The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (2022)

In 2009, AMC debuted a new slogan: “Story matters here.” Kicked off during the season 2 finale of Breaking Bad, just one of the prestige TV shows that had recently made a splash on the channel, it recalled a similar tagline announced by HBO in 1996: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Both harkened a sense of critical self-importance, dictating that while the rest of TV was a mixed bag, these networks had narratives you could rely on. Within a few years of the creation of the landmark mantra, HBO would be the home of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. And a few years after that, AMC would air Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead.

That last show is important because zombie films (and the horror genre at large) typically aren’t praised for their storytelling. Of course, this attitude is pretty thoughtless — horror is just as rich a vein for good stories and characters as any other genre, and one need look no further than George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan for very effective zombie films. But this was a serialized zombie story on TV, a relatively new concept. Although it was based on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s wildly popular comic book series, there was a chance The Walking Dead could put AMC’s new slogan to the test.

And it did… over and over again. Because what started as an instantly acclaimed series that seemed to rewrite the rules for what people were accustomed to on TV evolved into a rote example of a story overstaying its welcome. The finale of The Walking Dead has been a long time coming (even as it aired alongside three spinoff series, with three more in the pipeline), and the fact that it’s continued its resurrected march long after its contemporaries have wrapped up calls into question its entire thematic backbone: How long should a story about survival continue to survive?

From the outset, the hype around The Walking Dead wasn’t just limited to its high production values and top-notch special effects makeup. Its showrunner was Frank Darabont, the director behind films like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist, lending his mastery of the adaptation to a zombie comic book. And by the end of season 1, there were even talks of Stephen King (to whom Darabont owed a major chunk of his filmography) writing an episode in the second season. Kirkman was also heavily involved with the series, executive producing and writing episodes in the first few seasons as an ultimate display of his blessing (though he’d eventually be involved in a mega lawsuit against the network, something that at this point is kind of a habit).

The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (1) Image: AMC

As The Walking Dead wraps up its 11th season, it’s kind of hard to truly capture what made the show so alluring at first. Obviously, it tapped into an element of wannabe survivalist wish fulfillment. For many, it’s their preferred form of apocalypse: A killer virus is too uncontrollable. Atomic destruction makes one feel too helpless. But zombies? You just stab ’em in the brain. Anyone with the barest level of instinct and some bullets could do it, right?

However, whatever fist-pumping delight that can be taken when watching Rick Grimes eliminate a horde of zombies is countered by what would become The Walking Dead’s MO: Anyone can die at any time. In the beginning, this is heart-wrenching: Andrea being forced to stab her zombified sister, Morgan being unable to shoot his wife as she shuffles toward the home they once shared together, Rick stabbing his former best friend Shane to death because the desperation of this new reality has brought his buddy past the brink of sanity, etc. These were all milked for maximum drama, with long, lingering, tense standoffs and copious crying. At its best, it makes for thrilling television, especially if you’re new to “prestige” TV, which, judging by The Walking Dead’s skyrocketing ratings, many were.

If you’d seen The Sopranos or Deadwood or other shows of their ilk, you’d know that major supporting characters suddenly eating it is more feature than bug. It makes for gripping stakes and subsequent watercooler conversation. Name in the opening credits be damned: One of the marks of “prestige TV” was its allowance for risky narrative decisions that major networks would’ve shied away from. The Walking Dead took this to its furthest possible limit, often being nudged alongside Game of Thrones (which premiered a year after) for their penchant for doing away with characters suddenly and shockingly.

However, the disparate attitudes between these two shows would become clear with time. Game of Thrones would reveal itself to be working with a little more thematic heft than The Walking Dead, a show that kept coming back to the well of “Life is cruel and it will probably make you cruel.” It’s a nihilistic approach, with any victories, moral or physical, often marked by a swift pulling of the rug. The little girl, Sophia, who the cast spends a literal half season looking for, is discovered to just be a zombie in a barn right next to where they’ve been staying. Rick’s wife gives birth to his new daughter, but dies after a brutal C-section and is shot by her son to prevent her from resurrecting. The list goes on, but one thing is made clear: Any high points in the show, no matter how long the buildup has been, are destined to be brief. Dissatisfaction is the core.

The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (2) Photo: Jace Downs/AMC
The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (3) Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

On one hand, it’s pretty true to life. No matter what visions one sees of their own triumph over the undead, the most assured reality is a miserable one. However, from a narrative point of view, it means playing tug of war with the nature of fiction itself. A typical story arc allows for growth and for realization and for change. The world you’re in after it’s done is different than the one you started in. But by focusing so heavily on “Guess what? It still sucks!” moments of brutality against the only characters an audience can find any relatable kinship with, you enter a weird Pavlov’s dog experiment. The bell dings and you expect to be disappointed by what you’re left with. And in a few seasons, it would come back to harm the show in a big way.

The most important slaying, though, didn’t occur on camera. The second season would kick off with Darabont being fired from the series, frustrated with both the budget and the creative path AMC desired. His plans obviously involved something a little more free range (his idea for the first episode of the new season involved mostly abandoning the main cast for a bit, instead focusing on a doomed group of soldiers waging a futile war against a zombie onslaught in Atlanta). What followed would be an extremely costly legal battle between Darabont and AMC, resolved in 2021 to the tune of $200 million.

In a bit of telling timing, the episode that saw Darabont’s exit also saw the arrival of Talking Dead, an aftershow dedicated to praising and discussing the night’s episode with cast and crew members and the first step of the TV show’s eventual empire.

