This Walking Dead article contains spoilers for the TV show and comic.
There is a malaise surrounding cable TV’s most popular scripted show.
Ratings for The Walking Dead are down across the board. The premiere episode was the highest rated episode since the season five premiere, but the following episode shed close to five million viewers and then hit a four-year low for episode six.
Perhaps this is to be expected with any show going into its seventh season. Nothing can gain viewers and influence people forever. We’re a culture of the now, and even despite the ratings slide, The Walking Dead remains cable TV’s crown Nielsen jewel. Unfortunately, there has been an equally troubling slide in the creative output for the show.
Rotten Tomatoes estimates the critical consensus to be that this is the least positively reviewed season of The Walking Dead yet. Our own Walking Dead critic-in-residence’s reviews have included increasingly desperate pleas to cut down on episode length in season 7A*. Even the people involved seem to be urging viewers to stick with the show through this down period and are promising season 7B will be more lively.
*Since the Walking Dead splits each season into two eight-episode blocks, we will refer to the first half as 7A and the second as 7B.
So what exactly is wrong with The Walking Dead currently? The plot is right in the heart of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series. The comic series’ most famous antagonist, Negan, is now onscreen and being portrayed capably by charismatic actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Where and how could things go so wrong?
There are a couple of answers at play here, that both kind of feed into each other. The first is strangely enough: stability. Stability seems like it would be a good thing for a TV show and oftentimes that is the case. Many of our finest dramatic TV show offerings have been the consistent, stable vision of one man or woman.* The Walking Dead’s network siblings offer two excellent examples. Both Mad Men and Breaking Bad represented the full, compromised visions of Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, respectively.
*Naturally almost always a man because society is still apparently working through this whole women in the entertainment industry thing now.
Many creative people were involved in bringing Mad Men and Breaking Bad to the screen, and there was plenty of room for improvisation along the way, but at the end of the day there was one auteur running the show through his own unique vision, year after year.
Creative consistency worked for those shows as it does for most shows. For whatever reason, however, The Walking Dead does not flourish under consistent creative leadership. The Walking Dead historically has preferred chaos.
Filmmaker Frank Darabont was the person who did the most to bring The Walking Dead comic adaptation to air. Darabont was a Weiner/Gilligan-style auteur to the bone and brought along his own unique vision to the show. This largely involved massive deviations from the source material and sometimes intriguing, sometimes boring elements of melodrama. AMC fired him halfway through season two over creative disputes and appointed his protege Glen Mazzara to showrunner.
Mazzara brought a more action-oriented sensibility to the very important prison arc of the show, before he too was relieved from showrunning duties. AMC had lost two showrunners from the highest rated scripted show on television within 18 months. They then elevated writer Scott Gimple to the position of showrunner prior to the show’s fourth season.
The show that Gimple inherited must have been an absolute shitshow behind the scenes. Still Gimple was able to create some worthwhile television out of it. Gimple was best known for writing the popular “18 Months Out” and “Clear” episodes of the show. They were both slower-moving, more introspective episodes but they undoubtedly worked. Gimple brought that smaller-story-writing sensibility along with an increased reverence for Kirkman’s source material to seasons four and five.
Every season of The Walking Dead has its detractors and popular complaints, but those fourth and fifth seasons under Gimple’s lead were creative high points. The front half of season four was exciting but shallow, while the back half was slow-moving but substantive. The first half of season five was probably the best of the bunch, perfectly adapting the “Hunters” storyline from the comic and bringing our main group of characters as close to being monsters than ever before. The back half of season five even brought the characters to an exciting new location: the Alexandria Safe-Zone, which promised that we could see even more of the beloved plotlines, characters, and locations from the comic. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.
The issue with The Walking Dead currently is that it’s behind the scenes operations have become too stable, and therefore the show has come to trust in the comic storyline too much. In an alternate universe, showrunner Scott Gimple was fired after season five due to more internal AMC strife and seasons six and seven carried on under yet another creative vision. The Walking Dead craves chaos. Instead, what The Walking Dead has had for the past three years is too much stability – no reason to change the status quo. The advertisers are presumably happy, the fans were happy (up until the season six finale cliffhanger at least), and Robert Kirkman is happy that he gets to see his vision faithfully reproduced onscreen.
It’s not Gimple’s fault the show is suffering creatively. He’s a talented writer and by all indication a talented showrunner as well. But the model under which The Walking Dead is set up doesn’t need a permanent showrunner. It needs diversity of vision, it needs the unexpected… especially if Kirkman is serious about the show going at least another five seasons. Which leads us to the second issue with The Walking Dead: it is adapting the comics too faithfully.
