It’s fair to say that the front-half of The Walking Dead’s seventh season has attracted a lukewarm response from audiences and critics alike, despite the arrival of Negan, everyone’s favourite trash-talking, bat-wielding sociopath.
So what went wrong? I’d contend that The Walking Dead’s biggest enemy has been the audience’s expectations. Never before has a show or a movie taken such a continuous, long-form look at the nuts and bolts of a zombie apocalypse. A zombie movie has a definite arc: there’s an outbreak, society collapses, the survivors endure horror and heartache, a plan is hatched or a quest undertaken, and slowly and painfully the survivors learn to adapt. The movie then ends on a note either of hope or nihilism. The zombies never linger long enough to lose their terror, certainly never long enough to become a manageable nuisance.
The Walking Dead has entered its ‘manageable nuisance’ stage, and many viewers now find themselves struggling to reconcile the show’s new direction with their expectations of it being a man-against-monster zombie survivalist saga. Nobody can talk such viewers out of their apathy or active dislike; however, it’s worth pointing out that if the show had simply continued to place its zombies front-and-centre – if the story hadn’t expanded to incorporate new challenges, obstacles and threats – we would have become as desensitised to the undead as the show’s characters have by this point in the narrative. The Walking Dead had to end or evolve, and if you’re willing to accept its evolution, then you have to cut it a certain degree of slack during its transition.
I only started reading the Walking Dead comics after the show’s sixth season finale. I very quickly gorged myself on them, catching up and then overtaking the TV show. By the time Lucille had crashed down on the heads of her flesh-and-blood victims, I was already in a post-Negan, Whisperer-infested world. I’d also decided that the quintessential Negan could only be the brutish, black-and-white, fuck-fuckity-fuck-stick version from the comic books (you can read my article about that here). It’s fair to say that Jeffrey Dean Morgan had something of an uphill struggle against my expectations. As did the entirety of the seventh season itself.
While the show doesn’t follow an identical trajectory to its source material – and has different characters and different versions of existing characters to boot – I already knew the main thrust of the narrative, meaning that when certain scenarios began to unfold on screen, I had a fair idea of what would happen next, and in some cases who would die. I wonder if these two related things – how much I’d enjoyed comic book Negan, and my knowledge of the main story beats to come – robbed me of my objectivity and sense of surprise, which in turn left me pre-disposed to view the show comparatively and analytically, instead of through the gut and the adrenal gland (which of course is the manner in which The Walking Dead is best enjoyed).
That being said – and while it’s obviously impossible for me to un-read the comic books and watch those first eight episodes again through untainted eyes – I do believe something has been severely off-kilter with season seven so far; problems that run deeper than the show’s new direction, and my foreknowledge of the source material. I can’t remember ever enjoying a fresh batch of episodes less. Sure, The Walking Dead has always had slower episodes, and weaker episodes, and filler episodes, but these are usually buoyed by a mix of competent, good and occasionally great episodes either side. Not so this season. All of the episodes thus far have felt lukewarm and lacklustre, and somehow lacking thrust and cohesion. Many of the big dramatic beats, especially the deaths in the premiere and Rick and Negan’s jolly RV trip, were handled clumsily and gratuitously. The show has never felt so coldly nihilistic, and that’s saying something in a series threaded through with so much death, destruction and misery.
I understand that in order for the coming war to mean something, and for the inevitable victory to provide us with a visceral dose of catharsis, our heroes must first be trampled deeper into the dirt than they’ve ever been trampled before. We have to fear for them, we have to feel their sense of pain, impotence and outrage. We have to be introduced to and start to care about all of the potential allies that are going to be thrown together in the back half of the season, and have a fair idea of the mechanics of the enemy camp, and the tenuous fear-soaked peace that keeps the Saviours in power. I understand the chess pieces have to be moved into place, and the pace slackened to prepare for the fireworks. But still… meh. At first I thought the problem was Negan. But I’ve come to realise that the real problem is Rick.
Not Andrew Lincoln, you understand, who has always done terrific work as Rick Grimes. But Rick the character, who suffers in comparison to his more effective comic-book counterpart. While it’s true that Comic Rick has had his lapses of judgement, spells of foolhardiness, and suffered the odd psychotic break, he’s always felt like a leader in both name and deed, fully deserving of the title and capable of handling the weight of the crown that goes with it. His ruthlessness and occasional recklessness is tempered by a strong conscience and a pragmatic outlook. I can see why his people like him, trust him, respect him and follow him.
