While the Image Comic series continues to go strong, AMC’s television series has been in a two-season slump that seems to get worse every week. What is happening to our favorite comic-based TV Show?
Love at First Bite
Back in December of 2004, my good friend Seth Vatt called to ask a very specific question:
“Have you heard of that new comic series from Image called The Walking Dead?”
I replied that not only had I heard of it, but I’d also flipped through the first few issues at my local comic shop and decided against purchasing them. Zombie comics didn’t interest me in the slightest.
“Oh,” Seth said, sounding slightly deflated. “Well, I got you the first two volumes for Christmas and they’re already in the mail.”
When Seth’s package arrived at my house, I decided to keep an open mind—and not be an ungrateful douche—and gave them a read. A few hours later, I was completely hooked. Writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore (followed after the first six issues by Charlie Allard) had crafted a smart and scary universe that took the reader well beyond the final shot/page of seemingly every other piece of zombie media. Characters evolved, plot lines became more complex, and fantastic human drama ensued, all against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world ruined by the dead rising.
When news broke a few years later that AMC would be adapting the series for television, I was ecstatic. Not only would I get to see one of my all-time favorite comics play out in live action, but it was being made by a network with a growing reputation for quality prestige television shows…
A Sloping Fork in the Road
…and for a few years, everything was great. The Walking Dead television show was a smashing success. In addition to its top-notch cast, the writing was far better than most comic-to-screen adaptions. The series’ plot and characters largely stuck to the comic’s overarching story while adding plenty of its own diversions and original elements. When new characters were introduced (Daryl) or followed vastly different character arcs than their comic counterparts (Carol), it was—dare I say—almost always for the better.
For the most part, that mix of adapting the story with multiple narrative detours has continued through the show’s current seventh season. Even with major plot and character deviations (and couple of very different locales), the television series is in almost the exact same place the comic was after issue #100.
After 162 issues, Image Comics’ The Walking Dead is still one of my favorite series. The television show? Not so much.
At first, I thought this might be a case of me being a rogue curmudgeon. Turns out, however, that plenty of other viewers have become disenchanted, as well. Ratings are still huge, but they are down substantially over the last two seasons. TV reviewers as a whole used to love the program. Now they sound bored, frustrated, and even downright hostile. (I’ve personally been through all three stages just this season).
Anecdotally, I’ve had friends who don’t read the comic ask me when the show is going to get better. I’m honestly not sure what to tell them. Not only is the comic is still great, but the show’s problems aren’t rooted in their shared narrative; it’s actually due to a multitude of other less noticeable issues, most of which have been building for the last two seasons.
I’ll be unpacking most of these from a comic-to-television point of view, although you don’t have to be a fan of the comic to follow along in our collective misery. It’s mostly to demonstrate where one branch of a franchise has deviated poorly from its (still) higher quality source material.
Also, there will obviously be spoilers galore for both of them.
Stunted Sheriff Grimes
Both in the comic and the television show, everything revolves around Rick Grimes. There may be characters you and I like more, but the narrative is firmly tethered to his point of view.
There’s no doubt that the TV show version of the character has been through the ringer. His comic counterpart, however, has been through a hell of a lot worse. Two major examples:
– In the TV show, baby Judith is alive—and considerate enough not to cry when zombies are around. In the comic, Rick had to watch as Judith was gunned down during The Governor’s attack on the jail. Lori died in the same attack, but we all know that’s not much of a loss in either medium.
– In the comic, Rick’s right hand gets chopped off by The Governor.
If you’re a regular viewer of the show, then I think you’ll agree that these added layers of trauma would have caused Show Rick to go catatonic. His character has devolved from a strong leader with multiple layers into a broken man in a perpetual state of wide-eyed despair. Instead of being the guiding and grounded center for the narrative, Show Rick is a ball of coiled rage, seemingly on the verge of snapping or screaming for “CORAL” at any time—including the program’s rare moments of levity.
