A little over two years ago, I wrote an article about how The Walking Dead television series appeared to be spiraling downhill. In it, I discussed some of the potential reasons for the show’s drop in quality along with a few potential solutions. The piece seemed to be well received by most folks; most people who’d watched the show since the beginning appeared to agree with me–and even those who didn’t agree with my reasoning at least tended to agree with my overall point. The Walking Dead had gone from something we looked forward to every Sunday night to a show most of us either hate watched or felt like we couldn’t leave due to all the time already invested in it.
Before the start of this current season, I was desperate to remove the series from my Sunday night viewing schedule. The only reason I continued to watch was
because my editors, Russ Whiting and Patrick Ross , would have taken turns beating me senseless because I’d made a commitment to AiPT to review it–a decision that initially looked to be a bad one. By the time we hit Rick Grimes’ fake death farewell in episode five, I was rolling my eyes harder than ever, completely at a loss to understand why this once great series continued to limp on like an undead husk of its former self.
I was also skeptical of the 5-year time jump making any sort of difference in the series’ quality–almost as skeptical as I was that the upcoming Rick Grimes television movie would be any good. To my surprise (and delight), however, the show began to improve.
Then, it did something even better–it actually became good again.
Under the guidance of its fourth (!) showrunner, Angela Kang, The Walking Dead has somehow managed to reinvent itself while still holding onto the series’ core elements. Let’s dive into some of the things Kang & Co. have done to make Sunday’s at 9:00 EST on AMC something to look forward to again.
Wiping Off the Grime(s)
Look, Andrew David Lincoln is a great actor. He did the best he could with the material he had. Unfortunately, his character had become a stunted, empty shell of what he used to be. But despite there being four other characters (Michonne, Maggie, Carol, and Daryl) who were stronger leaders and exponentially more interesting, Rick continued to be the show’s lead/narrative focal point simply because that mantle was assigned to him.
When I suggested back in 2016 that the show would perhaps be best served by killing Grimes off, a few folks responded that the show likely couldn’t survive without him. Now, after 10 Grimes-less episode, I think it’s safe to say that I was correct. I still think the show suffered losing Maggie/Lauren Cohen, but it’s undoubtedly more interesting with Michonne shouldering a much larger amount of the narrative focus–especially with the mystery (and stunning reveal) of what caused her post-time demeanor jump. She’s been so great, in fact, that news of actress Diana Guirira leaving the series at some point next season has gone from disappointing to downright tragic.
Thankfully, the show has also done a superb job giving Daryl and Carol greater focus, as well. Daryl has been his usual badass self, but tinged with a grudging tenderness via how protective he’s been towards Lydia. As far as Carol is concerned, her relationship with Ezekiel has morphed from what initially felt like an odd pairing to a wonderful yin and yang balance between two fantastic characters.
This might be a controversial opinion, but when you focus the narrative of a show from the most interesting and well-formed characters, it tends to make the show a lot more enjoyable.
Characters, Both New and Improved
…and no, I’m not talking about the new group that showed up. I can barely remember their names most of the time–except for Connie. You might think it’s because the character is deaf that she stands out, but it was her Whisper baby rescue that caught my attention. Soon after that, the intelligence and bravery she showed planning and executing the trap for Beta officially won me over.
And then there’s Connie’s chemistry with Daryl, which works on multiple levels. On one hand, there’s definitely some type of spark between the two rugged survivalists. At the same time, however, Connie is much more in tune with her humanity. This could be due to still having her sister Kelly with her (who I totally had to look up) or because she’s just simply more emotionally in tune with herself than Daryl ever has been. This allows her to push back against Daryl when he starts to disregard his humanity in a way no other character (other than Carol) can.
It’s unclear if the show is setting these two up to for something beyond friendship, but it’s undoubtedly electric every time Lauren Ridloff and Norman Reedus are on screen together. Romantic or platonic, these two make a fantastic pair.
But of all the new characters we’ve gotten this season, Judith (who totally counts since she was a silent baby until now) is unquestionably the best. Actress Cailey Fleming is somehow able to perfectly toe the line between between precocious and badass without ever falling into eye roll territory. Judith is impressively tough and savvy, which you would expect a child to be who’s grown up in a post-zombified world. But she’s also endlessly idealistic. That idealism serves as both a reminder of just how young she is while also being effectively utilized as the show’s conscious.
But it’s not just Shane and Lori’s love child that’s helped inject new life into The Walking Dead. Lots of familiar faces have gotten a bit of a lift this season:
- Before her tragic death last Sunday, Tara had morphed from a fist bumping annoyance into an impressive leader.
- Gabriel has gone from his pre-time jump mix of cowardice and stupidity into a calm and steadying force among the main characters.
- Siddiq went from basically a glorified to an integral portion of the soul of the group, especially after that speech at the end of last week’s episode.
- Eugene is still Eugene, but less spastic and somehow even funnier.
