The eighth season of AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded its year-long “All Out War”. Last night saw a conclusion in which Rick Grimes, our hero, led his people to victory against Negan & Co. This was a rare moment in a long-running story about humans killing each other and running from zombies. If the ratings are stable with the current average, approximately 10 million Americans will have seen the man with a bat get his just desserts. It is up for debate whether his “desserts”, however, are “just”.
These are hits in this day and age – especially for basic cable where dramas such as The Americans can run for years and seldom top a million viewers an episode. The Walking Dead is doing well as a business. There are no rumors about the cancellation. Even though Scott Gimple is leaving the show to be replaced by Angela Kang as showrunner, producers still talk in terms of five-year plans and not endgames.
Let’s just be honest: The series is in decline. The Walking Dead had six seasons that saw a steady increase in viewership. While critics criticized the show’s pacing and questioned certain story points they found confusing, most viewers deemed it a must-see. Since the depressing, grueling Season Seven premiere, all that has changed is the brutal, heartbreaking murder of Glenn and Abraham by Negan. Many prominent TV columnists have stopped writing about it. The ratings have been steadily dropping from, a Season Five peak at around 15 million episodes. Once-deafening buzzes are now a low, exasperated moan.
What the hell has happened? The Walking Dead can still deliver episodes that are engaging, emotional, and provocative on any given week. Why has it been such a slow season?
These are some theories:
Like their characters, the writers have too much faith in Rick.
The Walking Dead is always going to be “The Rick Grimes Story” first and foremost. He was the hero of the first episode. Unless something drastic happens, he will continue to lead the New TV Releases until the end.
The cast of characters surrounding him has grown so much over the eight seasons that the need to tie each story to the character’s personal growth has become an anchor in the worst possible sense. It is holding the show back, but not stabilizing it. We didn’t see Glenn’s death when Negan killed him, but we did get to see it at the beginning of the next season. Gimple said that this would have detracted from the real thing: Rick’s story.
What if there weren’t more depths with this guy? Rick isn’t very shrewd, nor thoughtful. If this season has shown anything, it’s that Rick’s success can be attributed to dumb luck. Even in the year’s final, Rick’s army was lured into an evil trap and would have been destroyed if Eugene, their old friend, hadn’t secretly sabotaged Saviors’ weapons. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend why Rick follows him, even the writers.
The coolest characters don’t stay cool for very long.
Carol was the most interesting survivor during TWD’s peak years, a few decades back. She was a quiet, ruthless operator, quietly eliminating any obstacles while imitating her mother and wife, subtly mocking them. She met Morgan, a stick-wielding stranger from the series pilot, who had disappeared into the depths of nihilism but returned with a newfound respect for human life. This trait made him a dangerous and disposable liability to her.
What happened then? Carol was shattered by a strange storyline where she fell in love and became concerned that her newfound attachment would make her weaker. Morgan’s favorite student was murdered shortly after. This prompted him to return to mad, homicidal rage. Okay.
The show has repeatedly created badass characters such as Carol and Morgan, Jesus, King Ezekiel, and so on, only to put them in situations so dire that they become effectively disabled and less entertaining to watch. The Walking Dead had a strong cast. However, viewers were taught not to become too attached to any of these characters, not only because they might not live, but also because it is only a matter of time before they are no longer identifiable.
There is way, way too many Negan.
The problem with “making everything about Rick” is that the villains are defined by their similarities and differences. After attempting to create the ultimate anti-SheriffGrimes character in the Governor, The Walking Dead decided to invest a lot in Negan, the largest of the Big Bads. He’d be the protagonist of this story and encompass every philosophical dilemma and fine point. He was teased for half a series before he appeared. Since his arrival, he has been getting a lot of screen time. Anyone. Please fill in the blank with any name that you like.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan has done a great job portraying the character. His sing-song voice and his gleeful vulgarity make him one of TV’s most memorable nemeses. The writers seem to have alternated between making him appear to be the Ultimate Evil or making him more relatable. They’ve also let other elements die while they try to crack the Negan code. Rick keeping his enemy alive (at least for another season) might end up being one of his worst decisions if The Walking Dead’s entire story and the community he has sworn to defend.
Talk and talk …. characters
This problem is not new to The Walking Dead and it is not unique to the series. But, there is a lot of conflicts that involve two people with opposing views just sitting around grumbling at one another. At length. Often in drab and/or dark locations.
This seems to be a key element of drama for the writers. The writers believe that muted dialogue gives the story space to breathe and clarifies where everyone stands. The characters don’t talk about anything fresh. They are having the same discussions as six seasons ago when they were all camping on the farm. To make sure everyone can weigh-in, the real narrative drivers, be they war, scavenging, or building, get scattered and/or meted out so that half-seasons only touch a few days of their lives.
It’s particularly frustrating that The Walking Dead does one thing well: it’s gory and nerve-wracking action- Horror scenes. Eugene’s resoluteness made this year’s finale so disappointing. It built up to a huge battle that ended before it could start. The episode’s second half was mostly jibber jabber.
Talking Dead is a burden.
AMC introduced Talking Dead, a post-episode chat show on The Walking Dead. Chris Hardwick, the host, reflected on the episode and was surrounded by a rotating panel consisting of stars, writers, and superfans. The comedian-turned-Alpha Nerd has done an excellent job with the hour-long postmortems, especially when it comes to channeling fannish enthusiasm. It’s becoming a burden for the creative team. The after-show panel throws a little party to soften the blow for every character’s death. Stories that seem muddled, or poorly developed (remember the Wolves?) are explained outside of the series.
Simple, who explained Eugene’s abrupt change in allegiance and discussed why peace-loving Jesus would join Maggie in a long-term plot to kill Negan. Executive producer Robert Kirkman, who also created the comic series, talked about Rick’s decision not to kill Negan.
Comics are too faithful.
The TV Walking Dead may have played with the details of Kirkman’s comic book series, such as changing the characters that are killed or adding new villains and heroes to the story, but the bigger story arcs remain the same. All of it is straight off the page: the prison, Alexandria, Governor, and the Saviors.
Here’s the bad news: If the show keeps adapting Kirkman faithfully, then there will be even more difficult roads ahead. The comics’ post-Savior Wars era challenges Rick and his friends faced was a lot similar to what we’ve seen. There is more death and destruction ahead; a new formidable enemy awaits; a new cycle in self-destructive internal squabbles. Season Eight ended with some indication that infighting will continue, at least according to Maggie’s furious reaction to Rick’s saving Negan’s lives.