Like The Zombies, This Series Will Probably Go On Forever
The show that I’m about to review for the overrated series is an outlier compared to the ones I’ve already listed. Unlike Succession and Ozark, The Walking Dead, while worshipped by some critics (the magazine Entertainment Weekly was one of the series biggest boosters for the first decade) mostly is ignored by critics and most of the organizations that give awards — not only the Emmys, but almost every other TV Critics groups that meets. But there are a group of people that do love this show — audiences.
Almost since its inception (maybe infection would be the better term) Walking Dead has been watched by one of the largest audiences in Peak TV, averaging between twelve and fifteen million viewers a week, which would be big numbers for broadcast shows and are staggering for basic cable. This has led to three spinoffs on AMC so far, at least one on AMC+, three planned movies featuring on Rick Grimes, the character who was at the center of the show the first ten years, and of course, Talking Dead the after-show run by Chris Hardwick, where he, cast members and fans spend an hour dissecting the hour that has just passed.
The Walking Dead is scheduled to come to an end sometime in the next year. (AMC, trying to drag out the finale as much as possible, has divided into three segments and God knows when the last will end up airing). In a larger sense, it’s hard to imagine Walking Dead ever truly ending given the vast number of spinoffs that have already come out and more that are likely to come. (Negan, the villain/hero/whatever has already been promised a spin-off series of his own.) So the question is: why do millions of viewers seem to love this series that is, as much as Game of Thrones was, a celebration of violence with not even the level of intrigue? Having gone out of my way to never watch the series and with no interest in seeing it now, I’m not sure of the answers. So I’ll start by going through the basic flaws of The Walking Dead and why despite them — perhaps even because of them — millions continue to watch and obsess about it every week.
Let’s start with the two biggest flaws, in my opinion, with the series. This is a series that is about a zombie apocalypse. And while dystopian television has been increasingly popular in the past decade, The Walking Dead in all its incarnations has a central premise: the zombies have won. Every episode, the characters are trying to stop a zombie attack and there are very few sanctuaries to be found. Now not having watched the series I don’t know what the basic concept, but I’m pretty sure Rick or any of the gangs that have been assembled, have ever tried to end the zombie threat. All they care about is surviving the next day, and killing zombies and whatever rogue group of people they encounter. And while this may be the material for a decent film (George Romero made his career on it), it’s not exactly the most entertaining material for a series. Walking Dead may be in its twelfth season, but fundamentally nothing has changed since the Pilot: Zombies are walking the earth, killing everything in sight.
Now the second flaw. Zombies are by far the dullest monster of the horror trope. Vampires have charm and sexuality, werewolves have a certain level of inner torment and the ghost has a level of tragedy. Zombies have no character; they are just mindless automatons to be killed. Yes, I know The Walking Dead has given us different breeds of zombies, but unless they’ve given us one with a personality or a memory, I’m going to stick with a mindless meat bucket.
This actually brings me to one reason why the series may have a degree of popularity: every single character, no matter how old or young, is allowed to kill as many zombies as they want. I don’t want to even think about how high the body counts are for some of the characters on The Walking Dead, but I’m betting that the for most of them, they’ve topped the number of serial killers Dexter Morgan killed in eight seasons. But because none of them are human any more, that’s the point. None of the characters seem to feel guilt about blowing the brains out of former people. Oh I grant you they may have regret when its one of their own — Melissa McBride and ‘Look at the flowers’, but they are still killing another human being.
So let’s be clear: The Walking Dead is murder porn and to an extent, survivalist porn. The mission statement pretty much from day one has been: kill in order to survive and treat everything that is a potential threat as the enemy. I’m not the kind of person who traditionally draws parallels between hit series popularity and current political views, but it’s really not to look at the rise of Walking Dead and the concurrent rise of the populist movement as somehow being related. Ten to twelve million people a week watch a show where guns and violence are the answer to all your problems, and if one of the ‘enemy’ infects you, you become part of the problem and must be removed. And I have been haunted about an article I once read when the cast celebrated Chandler Riggs, who played Carl, turned seventeen and was now legally allowed to shoot a gun on set, and participate in the killing of the zombies. Really hard to understand why they considered that joining in ‘the fun.’
If the murder porn on Walking Dead was only limited to the cannon fodder that the zombies have become, it would be troubling enough. But just as troubling, in my opinion, is the way that the human characters on the series seem to only exist to be killed one way or another, either by being turned or murdered by the countless human monsters that have haunted the show.