Darabont’s departure didn’t seem to shake up any core ethos of The Walking Dead, especially since it followed many of the major beats of the comics, which also had its feet firmly planted in “Oh, holy shit! Wait, what?” bloodlust. But as the series went on, these beats and the surprising deaths became all the show could really count on. It followed a formula for the first few years: The surviving cast finds a new location to bunker down in and a few more survivors to hang out with. Then, the location becomes toxic, a bunch of people die either by the zombie mouth or deranged human hand, and the cast (or whatever is left of them) is forced to move on. From the camp to the farm, from the farm to the prison, from the prison to Alexandria — in the fifth season, protagonist Rick tells others, “We are the walking dead,” and as silly as that sounds for one person to say to another, it rang true. They aren’t too dissimilar from the army of corpses they’re trying to withstand. All they can do is trudge from place to place and hope to not get unceremoniously murdered.

In the grand scheme of things, the first half of the show looks just as marked by the same narrative exhaustion as the last half. But one thing was different: a rise in ratings that played out like an arms race for popularity against itself. The first season finale became the most watched episode in basic cable history for the adult 18-49 demographic. The season 2 finale gave AMC its highest ratings ever, only to be handily beaten by the third-season premiere. You get the idea — the first episode of the seventh season saw the second-highest ratings in the show’s history, riding high off the last season’s cliffhanger ending.

By the end of the seventh season, these would be nearly cut in half.

The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (4) Image: AMC

The death of Glenn, the fan-favorite character and by far the most personable one amidst a sea of increasingly grim macho poses, wasn’t necessarily a shock when it took place in the season 7 premiere. It had already happened in the comics in the exact same fashion a few years earlier, right down to Glenn pathetically calling out the name of his wife between baseball bat blows to the skull. But what should’ve been the energized emergence of Negan, a beloved bad guy that had been built up for an entire season and one played by the effortlessly charismatic Jeffrey Dean Morgan, was met with wide distaste. The show that had declared open season on its own cast had finally gone too far.

Had the wool finally been pulled away from the audience’s eyes? The difference between Glenn’s death and the deaths of those in The Sopranos or Deadwood is the deaths in those shows had meant something for the other characters, and something for the story at large. It reverberated across the show in a way that was felt more deeply than guts on the ground. Aside from some angry characters, The Walking Dead would find no overhaul in the wake of its supreme moment of barbarism. By killing off a mainstay since the end of the first episode, it had come full circle and wound up empty-handed.

The nature of comic book storytelling, even one as finite as Kirkman’s (it ended on issue 193 in 2019), is cyclical. As parts of longer story arcs or long-running series, returns to the status quo are necessary every once in a while to allow for new readers to jump in. But what if your status quo, like The Walking Dead’s, is built on the idea that there really isn’t one? That even a return to normalcy means layers of intense grief and drudgery and little hope that anything will get better?

In the death of Glenn, whatever magic trick the series had been pulling off was laid bare to the audience. It had always been that way and would always be this way; there is no real surprise or payoff. The characters you like are doomed by what seems like a dice-roll approach to their fates. The Walking Dead season 8 poster promised “ALL OUT WAR” between Rick’s and Negan’s groups, a dramatic endgame to the climax of the series so far. But viewers were well accustomed to its endings. Even a titanic battle between the avenging stalwart protagonist and its most heinous villain held little promise that the story’s nature would change.

The Walking Dead didn’t survive its own success (5) Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

After Glenn’s death, what should’ve been a narrative victory lap became a time killer between bushwhacks. The biggest difference between these later portions and its earlier seasons is that more human factions are introduced. This builds the pretense the show has managed to evolve from small groups scrambling for a foothold in a “walker”-infested East Coast to something resembling the return of community in a chaotic world. It would be a capable change if the show hadn’t previously relied so much on sweeping the legs out from under itself.

Meanwhile, a spinoff series, Fear the Walking Dead, chugged along. In a few years, it would be joined by The Walking Dead: World Beyond and Tales of the Walking Dead, neither of which offered anything all too different from the original series. They would even trade off various cast members in a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque attempt to provide a watchable component for those hesitant to devote more time to yet another aimless zombie series. The rough aspects that had made The Walking Dead seem so gritty and nasty had devolved. In season 9, Rick was carried off in a mysterious helicopter to parts unknown, a creative choice that mystified audiences until they read that he was to star in yet another spinoff.

It was the ultimate shortchange, preventing the final few seasons from ever achieving a comeback. If you couldn’t have a proper send-off of Rick, the only character around since the first episode and the backbone of the series, then what was the point? Why was it still going if cast members survived on the basis of who was getting a tie-in show developed? That’s not an exaggeration: Surviving into the final episode are Daryl (getting a spinoff,) Michonne (similarly disappeared from the show and now joining Rick in his spinoff,) Negan (getting a spinoff,) and Maggie (accompanying Negan, the man who violently clubbed her husband to death, in his spinoff. What an odd couple!). If The Walking Dead is doing nothing but priming its stars for expanded-universe hijinks, then why does its ending matter at all? Even if one could still find solace in its surprise deaths, characters being protected by sheer franchising is, at best, a betrayal of what was once its most potent technique.

Its existence now feels as archaic as the rotting undead that pace around in it, a reminder of a series that in its nascent years, while far from hopeful, remained vibrantly gruesome. In the end, the only thing The Walking Dead couldn’t survive was its own success.

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