Who is the most violent character on television? Everyone has an opinion but for fans of “The Walking Dead,” the newly introduced Negan, armed with his precious bat “Lucille,” is the clear winner. Negan caused an uproar on social media and generated heated discussions among critics when he beat a beloved character to death by landing blow after horrific blow of his barbwire wrapped bat on the character’s head. More than a few viewers declared they were abandoning the show. Did the series go too far?

It was a tough scene to watch but the violence was nothing new for a show that features characters regularly disfiguring and dismembering rotting zombie corpses. What was new is that this level of violence was directed at a person rather than the walking dead. Did the series break an implied contract with its audience by submitting a human being to the type of gruesome death that was previously reserved for zombies?

Many thought so but the violent scene served a storyline that has always been leading its audience to this level of inhumanity. One of the most compelling themes of the series is how characters hold onto what makes them human in a world that no longer values it and indeed, often punishes them for it. Negan has freed himself of the burden of humanity, which allows him to commit grisly acts. Every season’s villain has been a progression toward this character and watching him take a barbed wire bat to a man’s head was abhorrent, but also a fearlessly honest choice on the part of the show’s writers and creators. They did not take the easy way out and turn the camera away. They made the audience watch what the world of the show turns men into and what consequences look like at the hands of those men.

They also broke Rick, the main character, who has lead a band of survivors through countless killing raids, all with consequences that he could accept as the nature of the new world order. This season, Rick’s choices result in a force that he cannot — for the time being — predict or control. His submission to Negan was powerful and emotional storytelling that also felt inevitable. It added a welcome, new layer to an already complicated character.

While other series depict an atmosphere of tension, of not knowing when a seemingly inconsequential act will explode into appalling violence, “The Walking Dead” has succeeded in creating an unmatched level of anxiety in its narrative. Almost every scene of every episode keeps viewers anticipating the worst and the introduction of Negan has greatly amplified that fear. It’s masterful storytelling and unlike anything else on series television.

Ultimately, the show challenges its viewers to look at the apocalyptic world it has created, in all its psychological and physical horror. This season, part of that challenge is looking at a living monster with a bat. It’s not easy but it’s not unexpected. “The Walking Dead” has been guiding its viewers to this confrontation for a long time.

— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.