The troupe of survivors on "The Walking Dead" have confronted all manner of post-apocalyptic menace — relentless attacks by flesh-eating undeads, murderous gangs, power-mad psychopaths.
Despite the never-ending mayhem and the devastating loss of loved ones, the ragtag group led by Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), has valiantly fought through its suffering, propelled by the hope that salvation is just around the corner. "Things have happened, but it's always worked out for us because it's always been all of us," Grimes said in last season's closer in an attempt to reassure a seriously ill and pregnant Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan).
But by the end of the episode, the group's resolve is shattered after being trapped by Negan, the sadistic ruler of the rampaging Saviors, and the most notorious villain from the comic book that inspired the hit AMC drama.
Played with a gleeful chill by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan demonstrated his control over his captives by bludgeoning one of them to death with "Lucille," his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. The dark screen that hid the identity of the victim from viewers did little to obscure the horror of the slaying. (The show's sound effects team deserve an Emmy for that scene alone.)
That bloody cliffhanger — and the sure-to-be-gruesome revelation of Negan's victim — launches Sunday's season opener of "The Walking Dead," which over its first six seasons has grown to be cable TV's top-rated series. But even some devoted fans and critics were upset with those final moments, which aired last April. Viewers expressed anger that they would have to wait months to find out who was killed. A consensus on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes praised Morgan, but called the ending "manipulative."
The expected bleakness of the season has also reignited criticism by some viewers that "The Walking Dead" relies too much on "misery porn." Those concerns have been fed by some of the show's promos and billboards featuring Negan and Lucille with the tagline "We're Just Getting Started." An early preview of the scene following the killing shows Negan, armed with an ax, dragging Rick inside a recreational vehicle.
Executive producer Scott M. Gimple said the loss of a key character will be tremendously heartbreaking for fans. "That the audience gets this close to characters, to feel so deeply about them, is an incredible thing. There isn't one character that they want to see go."
Gimple maintained in a phone interview last week, however, that "The Walking Dead" still retains a larger, more inspirational theme.
"No matter how dark it gets, and how awful the circumstances the characters might face, they'll face it together," Gimple said. "That in itself is a hopeful thing."
"It's all part of a greater story," he added. "It is the start of our story in many ways, actually. However awful this event is, so much of the season is grounded in how on earth do you go on? And where do you find your strength to go on?"
The introduction of Negan is one of the most infamous scenes in the comic, so fans have long anticipated seeing it play out on screen. Like the book version, Negan has all of the survivors powerless and lined up on their knees in a dark forest clearing, and then engages in a game of "eeeny meeny miny moe" to determine who he is going to kill.
Two versions were filmed — one for broadcast and another that spotlights the character's R-rated dialogue from the comic. (The latter version is featured on the DVD edition of the season.)
Many fans have meticulously dissected the television version, investigating whether the series will follow the comic or, as the drama has often done, go in another direction.
Gimple said he, along with executive producer/director Greg Nicotero, composer Bear McCreary and other crew members worked obsessively on that final scene to milk every second of tension.
"So much of that scene was taking something iconic from the comic and bringing it to life," he said. "It was harrowing and very intense and taut. We worked on every frame of that thing. I think it's one of the best scenes from the series,"
He was also surprised at the negative reactions and controversy.
"I was blown away by some of the responses, how deeply people felt about it," Gimple said. "No way do we want the audience to be devalued in any way. We're doing everything for the audience, we're taking risks for the audience, we're trying to deliver an unbelievable experience."
He also doesn't agree with those who would label "The Walking Dead" "misery porn."
"Yes, we all have different tastes," he said. "Those who call it misery porn aren't looking at the whole of it. Our characters could have easily walked past each other, not given each other a second thought. Now they couldn't be closer. One of the most powerful messages of the show is that when the world goes to hell, people come together. It doesn't matter what their differences are. They can wind up as a family."
That message, Gimple said, is particularly valuable given tensions across the nation on several fronts, including race relations and the presidential election.
"The way the world is, how divided we all seem, to think we can all be brothers and sisters in the right or wrong situation is incredibly hopeful," said Gimple. "The season opener is tragic and heartbreaking in a lot of ways, but by the end of it, we can see the bond of those who remain, just as we feel their loss equally and deeply. Now they're everything to each other. I find that to be something beautiful."
'The Walking Dead'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)