The question of when and how a show should end is at the very core of the debate surrounding any major multi-season show. Some shows, such as Breaking Bad, know exactly when to smoothly bring the narrative to a close, whereas others, such as Prison Break, proceed until they run out of steam. At some point during its seventh and eighth seasons, The Walking Dead (TWD) appeared to have nestled into the latter category, with viewership having declined from an astonishing season average of fourteen million at its peak in season 5 to just eight million by the time of season 8. And yet, at the time of writing in Autumn 2023, the show’s two most recent spin-offs, Daryl Dixon and Dead City, are receiving rave reviews, with 80% and 81% respective critics approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and a trilogy of movies is currently being rumoured to be in development behind the scenes. So, how? How did a once unstoppable show lose its way after five or six seasons of undeniable success? How did it rediscover its form in its last few seasons, and how can this educate some other reputable franchises and shows?
The earlier seasons of the show best understood that the responses and adaptations of characters are what are truly at the heart of The Walking Dead
The reasons for The Walking Dead’s decline in popularity are symbolic of a general theme in the TV industry at the moment: creators appearing to forget what made their shows so immensely popular at their peak. In the case of The Walking Dead, this is especially displayed through the creators’ prioritising cliffhangers and emotional deception over character development. This is epitomised by Glenn’s apparently redundant death after Nicholas kills himself at the beginning of season six, only for his survival to be revealed a handful of episodes later.
In stark contrast to this pointless charade added with the sole purpose of deceiving the audience, the earlier seasons of the show best understood that the responses and adaptations of characters are what are truly at the heart of The Walking Dead—the study of characters forced to live in an unimaginably dystopian world and the resultant choices that they make. As a philosophy student, I feel especially compelled to emphasise the intricate moral questions that made those opening seasons of TWD more than just another ‘zombie’ narrative. The creators of the show went out of their way to pose our main protagonist, Rick, who is consistently forced to choose between his fundamental respect for justice as a former police officer and his will to do whatever it takes to protect his family, against antagonists facing the same kind of ethical dilemmas. These antagonists vary, from the Governor, who is seeking to maintain civilization in his pseudo-state of Woodbury, to Shane, who staunchly advocates for the morally relativist position of throwing morality out of the window in favour of ensuring survival.
Seasons seven and eight provide us with a fearsome adversary in Negan. However, now gone are the repeated moral challenges posed to our protagonists, with this complexity replaced by a methodical formula of repeated visits and warnings from Negan. I can attest to this being the moment when I chose to take a temporary break from the show, and the decline in viewership during these two seasons alludes to this being a shared sentiment by fans of the show.
TWD proved that even after eleven seasons of apocalyptic exploration, the core themes that made the prime of the show so compelling could still be rediscovered and reinvented
Fortunately, and maybe in an underappreciated manner, the show’s creators corrected their ways, bringing some much-needed nuance to a show that had become far too disengaged with the ethical challenges of the apocalypse. Back were the life-or-death moral dilemmas, such as whether to return Lydia to the mother who raised her, Alpha. And gone was the absence of character development, with Negan fulfilling a unique and unprecedented role of both supporting and criticising the decisions of Rick, Daryl, and Maggie. In this way, TWD proved that even after eleven seasons of apocalyptic exploration, the core themes that made the prime of the show so compelling could still be rediscovered and reinvented with an adapting cast, especially following the monumental departure of Andrew Lincoln midway through Season Nine.
The lesson of remembering what makes a franchise popular in the first place is one that many franchises that similarly appear to have lost their touch can learn from. For example, it is the relationships between the opposing personalities in the MCU that made its first three phases so captivating. However, producers seem to have sacrificed this strength in favour of far-fetched cartoonish fights in recent shows such as Secret Invasion. Similarly, Andor delved deeply into the sci-fi politics of the Empire that elevated Star Wars to a new level of complexity, whereas Ahsoka and Obi Wan Kenobi both once again contained apparent deaths akin to that of Glenn, only for the slain characters to re-emerge later in their respective shows. Instead of playing to the audience, perhaps these franchises could take a leaf out of The Walking Dead’s book by recalling the unique premises that make the best of their respective franchises so compelling. Bravo, TWD; you have set an example for others to follow.