and all because of the route they decided to go with the characters in regards to sexual assault.