The Walking Dead is aesthetically very different from Game of Thrones: The former show trudges through a dilapidated, sweaty post-apocalyptic U.S., while the latter plunges us centuries back in time into a brutal, often frigid, fantasy world. But the two shows draw constant comparisons because they’re both relentlessly morbid and obsessed with humanity’s basest tendencies—also, they started within six months of each other. The most interesting distinction between them, though, is how they approach their macabre material. Unlike other shows like FX’s unfortunate The Bastard Executioner, which tried to copy Game of Thrones despite its basic cable-mandated limitations, The Walking Dead has embraced these boundaries to its benefit.
Let’s start with the obvious: nudity. Straight out the gate, Game of Thrones joined HBO’s proud legacy of taking “boob tube” very literally—without featuring any comparable amount of male nudity, of course. As a premium cable channel, HBO can go bigger when it comes to violence, profanity, and nudity—without the risk of angering advertisers and losing their money. The Walking Dead, however, does have to keep that in mind—and therefore, has no such imbalance when it comes to who gets naked. In most episodes of AMC’s zombie soap, we won’t see much more than dueling biceps from sleeveless warriors of both sexes—with the occasional break for a shirtless dude, a woman in a bra, or a naked person obscured by an object or another body. When it comes to revealing flesh, the show is equal-opportunity. So when Rick and Michonne leapt naked out of bed a couple weeks ago, guns pointed at an intruder, we saw just as much of Rick’s bare backside as we saw of Michonne’s. Say what you want about cable’s prudishness, but its unwillingness to show too much of the human form—male or female—has served as a great equalizer on The Walking Dead.
Another distinction between the two shows is the way they handle sexual violence. Both worlds are shadowed by the specter of rape, but only one has depicted the act onscreen, with mixed effects. Some Game of Thrones fans will tell you that objecting to sexual violence in a show that grounds itself in such a chaotic world is naïve—that rape is a realistic aspect of such a grim moral landscape. But on Game of Thrones, rape is usually presented in a cold, casual way. On The Walking Dead, meanwhile, acts of sexual violence have been handled with consistent gravity.
And it’s not that The Walking Dead comes from lighter source material than George R.R. Martin’s book series. The comics on which the show was based offer plenty of sickening storylines that the show has forgone—including stories involving sexual violence. For instance, in the comics, the villainous Governor captures and tortures one of Rick’s group, Michonne, and repeatedly rapes her within earshot of another group member, Glenn. The show opted to go a different, more cable-friendly way: the Governor instead forces Maggie (Glenn’s wife) to strip half-naked and bend over a table before he leaves the room laughing. Not only does the show make the obvious, basic cable-friendly choice to eschew the serial rape plot—they also choose a victim who would be better able to discuss the lingering traumatic effects onscreen. (Michonne didn’t do much talking back in that season, so she would have been a largely silent victim.) This is perhaps the writers’ best feat—balancing the original story with what cable TV can actually support, and creating even more empathy along the way.
Even when it comes to violence in general, these shows take two very different approaches. Both series are wrenching and, occasionally, retch-inducing. But whereas Game of Thrones revels in its horrific aspects and often shrugs at human tragedy, The Walking Dead can’t become so jaded. On Game of Thrones, wickedly creative executions can happen to anyone—even unlucky randos. Just ask that unfortunate jouster from the show’s fourth episode, whom we watched gargle and spit up his own blood from multiple angles. Or, remember that other guy who suffered the less graphic but far more traumatizing Death By Rat in Season 2? These borderline-anonymous deaths are gruesome setpieces intended to remind us that things really suck in Westeros—no matter who you are. Then, of course, there are the truly graphic, narratively important deaths suffered by sympathetic characters and total villains alike.
Since cable TV won’t let us gawk at quite so many bloody corpses in quite so much detail for quite so long, The Walking Dead must take a different approach. If a human bites the dust in a memorably brutal fashion, chances are they are a core character. Consider three of the show’s most memorable deaths: Lori dying following a cesarean section, Hershel’s beheading, and Noah getting eaten alive by zombies in a revolving door. They’re all graphic, but when someone gets a graphic execution on Walking Dead, we’re usually being asked to grieve, not gawk. It always comes back to morality and humanity’s potential redemption. The restrictions of basic cable seem to play a large part in driving the camera away from the sheer violence and toward the human sorrow.