Last night, the eighth season of AMC's The Walking Dead wrapped up its year-long "All Out War" storyline with a finale where our longstanding hero Rick Grimes led his people to victory over Negan & Co. It was a rare moment of triumph, in the middle of an epic saga that's usually about human beings murdering each other while they're running away from zombies. And if the ratings hold steady with the show's recent average, by the time repeats and DVRs are factored in, around 10 million people in the U.S. will have seen the man with the bat get his just desserts. (Whether his "desserts" are "just," of course, is a matter of opinion.)
In this day and age, those are hit numbers – especially on basic cable, where dramas like The Americans can run for years and rarely top a million viewers per episode. As a business, The Walking Dead's doing just fine, thanks. There have been no rumors of cancellation. In fact, even as show-runner Scott Gimple steps aside for his successor Angela Kang, the producers are still talking in terms of five-year plans, not endgames.
But let's be frank: The series is clearly in decline. For its first six seasons, The Walking Dead grew its viewership from year to year; while critics griped about the pacing or questioned some iffy story-points, they generally regarded the show as a must-see. All that has changed, ever since the grueling, depressing Season Seven premiere – you know, the one where Negan bludgeoned the beloved characters Abraham and Glenn to death. Several high-profile TV columnists have quit writing about TWD altogether. The ratings have dropped steadily from a Season Five peak of around 15 million per episode. A once-deafening buzz is now more of a low, exasperated moan.
So what the hell happened? On any given week, The Walking Dead is still capable of delivering episodes that are gripping, emotional and provocative. So why have the last two seasons been such a grim slog overall?
Here are a few theories:
The writers – like their characters – have too much faith in Rick.
Look, The Walking Dead's always going to be "the Rick Grimes Story," first and foremost. He was the hero in the first episode, and unless something radical happens, he'll carry on through to the series finale.
Over the course of eight seasons, however, the cast of characters around him has expanded so much that this need to tie every element of the story to this character's personal growth has become an anchor in the worst sense of the word. It's holding the show back, not steadying it. Even when Negan murdered Glenn, we didn't get to see the death until the start of the following season, because – according to Gimple – that would've detracted from what really mattered: Rick's arc.
But y'know, what if there aren't many more depths to plumb with this guy? Rick's not especially shrewd or thoughtful, and if this season has proven anything, it's that a lot of his success is due to dumb luck. Even in this year's finale, his army was lured into a trap, and would've been wiped out if their old friend Eugene hadn't secretly sabotaged the Saviors' weapons. Frankly, it's getting harder and harder to understand why anyone follows Rick – including the show's writers.
The coolest characters don't stay cool for long.
During TWD's heyday a few years back, Carol was easily the most intriguing survivor to follow from week to week. While expertly imitating (and subtly mocking) the meek wife and mother she used to be, she was covertly Rick's most ruthless operative, quietly eliminating obstacles. And the she met Morgan, the stick-wielding passerby from the series pilot who'd disappeared into the depths of nihilism and come out with a newfound respect for human life – a trait which automatically marked him as a dangerous, disposable liability in her eyes.
So what happened? Carol was undercut by a sudden and strange story arc where she fell in love with a neighbor, and became worried that her newfound attachment would render her ineffectively weak. Not long after that, one of Morgan's favorite students was brutally murdered, prompting him to revert back to a mad, homicidal rage. Ok, then.
Over and over, the show developing badass characters like Carol and Morgan – and Jesus, and King Ezekiel, and on and on – only to throw them into situations so devastating that they become effectively neutered, and less fun to watch. The Walking Dead was always had a great cast, but viewers have been trained not to get too attached to any of them … not just because they might die, but because it's only a matter of time before they become a diluted to the point of no longer being recognizable.
There's way, way too much Negan.
