The Walking Dead has gone from being the show I could wax poetic about for days to being the equivalent of that feeling you get when an estranged ex shows up unannounced and drunk to a holiday party and all you can think is, “Oh, it’s you.”
And it’s not because they killed off my sweet summer child, Glenn Rhee–although to be clear, I am still mad about how they framed it, which I’ll talk more about later. It’s because the quality of the writing has been steadily declining to the point where I asked myself last season why I was still watching. The plot began to really meander after season four. The hospital storyline ended up being all for naught when the narrative straight up killed Beth and then Noah shortly after. (Citing nihilism and “realism” as a reason for randomly killing off characters who you’ve written yourself into a corner with is just lazy writing, don’t @ me.) Noah’s death in particular was grotesque just to be shocking, which was a disservice to the character and had many fans feeling disgusted with the ways in which the show tended to off its people of color.
Then season six spent eight episodes on herding walkers. Herding walkers, you guys. It had a completely unnecessary Glenn death fake-out to keep people watching, likely because they knew without that cliffhanger absolutely nobody was going to tune in for all the scintillating scenes of Rick and crew driving very slowly down a long road. And seeming to lack any clear direction on what to do with Carol, they decided to backtrack on seasons of character development and reduce her, a woman who had overcome abuse and grown into a certified badass, to crawling on the ground as a man shot her full of holes.
And then there was Negan, whose presence turned The Walking Dead into one big hype train. Last season spent most of its time teasing Negan’s appearance to keep the comic book fans flying by the seat of their pants. (I watched the season with my dad, a non-comic book reader, and he was very blasé about the camera’s obsession with baseball bats.) I mean, we essentially wasted an entire season simply hinting at the next one, culminating in that awful not-reveal season six finale. It was, to put it simply, bad writing and shady on the part of the writers to drag the audience through what amounted to weeks of filler episodes.
Afterwards there was the six long months of marketing ploys, where you couldn’t walk anywhere without seeing billboards of a lovingly rendered Lucille, Negan’s baseball bat. It felt like it was nearly every other week that we were fed more tidbits and theories about Negan and his potential victim. For the season seven premiere, Twitter debuted a baseball bat emoji, which solidified, in my mind, that the show had already turned a corner. The writers thought a baseball bat–instead of, I don’t know, a zombie–summed up the show in the same way that the Iron Throne emoji summed up Game of Thrones? Really?And then season seven premiered and we finally got the reveal we waited months for, but not before we were dragged through roughly twenty minutes of Negan’s monologue followed by Rick having flashbacks of the members of his crew. These scenes were strangely shot to make it look as if Rick cared as much about the deaths of Eugene, Rosita, and Aaron as he would of Carl and Michonne. When the reveal did come, it focused more on showboating Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s acting than on attempting to pay any sort of homage to the characters we’d known for years. (Remember how we had an entire episode to say goodbye to Tyreese, or the moment between Andrea and Michonne before Andrea’s death?) The beatings were grotesque. Glenn’s eye bulged out, a piece of his skull stayed attached to Lucille as Negan sauntered around, and his hand twitched even as his head was an unrecognizable mess. The entire set-up of the episode beckoned the audience to revel in the sadism of it all.
For many fans, it crossed a line. If the marketing up until that point hadn’t already convinced most, that premiere solidified it: The Walking Dead is a show that savors the discomfort of its audience and gleefully finds ways to increase its own shock value, often to the detriment of its own characters and story.
The Walking Dead has always struggled with balancing it’s gore with developing its human aspects, but it used to do it much better than it does now. Whole episodes used to be dedicated to people coming together in touching ways, with the violence not being the point so much as providing context. Remember Carol’s “Just look at the flowers, Lizzie”? Or Andrea’s “The pain doesn’t go away, you just make room for it.” Or when Michonne and Rick learned to overcome their inner demons together. And when Daryl realized how toxic his brother was? Remember how the Governor was a terrible man, but at least he wasn’t a totally cartoonish caricature like Negan? Remember that show?
