These days, mention of The Walking Dead is usually followed by an eye roll. Then a groan. And then the words: “That show got so, so bad!” This happens a lot with initially adored shows. Lost, Homeland and ER were all wholeheartedly embraced in their early seasons, before being met with lazy criticisms as they went on: “They were making it up as they went along!”; “It peaked with the first season!”; “It’s not been good for years!” But not only are these complaints unimaginative, they’re also incorrect.
What is true is that The Walking Dead started out as a moderately sized graphic novel adaptation and coalesced into a franchise as huge as the horde of zombies its characters repeatedly tried to outrun. It followed Mad Men and Breaking Bad as a firm, if unlikely, critical darling for AMC. It enjoyed this feat for six seasons, by which point, it was the most-viewed show in the US. Then season seven arrived.
It’s well documented that the gratuitously violent season seven premiere, which aired in 2016, slashed the show’s viewership clean in half. The episode, which spearheaded a two-season arc centred on Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s baseball bat-swinging antagonist Negan, was watched by 17 million – the show’s highest-ever rating. By season nine, only four million were tuning in each week.
In 2019, it was announced that The Walking Dead would come to an end, and on Sunday (20 November), the last ever episode aired. It was a lightning-paced, nostalgic watch that’s sure to avoid placements on those “dreadful series finale” lists. But, more importantly, the finale proved that those who jumped ship have missed out.
People are quick to assume that The Walking Dead stayed bad without exploring whether that was actually the case. In a time when we are overwhelmed by choice, viewers need reasons to cull titles from their watchlists, and The Walking Dead’s nasty season seven premiere armed former fans with a weapon against it. But one episode of a series shouldn’t change a show’s legacy, especially when that series went on to recapture the spirit of its glory days and became, once again, something worth your time.
Under the guidance of showrunner Angela Kang, very much a saving grace, the series learned from its mistakes and, with season nine, confidently returned to its original mini-season-within-a-season format that had kept viewers on their toes for six terrific seasons. It even went on to show it could survive without its two lead stars, Andrew Lincoln and Black Panther’s Danai Gurira, who departed as Rick and Michonne in recent years.
Good also came from the bad: the brutality that led to the switch-offs made for some of the finale’s most poignant scenes, with Negan ending the series as The Walking Dead’s most interesting character. Any other show might have baulked at the idea of redeeming a character who committed such despicable acts, but The Walking Dead kept him in play, and never shied away from the ramifications that his presence had among the characters who remembered his murderous habits. As a consequence, complex – and often challenging – questions around forgiveness and redemption were raised, in intelligently written showdowns you wouldn’t think had a place in a series about a zombie apocalypse. This was a final payoff whose effect was exacerbated by the endurance of those miserable seventh and eighth seasons.
Other moments in the finale, including shameless set-ups for future spin-offs, hit their mark by virtue of the show’s sheer length. It began in 2010 and has been on screens for almost half of this writer’s life; no wonder there were tears.
Every viewer has their limit, though, and The Walking Dead certainly tested that. I nearly switched off after the show faked the death of Steven Yeun’s Glenn, only to bring him back episodes later to actually kill him off in the most distressing way imaginable. But then I wouldn’t have got to see the replenishing five-year time jump, and the genuinely scary arrival of the Whisperers, a group who disguised themselves within hordes of the undead by wearing masks created from the faces of dead walkers.
It’s unfair to assume that the show always remained as bad as some viewers thought it was, and this kind of thinking wrongly validates peoples’ decisions to stop watching. By all means, I’m not trying to persuade those who gave up to go back and catch up on the show – but I am calling time on claims that The Walking Dead died a death long ago. It didn’t, and the old fans actually missed out on some damn great television by not crawling back for more.
‘The Walking Dead’ is available to stream on Star on Disney Plus