I’m not saying the zombie apocalypse (along with the human conflict arising from it) should be all sunshine and rainbows, but Show Rick’s demeanor is so dour that it’s become physically exhausting to watch.
Comic Rick, on the other hand (heh), has continued to evolve as a character. While he’s certainly had his share of anguish and anger, those times have been interspersed with a healthy variety of other emotions.
For a good example of how a tortured hero can still be portrayed as a layered character and leader, one need look no further than The Hilltop and Maggie Rhee.
Think Rick’s been through a lot? Maggie’s seen her entire family die, sometimes in the most gruesome/traumatizing ways imaginable. She also had to watch her lover and the father of her unborn child get his head bashed in. Oh yeah, and she’s going through her current personal gauntlet of pain WHILE SHE’S FREAKING PREGNANT!
As expected, Maggie grieves, sometimes to the point of going full Claire Danes cry face. But in between those moments of understandable anguish, we also see her being strong for others, especially Enid (who honestly doesn’t deserve it). She stands up to Gregory, forms meaningful bonds (especially with Sasha), and even manages to crack a genuine smile once in a while. Instead of constantly reacting to the chaos around her, Maggie fights it, both in spirit and her actions.
This is the one place you’d expect Rick to be a good example of leadership by example, too, especially considering that both his children and the woman he loves are still alive. Unfortunately, his relationship with Michonne manages to make him look even worse.
Richonne vs. Randrea
Image courtesy of Little—Decoy.
No matter which side of this debate you fall on, I think we can all agree that in both mediums, Rick is one lucky dude.
In both the comics and the television show, Michonne is a beautiful and badass woman. In the show, her relationship with Rick was developed as a seemingly brilliant fill-in for Comic Rick’s current relationship with Andrea. A relationship between him and Show Andrea would have been impossible, anyway, mainly due to her dying at the end of Season 3 (unless things got really gross/weird), but also due to how poorly her character was written.
Comic Andrea deviates greatly from her flighty TV show counterpart. In addition to still being alive, she’s developed into a lethal sharpshooter and capable battleground commander. She’s also entered into a surprisingly healthy/happy relationship with Rick. Despite both of them having severe emotional scars, the pair leans on each other equally for support. Andrea often serves as Rick’s conscience, reminding him not to forgo his humanity no matter how ugly the crisis gets. She leans on him when the stress of trying to govern a group of scared and anxious people feels impossible.
Show Rick’s relationship with Michonne, however, is a stark reminder of just how weak he’s become. While it’s expected that he would lean on her for strength, it often feels as though Michonne has to carry him from one crisis to the next. Instead of reminding Rick of his humanity, she’s often the only thing keeping him from slipping into a shell-socked abyss. We never see Rick offering support to Michonne unless it’s questionable advice or him begging her to go along with a defeated status quo—which thankfully she never does.
Yet despite Michonne’s quiet strength and unshakable resolve, Show Rick continues to be portrayed as the group’s leader. This might be the way the show’s writers planned the narrative in advance, but it certainly isn’t the way things have played out. At this point, Show Michonne seems infinitely more capable of leading the group than her fractured and unstable beau.
To put it another way (and to quote of Shane Walsh), lemme me ask you something: If you found yourself in a genuine life or death crisis, would you rather stand behind Rick or Michonne? I rest my case.
To be fair, this didn’t have to be a bad development. What better way for the show to distinguish itself from the comics than to shift its narrative center from the broken lead (Rick) to the one who is objectively more capable and interesting? I’d definitely be in favor of it. Unfortunately, AMC’s The Walking Dead appears to lack a coherent long-term plan capable of recognizing and acting on such an organic development—and there’s a good reason why.
For an overarching multi-season show, it’s important that the writers have a clear vision of what will happen in the future and how their ideas will be executed. While there may not be major supernatural/conspiratorial elements to juggle on The Walking Dead, character growth and tone become doubly important to keeping things going. There’s only so much you can do with shambling corpses and pockets of sociopathic survivors before it all starts to feel like one big cycle.
