Now full swing (no pun intended, honest) into its seventh season The Walking Dead has solidified its place as the top series in all of television. With a voracious fanbase and ratings that put NFL “Sunday Night Football” to shame, AMC’s series has reached unparalleled success — and unbridled vexation. The show’s popularity belies its wildly inconsistent quality. After last season’s debacle of a finale, many fans had hoped the backlash would force the creators to course correct. We’re already a quarter way into the season it’s apparent those hopes should be quickly abandoned. Be forewarned. Major spoilers from here on out, folks.
In the season 7 premiere we were greeted with The Walking Dead’s most persistent and increasingly worrisome fault; the complete lack of subtlety in storytelling. For the last few seasons the series has fell into the habit of telegraphing major events and deaths. Rest assured that if a character gets a hefty amount of lines or development that they’ll soon meet their grisly end. This held true for the premiere where viewers finally learned it was Abraham and Glenn who met Lucille, none too surprising as they were the focus leading up to last season’s finale. This retroactively made the drawn out reveal of their deaths more egregious.
And even in death there is no grace to be found. Nuance seems to have fully vacated the series in effort to up the shock factor. The demise of main characters has become more violent and gruesome. The aforementioned two had their heads bludgeoned to mush by Negan. It was surely intended to shock, but the result was more along the lines of disgust. After all, these weren’t just a pair of “redshirts” getting the business. These were two beloved characters, Glenn especially so, being one of the few to endure since the first season.
Their deaths being so callously depicted rubbed many fans the wrong way. Long accused of being “misery porn”, The Walking Dead may have finally embraced that reputation — but the result feels like the writers practically resenting the characters and the fans. The events of the season premier didn’t just feel brutal; they felt mean. It’s evidence that the show has no intention of shying away from its more controversial attributes.
In fact, it seems The Walking Dead is doubling down across the board. Essentially since the second season the show has been plagued by slow pacing. Any time there is character development to be had the story grinds to a complete halt. There’s a propensity for the writers to focus on just one plot at a time. For example, when the story shifted in the second episode this season to catch up on Carol and Morgan’s introduction to The Kingdom an entire episode was dedicated to doing it, which was completely unnecessary.
This leads to characters continuously monologuing and lots of long, pensive stares to close the gap in runtime. Understandably, this is an effort to draw out the series and prevent it from outpacing the production of the comics and their still developing story. But rather than use this as an opportunity to take the show in different directions, the writers seem more intent on just spinning the wheels. The last two episodes, “The Cell” and “Service”, did practically nothing to move the plot forward in any significant way. There was a time when, at the very least, these sort of episodes presented a dramatic change in the characters or dynamic developments (See: The Grove or Save the Last One), but now they’re just filler.
Fortunately, the result hasn’t been all bad. Carol exploring the Kingdom and meeting King Ezekiel brought some much needed levity post-Pee Pee Pants City. Ezekiel has tremendous potential as a character and his pet tiger Shiva managed to look believable via inspired effects work. Likewise, catching up with Daryl and getting an inside look at Negan’s operations in “The Cell” provided some critical information for the viewer, but these are starting to feel like bright stitches shining in a otherwise faded tapestry. We shouldn’t be surprised when a character-driven episode is actually good. The Walking Dead’s narrative formula has been fully exposed at this point and it’s quickly approaching the sort of redundancy every TV program should fear.
However, the creators aren’t completely at fault here. The comics themselves spiraled into a bit of aimless yarning and the series has simply replicated that. It’s a side-effect adhering to the source material. The writer’s might be better served by reworking elements of the story to their benefit, but that would undoubtedly draw the ire of the comic book faithfuls. It presents something of a Catch-22 from a narrative standpoint. Obviously, the writers have chosen to be stalwart in their approach to the series and no one can blame them. The viewership absolutely dwarfs anything else on cable or broadcast television, which certainly reaffirms AMC on the current direction.
The show is thriving on the strength of the cast and whatever remaining goodwill was salvaged by the premier. Those are precarious foundations for the series, but with already being renewed for an eighth season there’s little fear of reprisal should this season not meet expectations. There’s no incentive for the creators to aspire for the show’s former glory. For better or worse, the course is set and there’s no indication to suggest otherwise. This doesn’t mean The Walking Dead won’t be any good — it just means it won’t be any different.