At this point, I no longer can keep track of how many characters that started the series are still alive or have by this point gone to other spinoffs within the ‘world’ of Walking Dead’. Nor am I aware how many of these deaths are ‘canon’ within the graphic novel series that inspired the show, considering that it left that path years ago. What I am certain of that the only purpose for characters on the series seems to be who ends up killing you: zombies or the monsters within.
One of the few character fates I do remember being discussed seriously several years was that of Glenn, played by Steven Yeun, who seemed to have been slaughtered by a group of zombies in Season 5, but who many fans didn’t believe he died and those were pissed when he did. This controversy seems pointless in retrospect in the fact that less than a year later, he ended up being the first to be pummeled to death by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan. I remember reading in an article that had a ‘cliffhanger’ where the editors of EW placed odds on who was the victim of Negan. I don’t know how many of the other characters that were predicted to be his victim ended up dying at his hands, or how exactly his character ended up getting ‘redeemed’ to the point where Morgan is getting his own spinoff in the near future.
I try very hard not to read into trends in television over time because I think it’s a fool’s game. But I have to admit, I am extremely troubled by the fact that by far the most watched series over the 2010s were also by far the most violent: Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. That both series managed to someone gain critical favor by not setting them in the present may have been the only real reason that neither courted the same level of controversy for the bloodiness of the deaths that shows that did so in a contemporary setting (I’m thinking particularly of Sons of Anarchy). It does not, however, change the fact that in both Westeros and the post-apocalypse America of Walking Dead, the writers believe that no matter who you are, you are expendable at either the hands of monsters or your fellow creatures.
Everyone has written about how character death is the essential focus on so much of Peak TV and I can’t exactly argue that point. I have argued that there is a difference between measured character deaths, which advance the story (like in say, Breaking Bad or The Americans) or deaths that seem arbitrary or at the whim of the showrunner (Shonda Rhimes is one of the biggest offenders of this in my book.) But all that said, I have to say that the rate of attrition on Walking Dead is the greatest violator of this trend — yes, even more than the ones on Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones. On Thrones, at least as long as the series was staying true to the novels — which pretty much lasted until Season 5- you could make the arguments that the showrunners were staying true to the Bible that George R.R. Martin had created. (Everything that happened afterwards is a different story, but since I never watched the series, I’ll let that pass.) And as horrible as all the deaths that have happened over Grey’s Anatomy over the series endless run, some of the most horrific were out of the control of Rhimes and her ilk. She may have taken a huge amount of grief for killing of Derek Shepherd, but as we later learned Patrick Dempsey’s own behavior in his final season did sort of force her hand.
The deaths on Walking are so capricious and random that trying to have a favorite character on the series seems pointless to me. If you manage to survive an entire season, you only seem to be postponing the inevitable. How much of this is due to the constant shift in showrunners is unclear, but it says a lot that not even the actors on the series really understand why some of them are happening. Andrew Lincoln was pretty sure that Chandler Riggs’ Carl was going to survive the series, if for no other reason than to be a symbol of hope for the future. Instead, he was bitten by a zombie three or four years ago, wrote a note to his sister, and killed himself. There is still no real reason given for why his character was killed, which pretty much sums up the reasoning for character death on this show.
And all of this pales to one of the worst things Walking Dead — it destroyed AMC. Prior to the show’s premiere in 2011, AMC was fundamentally known as one of the Peak TV’s best homes, the creator of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the greatest television series of all time. It hadn’t had much luck with hits outside those two series, but it was willing to experiment more on the side of cultural phenomena — Hell on Wheels and Halt and Catch Fire. After Walking Dead became the smash hit that it was, AMC essentially started to turn away from those kinds of cultural shows. It took awhile for the effect to be felt, but by the time both Mad Men and Breaking Bad had completed their runs, AMC had started to transition to more comic book and action based series like Preacher and constant spinoffs. They met yet transition back in that direction — new series like 61st Street do bare the mark of the old AMC — but I’m not overall optimistic about what the network will look like once Better Call Saul airs its final episodes by the end of this summer.
Will the ultimate fate of The Walking Dead franchise change when the final episodes end up airing? It’s hard to say. Given how horrific the reception was to the finale of Game of Thrones, HBO may have hedged his bets to much about the spinoffs like House of the Dragon that are going to begin airing this year. But in a larger sense, how the original Walking Dead ends may be irrelevant. There are now so many spinoffs and future projects in the works that, like the zombies that populate the America it inhabits, it will probably never be completely gone. And what that says for so many things — its audience, its network, even peak TV itself — has trends that are far more troubling that some of the more overblown critical shows that populate the airwaves today.