October 13, 2016 7:38 AM EDT

Despite its name, The Walking Dead has never really been about the zombies. From the show’s first episode, in which Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakens from a coma to find the world as he knew it overrun by the undead, AMC’s hit drama has actually been character-driven, fueled by the relationships formed among a ragtag group of survivors navigating a postapocalyptic landscape. But as the show has picked off those characters one by one, it’s veered toward the point of no return.

That matters, considering that The Walking Dead has been the top-rated series on television for four years running, earning more than 14 million live viewers for the Season 6 finale. While the show delivers consistent shocks and a vividly drawn dystopian universe, those aren’t enough to carry a series; it works because viewers have developed such fierce emotional attachment to its protagonists. Audiences have watched for six years as this crew has battled hordes of zombies, turned a prison into a home and nursed one another back from the brink of emotional collapse; it’s easy for fans to feel that they too would belong in this makeshift family.

Which is why it was so brutal when the sixth season ended with a cliffhanger in which one of the main characters was seen being beaten to death with a barbed-wire-covered baseball bat–a gruesome sequence by any measure but especially considering how invested fans are in the group. (The identity of that character will be revealed in the Season 7 premiere on Oct. 23, and speculation among the show’s devotees about who it is has already reached a fever pitch.) Core cast members have been offed in the past, but this is the first time one of those deaths has seemed quite so gratuitous. It douses what little hope viewers have clung to that no matter how bad things get, human decency would win out against the forces of evil.

Recent dark dramas have walked this tightrope by ensuring that major deaths served a greater purpose than just toying with viewers’ emotions–Ned Stark was beheaded to set the entire course of Game of Thrones in motion; Breaking Bad‘s Walter White made the ultimate sacrifice to save his partner. There’s a place for shocking violence on television if it’s purposeful enough. But when The Walking Dead comes back, it may be hard to remember what the show’s purpose was at all.


This appears in the October 24, 2016 issue of TIME.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com.

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