Yes, Glenn’s death was a faithful recreation of his comic book demise. But it felt completely out of line with what the show had created up to that point. The show had oftentimes differentiated itself from the comic in what I found to be positive ways: the creation of Daryl, strengthening Carol rather than having her commit suicide after a failed romance, building up a relationship with Michonne, Rick, and Carl, and rewriting Lori’s death so at least it didn’t include Judith being smothered to death under her. For the show to suddenly adhere so closely to canon after all these years felt like a frustrating swerve, and I don’t blame fans for checking out if this is the direction the show is going to take now.
To be clear, I don’t mind feeling uncomfortable, shocked, or grossed out. When it comes to horror movies, that kind of emotional wreckage is exactly what makes them fun to watch. But The Walking Dead is not a two hour movie. It’s a show now on it’s seventh season, and I am tired of feeling the equivalent of emotional clickbait. I’m tired of the writers assuming I’d be more eager to meet Negan than giving a proper send-off to characters I’ve known for years. It’s tiresome to hear show-runner Scott Gimple openly tell Entertainment Weekly that the Negan cliffhanger and later double kill was literally them “looking for a way to break the audience.” And when TVLine asked about fans vowing to quit the show, director Greg Nicotero claimed it was just a “knee-jerk reaction” and that the show, like Game of Thrones, still had “a lot to offer” and fans would be back.
This is what you call a bad relationship, folks. And let’s clear this up now: Game of Thrones is not the same as The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones told us the endgame of the show in the first episode, and the focus isn’t so much on one group led by a single man as it is on numerous people in different geographical locations. It’s sad when people die on Game of Thrones, but we know there’s an end in sight. We have no idea where The Walking Dead is going, as it’s more of a long running character study than a story with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. How do we know The Walking Dead still has “a lot to offer?” What else does it have to offer, really, when it feels like Negan beating Glenn and Abraham to death is an event so horrific that it can’t (and shouldn’t) be topped in subsequent seasons?
Kirkman has said he believes Rick, Carl, Michonne, and Daryl should be dead by show’s end, and that the story will conclude when they literally figure out how to cure and/or defeat all the zombies, which he admits is going to “take a long time.” Considering Kirkman has also said he wouldn’t mind writing the story until issue 1,000, and currently the comic is on issue 159…no kidding. I’m certain there are fans who wouldn’t mind waiting for that long for a conclusion. Me, not so much.
Another issue I have is that the premiere made it clear that it will always come down to Rick as the main focus, who is, in my opinion, the least interesting character. Sincerely, who has actually tuned in specifically for Rick past the first season?
Despite being an ensemble cast, it seems finding new ways to break and repair Rick will always take precedence over the other characters. In the premiere, when the camera wasn’t gazing lovingly at Negan, it spent the rest of the time cataloguing Rick’s fall, rather than giving time to any of the other members of the group who rightfully had more reason to grieve than him. A lot of fans defended this breaking as necessary. But have we not already seen Rick broken? It certainly didn’t feel like much of a difference to me from when he was lost in madness after Lori’s death. Is this what they meant by “a lot to offer?” Are we doomed to just watch Rick fall, and rise, and fall again until his inevitable death? Because the prospect of watching five more seasons of that sounds horrendous.
And as for the women who were deeply affected by the deaths of Glenn and Abraham, the show could barely be bothered to acknowledge them except in the last few minutes. We finally got to hear Maggie speak at the very end of the episode, after they played a generic cello arrangement that felt hilariously offbeat from what had just occurred. Both Rosita and Sasha were too stunned to say much, which was half believable and half the writers leaving them with no time to speak. Sure, upcoming episodes will flesh them out. But it bothered me that the premiere, which garnered 18 million viewers, decided to push aside the women’s pain and stories to instead focus on a grandstanding ego match between two angry white men. If that’s a sign of things to come, I’d rather check out sooner rather than later.
It’s just a lot, you guys. The third episode, which I was hoping would return to Sasha and Maggie’s story was instead about two other angry white men, Daryl and Dwight, and about breaking Daryl down — which, again, didn’t feel all that different since we’ve seen him broken after Merle and Beth’s deaths. The second episode, which featured the Kingdom and King Ezekiel, added some much needed levity to the season, but it felt more comical than deep. Carol suddenly having magic vision to see how zombies used to look? Zombie-eating pigs? Old English? A CGI tiger? It seems the show is hewing even closer to the comics than ever before. Fans of the comic should rejoice. For the rest of us who miss what the show used to be, well, maybe it’s time to see other people.