Adapting a comic book to a TV show or movie should seem like a slam dunk. After all, what is a comic book if not a series of storyboards for a potential camera to capture? The thing is, there is a stark difference between the two visual mediums that must be accounted for in translation. What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen even though the page seems to be almost literally dictating what could be put on a screen.
Perhaps the best example in recent times is the Zack Snyder film adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic classic Watchmen. Watchmen the comic is hugely concerned with realism. It’s a story that places masked vigilantes in the “real world” (or an alternate version of the 80s where Nixon is still president) and explores the consequences thereof. The Batman analog is slightly depressive with a dad bod. The Superman equivalent is so immensely powerful and immortal that the concept of life itself seems to have become boring and overrated. And at least two other “heroes” are just garden-variety sociopaths.
Watchmen was translated to film almost as literally as possible, with one large deviation to the ending.* And the end result was something that felt more like a comic book than a mature meditation on superheroes in the real world. Watchmen the movie failed to address and respect the themes of Watchmen the book just by merely being too loyal to the source material. Oftentimes when TV and movies adapt comics, the end result feels like a misplaced comic book somehow awkwardly wandered onto a screen instead of the movie or TV show presenting the values and themes of the comic itself.
*I maintain that the ending of Watchmen the movie is better than the ending of the comic. Fight me.
The Walking Dead is currently experiencing that same issue. Gimple, fellow exec producers, and Kirkman, for all their talent, thoughtfulness, and well-meaning, are adapting The Walking Dead to death. Season six and now season seven represent the most faithful adaptation of the comic books yet and it’s killing all the momentum, spontaneity, and chaos that makes The Walking Dead great when it’s at it’s best.
Let’s just take a quick walk back through season 7A’s episodes to see how faithfully adapted they are.
Season 7A of The Walking Dead covers issues 100 through 112 almost in their entirety. It begins with the iconic “lineup” in which Negan bashes Glenn’s brains in with Lucille. The only real difference being that Abraham is killed as well, just two “issues” after his comic counterpart. From there the rest of the season feels predestined to cover ground that the comic has covered in an almost obligatory manner.
The Kingdom and Ezekiel are introduced because they must be, not because they fit the context the show has created thus far. The most egregious example of over-adaptation is the season’s fourth episode “Service” in which Negan pays a visit to Alexandria and viewers are “treated to” what amounts to a 60-ish minute inventory count. The whole thing seems predictable and obligatory, not fresh and exciting. It exists because it exists in the comic and the writers will be damned if they aren’t able to include the line “I just slid my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.”
The penultimate episode, “Sing Me a Song,” was capably produced but again feels the pain of being too faithfully adapted. Comic book readers were pleased to see an episode that was lifted almost entirely from the comics. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Adaptation is an art. It’s not just carbon copying. And the world of The Walking Dead the TV show just doesn’t seem to fit with the world being adapted from the comic. It’s strange and jarring for a show to spend an entire season on a pastoral farm, debating the nature of life and then later on feature what can only be described as a supervillain’s lair made out of an abandoned power station, where muscled up goons with tattoos worship their supreme leader.
Some of this stuff is cool and some of this stuff works, but too much of it doesn’t. The world of the show isn’t the world of the comic, and oftentimes forcing the comic onto a TV screen makes the sets feel too much like sets, rather than a richly-realized universe. The Walking Dead boasts some of the most excellent make-up and production teams on television and they are done a disservice by having to dogmatically recreate something that worked on the page of a comic. It makes everything feel like a sound stage.
The comics demanded the introduction of “a larger world” for the TV show. And the show was not fully ready for that larger world, structurally-wise. The Walking Dead for many seasons was expansive and free, as its characters traversed a post-apocalyptic landscape. Now it’s a group of actors on sets reciting lines.
So it’s time for The Walking Dead to free itself of its comic constraints. Not that the comic is necessarily constraining – if anything it’s too expansive. I’m not even suggesting that the show abandon the “All Out War” plot line to come. But they have to do something different. Right now the only questions that viewers can ask about the future of The Walking Dead is what show characters will stand in for comic characters in upcoming plotlines. That’s not chaotic enough. That’s not fun enough. It’s too perfunctory. A show about the dead walking the Earth should be surprising and chaotic.
The Walking Dead, like all good television, is a collection of poignant, empathetic moments. The show deserves to find and create its own moments instead of borrowing them from another source. Because those don’t always fit.
The second half of The Walking Dead season 7 premieres on Feb. 12.