When to Stop Watching ‘The Walking Dead’

Mercifully, The Walking Dead came to an end in November 2022. Its final season was released for the masses on Netflix this month. Having trudged through the entire series, we can at last confirm that yes, we have wasted years of our lives.

(This article exists primarily for those who have not seen the show or are a few seasons in. There are a couple light spoilers for the part of the show you should watch, seasons 1-8 [oops, article spoiler!]. There are some heavier spoilers for the later seasons, but who cares — you shouldn’t watch them. Secondarily, the piece exists for those who have seen the entire thing and seek commiseration.)

Just over halfway through its 11-season run, The Walking Dead began a slow decline in quality from which it simply never recovered. The fatal blow was the loss of its main character Rick Grimes in season 9, when actor Andrew Lincoln departed. A show with a large cast of characters needs an anchor, someone to revolve around. One can perhaps better get away with a hundred characters if that was the nature of the show from the beginning, but TWD is disorienting because it has a main character for eight seasons and then none for the last three. It lost its center. (The comics did it right. The creator, Robert Kirkman, abruptly ended the series when Rick died, shocking fans and leaving the bamboozled distributor throwing out fake upcoming issue covers. See, readers experienced this world through Rick, and when he ended so did the experience. No one was safe in the dystopia, not Rick, not us. If only the show had been bold enough to do that.) Other key reasons for the descent from a solid hit to the okay-est show ever include the inevitable repetition (we have to find a new home again, we have to fight the next bad guy / group), the delightful slow burn’s eventual devolution into a miserable 45 minutes of nothingness that strongly suggested the showrunners had no idea how to wrap this thing up, and the creeping contrivances and character stupidity that is a hallmark of poor writing, as I wrote elsewhere:

Bad writing is when characters begin following the script, rather than the story being powered by the motivations of the characters… The characters’ wants, needs, decisions, actions, and abilities [should determine] the course of events — like in real life… Series that blast the story in a direction that requires characters, in out-of-character ways, to go along with it will always suffer… The Walking Dead, in addition to forgetting to have a main character after a while and in general overstaying its welcome, was eventually infected with this. (There’s no real reason for all the main characters to cram into an RV to get Maggie to medical care in season 6, leaving their town defenseless; but the writers wanted them to all be captured by Negan for an exciting who-did-he-kill cliffhanger. There’s no reason Carl doesn’t gun Negan down when he has the chance in season 7, as he planned to do, right after proving his grit by massacring Negan’s guards; but Negan is supposed to be in future episodes.)

While the derivative format and bad writing reared their ugly heads before it, “Wrath,” the final episode of season 8, is when one should say a firm goodbye to The Walking Dead. Finish the season and never look back. It’s not simply that things get worse after this — and they do — but “Wrath” actually does a decent job rounding off the show’s theme. What made TWD powerful was not only its compelling characters who you could lose at any time, its great action, gore, horror, and twists, but its question of how to hold onto your humanity when humanity has gone to hell. Do you maintain your decency and ethics, or do you survive? You cannot often have both. Characters struggle to remain good people. Some are mostly successful. For others, the struggle pulls them into madness. Some lose momentarily or entirely, in order to live, descending into a darkness and doing horrific things. Can our protagonists still be called good? We are asked this; the characters ask it of themselves. “Wrath” deals with this issue. Rick wants to return to who he was, to reclaim some of his humanity, and build a world where it can be restored for all. Other protagonists — who one loves just as much as one loves Rick — begin plotting to do awful things to an enemy in the next season. This is the episode’s mild cliffhanger, the attempt to draw you back for more. If you walk away from the show, you’ll have to give up on seeing where that story thread goes. Having seen such, I argue it’s not worth it. End the series there, knowing your heroes will continue fighting to survive in this zombie apocalypse for the rest of their lives, and at the same time fighting not to fall into savagery and evil. After season 8, this theme is increasingly forgotten, and you’d better believe that the show is no longer smart enough to include it in the actual conclusion.

Seasons 9 through 11 have their positives of course. Alpha and the Whisperers are kind of cool, there’s some good horror moments that keep the walkers dangerous, and Negan’s redemption arc is without question the most interesting element. But otherwise there’s not a lot to write home about. Beyond Rick vanishing and more nothing-to-see-here episodes, there are desperate, disorienting time jumps, a horde of new characters that aren’t particularly interesting (if you’ve seen these seasons, try to remember who Magna is, it’s impossible), and a season 11 villain / community, Pamela and the Commonwealth, that is the weakest of the series. Plus, since the Commonwealth is a large, safe city, our characters get to leave the terrifying apocalyptic tribulation and enter the pulse-pounding world of…local journalism, courtroom drama, and peaceful protests over inequality. The last episodes try to pull at your heartstrings with flashback footage from earlier episodes, when the show was actually good, but this also felt somewhat desperate to me and wasn’t terribly successful. And yes, Rick and Michonne appear at the very end, but it’s a nothing burger: they are precisely where we last saw them, with Rick a captive and Michonne searching for him. Just in case there’s a movie. The end. Besides those bits, this season could have been inserted earlier in the show and you would never have known it was designed to be the last one — it’s simply more of the same, another bad guy defeated. The “why” of it all was entirely beyond me. That’s what you tend to ask yourself after season 8. Why does this show exist? Why am I watching this? May this writing save you some valuable time.

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