What Finally Killed ‘The Walking Dead’?

by Laura Bradley | The Daily Beast

Michael Muller/AMC

A few years ago it seemed that The Walking Dead would outlive us all—but on Wednesday Scott Gimple and Angela Kang confirmed that the onetime TV juggernaut will come to an end with a 24-episode 11th season. Once upon a time, The Walking Dead was planned to run for 12 seasons at least. Over the years, however, enthusiasm has waned along with viewership. What happened?

It’s worth noting that most Walking Dead seasons have run for 16 episodes, making this supersized season only eight installments shy of a two-season episode count. Still, for most Walking Dead fans, it’s likely not that surprising that this undead drama will finally breathe its last breath.

Even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the show has been languishing for years; the better of its most recent seasons have still struggled to match the verve of previous chapters, and droves of new characters have consistently failed to connect with audiences the way Rick Grimes and his OG crew once did. (No shade to actor Dan Fogler, but who the hell cares about Luke the Music Teacher?) Ratings have been sagging for ages, and this year the show finally fell below 3 million viewers.

Perhaps because of this, AMC has invested more and more in offshoots from the flagship series—the reported Rick Grimes movie trilogy, spin-offs including Fear the Walking Dead (now in its sixth season), and upcoming series The Walking Dead: World Beyond and anthology series Tales of The Walking Dead.

And now there’s also a new spin-off on the way: Alongside the announcement of Walking Dead’s expanded 11th season, Gimple and Kang also announced a new show for 2023, starring fan favorites Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier.

I will admit that as a longtime Caryler I am somehow, even after all these years, a little intrigued by the prospect of a Carol and Daryl standalone. But this plan still feels like confirmation that years’ worth of characters and story developments have painted the original Walking Dead into an untenable corner. For years, no matter what writers have tried, viewers have been dropping like flies.

The problems began all the way back in Season 5. Although the season was popular among many, it invested storytelling energy in all the wrong places. After half a season dedicated to rescuing Maggie Greene’s sister, Beth, from an antagonistic group holed up in a hospital, the character died suddenly during the midseason finale—an echo of the desperate and equally wasted search for Sophia seasons before. In the midseason premiere that followed, they killed Tyreese, a fan favorite played by The Wire alum Chad Coleman.

But it was in Season 6 that the show’s real problem began to emerge, and his name was Negan. Perhaps in an effort to thwart comic superfans from guessing who the show’s shiny, new big bad would kill, Steven Yeun’s character, Glenn Rhee, got a fake-out death early in the season. After watching the beloved former delivery guy fall into a horde of zombies, it took several episodes for writers to reveal he had actually survived by sliding under a dumpster.

Gimple had infamously hinted that the show would take a “hard left turn” from the comics, in which Rhee died. But in the Season 7 premiere—after making fans wait for months after the sixth season’s cliffhanger ending—the show revealed the extremely gruesome deaths of both Glenn and Abraham Ford. For many, that proved to be a breaking point.

But the problems persisted from there as well. Despite Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s undeniable charisma, Negan did not translate well to screen from Robert Kirkman’s comics; he was always more cartoonish than menacing. And in recent years the show has seen an exodus of all its early talent save for Reedus and McBride. Since Season 8 Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, and Chandler Riggs have all left.

Kang took over as show-runner for The Walking Dead in Season 9, and tried to right the ship with some success. But by then the damage had already largely been done. In Season 6, the show focused too single-mindedly on death as its driver of drama and character development. Viewers had become inured, and new characters were never given the time or space to become important before they died. Unearned plot twists have run rampant.

But perhaps The Carol and Daryl Hour can right the wrongs of the past. Reedus and McBride’s chemistry has been undeniable from the start, and their characters’ friendship has become something of an emotional anchor for The Walking Dead.

With a back-to-basics approach and careful storytelling, perhaps these two can resuscitate the brand before it’s too late. Or maybe they’re just a dead man and woman walking. At this point, I have but one requirement for this show, and it is that whatever happens, Dog cannot die. Daryl Dixon has lost enough animal friends already. If Dog dies, I riot.

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