The only real evidence that TV Rick is a great leader is the amount of times the other characters repeatedly tell each other that Rick is a great leader. To my mind, he only has two stock responses to most managerial and logistical problems: cry face, or full psycho. Case in point, Comic Rick only swallows down Negan’s brutality in order to lull him into a false sense of security. Even as Lucille swings down atop Glen’s skull, Rick is formulating a plan to take that mad, cackling bastard down, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against him, because that’s who Rick is, and that’s what he does. He’s strong and capable, even in his darkest and most testing moments.
Game of Thrones may be able to juggle the narrative demands of an entire world and its multifarious clans and characters, offering up a smorgasbord of delicious little interlocking short stories that served together are greater than the sum of their parts, but The Walking Dead – while definitely an ensemble show – really needs Rick as its focus, its point-of-view, its through-line. The lack of Rick – and especially the lack of a strong Rick more in-line with the comic book incarnation of the character – has been to the show’s detriment.
Unless of course this Ricklessness is part of a deliberate strategy. I’m thinking more and more that perhaps the ground is being prepared for a shocking shake-up that will serve as the biggest break from the source material imaginable: the death of Rick Grimes. One thing season seven has done particularly well is to promote the strength and resilience of the show’s female characters, especially Maggie, who is an obvious and believable contender for the top spot should Rick ever take a long, one-way walk into Walkersville. It’s worth steeling yourself for such an eventuality. For once in the show’s history, the possibility of Rixit doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
I sincerely hope that, whatever lies in Rick’s immediate future, the Walking Dead will return with a barnstorming, seat-of-the-pants, solid smattering of tense and exciting episodes, to exorcise the malaise of this season’s opening half, and perhaps even grant it a retrospective pardon. The first eight episodes may not have rocked my world or inspired much in the way of hope or enthusiasm, but there was still plenty to enjoy: Carol (she’s my ‘if x dies, we riot’ character); the introduction of King Ezekiel and his pet tiger; the effective and over-due fleshing out of peripheral characters like Rosita, Father Gabriel and Tara; Daryl’s stay at Dick Dastardly’s Dog-food Motel; and the mid-season finale, which was actually very good, and finally convinced me that Jeffrey Dean Morgan was the right man for the role of Negan; he really owned the character in ‘Hearts Still Beating’, seemed to swagger straight onto Alexandria’s twee suburban streets from the pages of the comic book. I’m sorry I doubted you, Jeffrey. Perhaps you just needed a shave.
One thing I didn’t enjoy – and which I gather had fans howling into their hankies – was the emotionally manipulative reunion of our band of heroes at the episode’s climax. Those few minutes of silent smiles, nods, tears, hugs and raised eyebrows, all set to uplifting music, felt a bit too on-the-nose, like a cross between a music video and an episode of a soap opera. I couldn’t help but remember a funny video I watched on YouTube a few years ago, where the musical score was removed from the scene at the end of Return of the Jedi, as the heroes are receiving their medals. It just looked ridiculous, and made me laugh like a loon.
I’m under no illusions about The Walking Dead. It’s a compulsive show, incredibly popular and lucrative, but it isn’t, and never will be in my opinion, a truly classic show; certainly not when stacked against worthy behemoths like The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. That’s not to say that it hasn’t produced thrilling narratives, or produced some truly great episodes: the pilot, 18 Miles Out, Better Angels, Seed, Clear, Internment, Too Far Gone, After, The Grove, No Sanctuary, Consumed, What’s Happened and What’s Going On, JSS and Here’s Not Here, to name the stand-outs.
Lest you imagine I’m launching an attack, it goes without saying that I’m very fond of The Walking Dead, else I wouldn’t expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about it. And while the show may never be uttered in the same breath as the true classics of TV’s first and second Golden Ages, it’s shown itself more than capable of greatness in seasons gone bye (sic). And I sincerely hope that it’s able to reclaim some of its past vigour.
So come on, showrunners, Let’s do it.
Let’s make The Walking Dead great again.
MORE ZOMBIE ARTICLES I WROTE FOR ‘DEN OF GEEK’
And another from this website, reviewing S05E09.