- Jerry is still Jerry, but with some more screen time, which is always a good thing.
They haven’t all been winners.
- Henry (aka Diet Carl) worked much better as a plot device for Carol and Ezekiel than he ever did in his own right.
- Lydia’s transformation into a dedicated member of the survivor community felt a little too easy/compressed (and she also still feels like more of plot device than a fully formed character).
- Tammy was just starting to grow on me before her head ended up on a pike–an event that is likely to send Earl spiraling right back down to the unlikable character he used to be.
But overall, there is no doubt that the show’s supporting cast as flourished under Kang’s direction–especially in regards to one of its former villains.
As great as Jeffrey Dean Morgan is, I always felt that the way his character was written for The Walking Dead television series lacked much of his comic book counterpart’s depth. Instead of desperately wanting Rick’s approval or genuinely caring for Carl, the show version of Negan often appeared to be driven by pure sadism.
Now, however, we are finally getting a version of the character with some layers that aren’t just lip service speeches about how “people are resources.” This version of Negan can still be crass and verbally malicious as ever, but he’s also benefitted from some intense/tragic introspection…much of which has come from his interaction with Judith Grimes.
Now instead of feeling like the Mountain Dew Extreme version of The Governor, Negan is a wildcard with infinite narrative potential. He’s already proven himself capable of unspeakable evil, but he’s also shown himself to see and understand things in a way that is often jarringly clear/prescient. He may end up being quite the resource himself.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that The Walking Dead’s current big bad, Alpha, is exceptional–arguably the best the show has ever had.
One major reason for that is Samantha Morton is an incredible actress. But as Jeffrey Dean Morgan proved, that’s not quite enough. You also need a character who is different from what we’ve seen before and has multiple layers.
Instead of being yet another sadistic human lording over her subjects as post-apocalyptic royalty or embracing cannibalism, Alpha and her Whisperers decided that humanity is no longer a realistic state. Instead, they’ve embraced a pure survivalist nature. They don’t yearn for more power or land. There’s no esoteric philosophy about how society should be rebuilt beyond the fact that it shouldn’t. They want nothing more than to do whatever they can to live while giving in to their basest of instincts/desires.
Unlike the Wolves from season 5-6, the Whisperers actually behave like a pack of (particularly ruthless) animals–and Alpha is undoubtedly their pack leader. Her mere presence is ruthless and intimidating. Even if we didn’t know her backstory via Lydia, Morton imbues Alpha with a presence that’s every bit as strong as Negan’s ever was without the benefit of his jovial swagger. Joy–or any emotion for that matter–is a weakness she won’t tolerate, both in her people and herself…except where her daughter is concerned. On that point, Alpha will confidently embrace hypocrisy to the point of asking one of her people to sacrifice their own baby in serving of getting Lydia back. When people rightfully question this double standard, she kills them.
Beneath her vicious nature, however, we see Alpha a war with herself, desperately struggling not to care about Lydia while her heart betrays her worse than any mutinous member of the Whisperers ever could.
Kang Conquers All
We’ve discussed what’s happening in front of the camera to make The Walking Dead better, but a lot of behind the scenes work has gone into bringing the show back to its former glory.
Probably the biggest overall improvement is that something substantial happens each episode now. In years past, we could go weeks without the overarching narrative progressing. Now even bottle episodes have at least some forward momentum. And aside from Rick’s ridiculous exit, the show has (so far) eschewed cheap gimmicks to keep viewers engaged, relying instead on good scripts and an organically compelling, well crafted stories–no dumpster death fake outs, overly elaborate zombie kills, or plots that revolve around someone acting incomprehensibly out of character.
One of the best examples of the various ways the show has improved is the episode ‘Scars.’ Michonne’s transformation into an isolationist is given weight and purpose via a great story and and even better one episode antagonist (R.I.P Jocelyn). On the flip side, we had a subplot a couple years ago where Carol decided she wasn’t going to kill anymore and abandoned her friends because Morgan made her feel bad.
On the technical side of things…remember the Season 6 premiere when they used black & white to show flashbacks from a few hours before the present and it felt like a bad student film? Well in ‘Scars’, they signaled the flashbacks with muted/washed colors, which looked infinitely better.
Much of the improvement we’ve seen is a credit to the show’s writers room, particularly executive story editors Eddie Guzelian and Vivian Tse–and of course, showrunner Angela Kang. The Walking Dead has always been blessed with a bounty of great actors, but now it has a focus, vision, and potential that we haven’t seen in years. Instead of feeling like an endless slog of the characters being beaten into submission, there’s a violent (yet well crafted) push and pull, making both a bright and dark future for our characters a realistic possibility–and a wealth of story potential in between.
It may be too little too late for the show to regain anywhere close to the same ratings it had before they started to tank. But take it from someone who has pretty much despised the show for the last few years–The Walking Dead is officially back…and might even be on track to be better than ever.