In the case of The Walking Dead comic, Robert Kirkman has been the sole writer from the start, allowing him to plan and adjust story elements and character arcs in a manner that (for better or for worse) will remain mostly consistent.
AMC’s The Walking Dead, however, has been through three showrunners in seven seasons. Frank Darabont was canned after the first one. Greg Mazzara left after season three for reasons that don’t sound as amicable as he tries to make them sound. Scott Gimple has been in charge since then, which could be considered a good thing (seasons four and five were great) or a complete failure (fake character deaths, redundant bottle episodes, etc).
Regardless, having that many head creative directors in such a short time doesn’t do the show’s writing any favors. Even the characters who have flourished during the multiple creative upheavals have begun to flounder.
Carol, who deviated greatly (and for the better) from her comic counterpart, has devolved from one of the show’s very best characters into a frustrating narrative time bomb. We all know she’s going to snap out of this ‘non-violent’ stage and go full Sarah Conner at some point. But she never should have taken her new stance in the first place—and least not the way it was written.
How does a woman who killed two innocent people to keep a disease from spreading…and shot a (clearly psychotic) child…suddenly decide she just can’t kill anymore after watching one of The Wolves—who may or may not have been having second thoughts about his murderous ways—get capped during an attack on her own people?
If you’re going to make a hardened survivor like Carol go suddenly soft, it should probably be for a much better reason. Maybe Gimple and his team had a different path in mind for her than the plot threads they were left with after taking over for Mazzara, but the inconsistency is still troublesome.
One Note Negan
Unfortunately, one place where the show’s writers have been doggedly consistent is in their portrayal of season seven’s main villain, Negan.
As a comic reader, I’d hoped that Negan’s arrival would be enough to turn the show around—and for a little while, it was. But after eight episodes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan acting like a homicidal, power-mad version of Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, I’ve just about had it.
Negan may be a colossal douche in the comics, but there’s also a little more to him that makes a big difference. In between the preening and foul-mouthed demagoguery exists a bizarre shred of humanity that actually desires approval—from Rick more than anyone. While Negan does all he can to put Grimes & Co. in their place, he also offers crooked and thorny olive branches to the man he sees as the more well mannered ying to his authoritarian yang. He also takes the ‘Saviors’ title seriously, seeing both himself and his method of rule as the only way of survival (while still enjoying the perks).
Show Negan, on the other hand, appears to be doing all he can to push both Rick and all those in his sphere of influence to the breaking point. As much fun as it was at first to watch Jeffrey Dean Morgan chew up scenery, each episode now feels like another needless reminder of how evil he is—although his decision to kill Spencer in a way that also let Rick stab the sniveling mama’s boy in the head and kill him again was definitely a mark in his favor.
Can The Walking Dead Rise Again?
Definitely. With a great character like Ezekiel still to be fully explored, there’s always hope that things can at least become more interesting.
But for AMC’s The Walking Dead to truly get back on track, it needs to do something about Rick. Even the aforementioned issues with Carol and Negan can be ignored if that gets fixed. Whether it’s writing his character with more resolve/less despair, shifting the show’s viewpoint to Michonne, or maybe bringing Maggie back to Alexandria, anything is better than another half-season of Sheriff Grimes’ ineffective leadership and undesirable point of view…
…or Scott Gimple could really shake things up—and show just how different the show is from the comics—by doing the unthinkable.
He could kill Rick Grimes.
I know, I know. It would look like a cheap stunt for ratings. And maybe it would be. But think about this for a second: If Rick wasn’t so clearly designated as the show’s heart and soul, wouldn’t his character arc have him long overdue for a violent and/or tragic end?
Maybe. Maybe not. But the way he’s being written now is dragging the show down to a depth where not even the undead can escape.