Part of the "making everything about Rick" problem for this show is that for a long time now the villains have been defined largely by how they are both like and unlike our hero. After taking a dry run at creating the ultimate anti–Sheriff–Grimes in the Governor, The Walking Dead invested a lot in Negan as the biggest of the Big Bads, who'd encompass every philosophical conundrum and fine point that makes this story's hero who he is. The character was teased for half a season before he finally appeared; and since his arrival he's been given a healthy amount of screen-time, taking up space in the past might've been occupied by … oh, Daryl, or Tara or Aaron. Anybody, really. Fill in the blank with whatever name you'd like.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan's been doing a fine job playing the character; with his sing-sing voice, gleeful vulgarity and hepcat insouciance, he's one of the most memorable nemeses in TV history. But perhaps to justify how much Dead leans on his outsized personality to bring some energy to an episode, the writers have swung between making him out to be the Ultimate Evil and making him semi-likable. And while trying to crack the Negan nut, they've let other elements atrophy. Rick keeping his enemy alive for another season (at least) may end up being one of his worst decisions – for The Walking Dead's overall story alone, much less the community he's sworn to protect.
The characters talk and talk and talk ….
This isn't really a new problem with The Walking Dead, nor is it at all unique to the show. But still – there's an awful lot of "conflict" that consists of two people with opposing viewpoints just standing around and grumbling at each other. At length. Often in drab and/or dark locations.
The writers seem to think this is essential to the drama. Muted dialogue scenes give the story room to breathe, and clarify where everybody stands. But the characters hardly ever talk about anything new. They're having a lot of the same debates they did six seasons ago, when they were all camping out on the farm: staying safe, planning for the future, accounting for the very real threats of violent bullies, what does good and bad even mean any more, etc. Meanwhile, apparently to make sure that as many people as possible get to weigh in, the actual narrative drivers – be it war, or scavenging, or building – get dispersed and/or meted-out, such that entire half-seasons only cover a few days in their lives.
What's especially aggravating is that if there's one thing The Walking Dead still does really well, it's gory, nerve-wracking action-horror scenes. One of the things that was so disappointing about this year's finale was that it built up to a big battle which ended really before it could begin, thanks to Eugene. The second half of the episode was mostly jibber-jabber.
Talking Dead has become a crutch.
In an effort to milk the heavy fan interest in The Walking Dead, AMC added the post-episode postmortem chat show Talking Dead in during the series' second season, with host Chris Hardwick reflecting on what had just aired alongside a rotating panel of TWD writers, stars 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. But it's started to feel like a crutch for the creative team. After every controversial character-death, the after-show panel gets to throw a little going-away party, softening the blow. Story-points that come across as muddled or underdeveloped (remember the Wolves?) are explicated outside the confines of the series itself.
In this year's post-finale episode, for example, Gimple explained away Eugene's sudden change of allegiance, and talked about why the otherwise peace-loving Jesus would be allied with Maggie in a long-term plan to kill Negan. And executive producer Robert Kirkman (who also created the comic book series) talked about Rick's decision to keep Negan alive as important to his arc because it's him "choosing life." It almost doesn't matter whether or not any of this was supported by what was actually scripted and staged. What started as a humble get-together to trade reactions and dish over plot points – the TV show equivalent of post-airing Twitter chatter – has become the ultimate case of the ultimate sin in narrative art: telling instead of showing.
There's too much faithfulness to the comics.
While the TV Walking Dead has fiddled around with some of the details of Kirkman's comic book series – changing which characters get killed, adding entirely new heroes and villains – the larger story arcs have been more or less the same. The prison, the Governor, Alexandria, the Saviors – all of that is straight from the page.
So here's some bad news, folks: If the show continues adapting Kirkman relatively faithfully, then there are even rougher roads ahead. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory for non-readers, the challenges Rick and his friends have faced in the comics in the post-Savior War era have been a lot like what we've already seen. There's more death and destruction to come; a new formidable enemy to face; a new cycle of self-defeating internal squabbles. Season Eight ended with some suggestion that the infighting at least is going to continue to be an issue, given that Maggie's now furious with Rick for sparing Negan's life.
Both Game of Thrones and The Leftovers have proven that TV literary adaptations can thrive when they outpace their source material. But Kirkman just keeps cranking out Walking Dead comics, month after month. Most series that have been on the air this long, with this kind of audience-bleed, would be already moving toward a conclusion. This one though is following an unfinished road, and so it keeps trudging ahead, mindlessly wreaking havoc.