Ten seasons is a very long time for any TV series to stay on the air, especially a serialized drama. Most would consider themselves successful with a lifespan half that long. Since its explosive debut in 2010, The Walking Dead has had a pretty good run. Unfortunately, after a certain point, even cultural phenomenons have trouble holding viewers' attention. Make no mistake, The Walking Dead is still one of the most-watched shows on television. Nevertheless, a steady ratings decline over the past few seasons has spawned numerous think-pieces about how much life the series has left. That can't have escaped the notice of the franchise's masters as they try to pump this well dry with further seasons, a second spinoff series, and the potential for one or more theatrical movies.
Since taking over in Season 9, current showrunner Angela Kang has attempted to staunch the outflow of viewers by broadening the scope of the story to incorporate multiple communities of survivors working to rebuild society, and by focusing more on character drama than on zombie attacks. On its own, the threat of shambling corpses has long since worn out its novelty value. The results have been mixed. While the series has arguably improved in some ways over the prior couple of seasons before Kang took the reins, it still continues to suffer maladies common to any long-running show: repetitive plots, drawn-out storylines, and characters who make dumb decisions for the sole purpose of generating drama.
Case in point would be the cliffhanger that ended the first half of the current season. Craving revenge for the murder of her son, the normally intelligent Carol (Melissa McBride) chased villain Alpha into what must be the most obvious trap in the history of storytelling, and all her friends ran in right after her. As the season finally returns from its three-month hiatus, Carol, Daryl (Norman Reedus), and numerous characters of lesser importance find themselves stuck in a cave swarming with a giant herd of Walkers. Any potential suspense from this scenario is undercut by the realization that there's next to no chance the show's writers will kill off two of their most popular characters here. Although we know that Danai Gurira (who plays Michonne) is expected to exit the series this year, she's not in this scene, and both McBride and Reedus are signed on for more seasons.
Further, when she was introduced in the middle of Season 9, Alpha (Samantha Morton) seemed like an interesting antagonist — a cult leader with messianic ambitions who lives among the dead. However, the more we've seen of her, the more she feels like just another psycho in a long line of psycho villains on this show. Her storyline really should have concluded at the end of last season. That it's been dragged out for an entire year more feels like another symptom of the show running out of ideas.
With even the best of shows, viewers find over time that the excitement of watching a favorite series turns into an obligation. We continue watching year after year not necessarily because the plots still thrill us, but because we've grown attached to the characters and want to see their stories all the way through. The more it looks like those stories have no end in sight, feelings of ennui — or worse, resentment — start to build until the only option is to give up and cut yourself off from the whole thing.
A lot of former Walking Dead fans have already hit that point, as evidenced by the falling ratings. What can the show possibly do to stop the hemorrhaging, much less to pull back lost viewers or grow the audience? Kill off another major character? Introduce another deranged villain? All of that's been covered ad nauseam in previous story cycles. Perhaps it's simply time to admit that the series has run out of places to go. What more is left for it to do other than endlessly repeat itself?
Perhaps the best thing The Walking Dead could do right now would be to set an end date and work toward a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion to this narrative. The promise of finality might actually lure back some disgruntled fans who need the closure. The end of the flagship series need not be the end of the entire franchise. (Just ask the CW!) The network and producers can continue to milk the cash cow through spinoff projects while allowing the original Walking Dead to end on its own terms while it still has some modicum of dignity left.
The Walking Dead returns with new episodes weekly beginning this Sunday night at 9:00 PM ET on AMC
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.