Nothing lasts forever; if “The Walking Dead” has taught us anything, it's that. No leader, no favorite character, no seemingly safe haven. Not even your favorite television show.
With the ratings drop after the controversial Season Seven premiere October, the popular opinion of AMC's most popular series has become increasingly mixed. Of course, a great hallmark of the show's fandom has always been debate, and the series' quality throughout the seasons is one of the most debate-worthy topics in television.
Still, even the most adamant fans should be able to acknowledge why people are become especially tired with this season. What can showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his not-so-merry band of writers do to adjust course?
Pull the plug.
No, not immediately, but... eventually it should come to an end. Like Rick Grimes already knows, it’s only a matter of time before something turns into a brain dead shell of itself. And now that the show is going on 7 years-old, the tropes of “The Walking Dead” are starting to feel worse for wear.
There was a sequence in the mid-season finale where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) come across a videogame level of walkers floating in a lake. Zombies have become sort of a double- edged sword for the series -- we want them to feel central to the show again, but when Aaron was dragged under the water, did anybody really think that was how he was really going to die? It'd be cool if the undead felt like a real threat again, but the show has established too long ago that living people are the real threats in this world.
For guidance in avoiding this kind of staleness, consider "Lost," one of the touchstones of modern television. In many ways, “Lost’s" first season defined the current era of tv fandom. It had mystery, an ever-expanding universe, timeline skipping. The island serial was at the forefront of intersecting geek culture, online community and binge- watching obsession. In many ways, “The Walking Dead” is a descendant of it.
Of course, "Lost" also famously didn’t do as well after that first season, both commercially and critically. But, after a particularly frustrating season three, show runners Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse made a bold decision, announcing that “Lost” would continue for three more seasons, and no more.
This move forced the show to get back on the rails. Even if not everyone liked those rails, the end being in sight required the show to be more focused in its vision, and it ultimately gave a bold, strange (and yes, controversial) ending to one of the boldest, strangest television series ever.
Another defining drama that recently called it quits "early" is “Breaking Bad”. Inversely to “Lost,” “Breaking Bad” actually rose in popularity as its seasons went on. Still, just as people were catching on to Bryan Cranston’s cancer-riddled, meth-cooking chemist, Vince Gilligan and co. decided that Season 5 would be the show's last.
Another benefit of deciding in advance a show’s end is touting that finale. While “Lost's” ratings didn’t boom after the announcement of its end, they stopped hemorrhaging, and the finale brought back its golden era numbers with 15.3 million people tuning in. “Breaking Bad” always earned modest ratings, but the final season crept up between 5 and 6 million viewers before reaching a series high for its series finale: 10.3 million.
Of course there’s a major difference between TWD and those shows - neither of them had a comic book series that’s been going 13 years and counting as their source material.
However, television and comics are not the same. Written mediums have more inherent longevity. The characters don’t age unless you want them to, styles and tones can change without seeming as jarring.
The comic book industry and film industries are drastically different, too. While comics are still revenue-based, they’re also more niche, which allows for more daring, creative choices. Even the most popular comic series isn’t selling 10 million-plus copies domestically. And while larger numbers are a good thing for the cast and crew’s bank accounts, it generally puts more pressure on the writers to try and keep those viewers. They may have done a terrible job of that this season, but what do you wanna bet that Darryl (Norman Reedus) will never die until -- if it ever comes -- the last episode? There’s a reason why the comics are far more radical than the television series.
There’s the obvious temptation of having ready-made stories that can be adapted for seasons to come, but when the show has diverged as much as TWD has, that shouldn’t lock it in to the comics. For example, the “Game of Thrones” team announced that the next two seasons will be their final two, despite another installment in the book series still on its way (or so George R.R. Martin keeps telling us).
Taking all of this into consideration, one can appreciate any purely artistic decision within a very business-driven medium. A real decision for the good of the story, and not, say, a cynical one to use the brutal maiming of a beloved character as a cliffhanger ploy to get ratings -- I mean, “tell the story”.
The lack of focus has become borderline sloppy this season in multiple ways. There were four “special” “extended” episodes this half-season. The premiere may have warranted it (the writers needed time to make us completely suicidal), as well as the semi-finale, but what about the other two episodes? There was that one where Rick looked for a gun and that other one where Darryl listened to “Easy Street,” and, um, I guess some other things, too...
Note to the AMC promo team: “special” stops being special when it’s half of the episodes, and “extended” requires an asterisk when half of that extra running time is made up of more commercials.
Speaking of this season, I appreciate the TV series trying to expand its universe much like the comics did by focusing on new locations and different characters. However, as enjoyable as it is seeing Tara walking down the street in sunglasses, and feeling sympathy for Dwight (or maybe more his wife), the overall story is starting to feel spread thin by giving each their own episodes. “The Walking Dead” still only has 16 episodes a season, eight for each half. If half of that half consists of bottle episodes, then that’s only four that are advancing the story of our main characters. Remember how cool it was seeing King Ezekiel in the Season 7 trailer? Remember how he was only in one episode?
The latest mid-season finale got a lot right though. Despite the slog and nihilism of this season overall, with a brief closing scene, “The Walking Dead” was able to return to a notion from its more hopeful days. “The two of us -- we’re still standing, and we’re gonna keep standing. So what are we gonna do with that?” Michonne (Danai Gurira) asked Rick. “We can do this, but only if we do this.” Maybe it makes me corny, but I liked and was thankful for the happy reunion of our heroes at the end, and the final shot of them literally marching forward. It's that kind of upswing that "The Walking Dead" needs, but it's also what may just amount to a never- ending series of starts and stops if the show never has an arc as a whole.
Writing an end demands focus. Focus within episodes, seasons, characters and the show’s overall story. Regardless of the comic’s continuity, what is the story “The Walking Dead” TV series wants to tell? If that’s the creative team’s true concern, then they can’t try to make it last forever.