This The Walking Dead: Dead City review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead: Dead City Episode 1
Picking up where a show left off should be old hat for the creative team behind The Walking Dead: Dead City. After all, The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead did that kind of thing all the time. Every few seasons, when there was a narrative need, they jumped forward in time, scrambled locations and places, and generally reset things as befitted the story they want to tell. As such, the new lives for Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) don’t feel jarring. We’ve already been through at least one or two Maggie reboots at this point; what’s another one?
The story is your basic action movie set-up. Someone’s got her child, in this case a teenage Hershel (Logan Kim), and she’s got to get him back with the help of a nefarious figure from her past that she may or may not be able to trust. It’s nothing new for The Walking Dead, but the big wrinkle is the change in scenery from rural and suburban environments to the big, bad island of Manhattan. In a way that The Walking Dead: World Beyond never could, Dead City dives headlong into a post-apocalyptic hellscape island full of the hungry dead.
The urban jungle is quite literal given just how long it’s been since the United States government blew up the bridges and tunnels and abandoned Manhattan to the dead, but the shift in location serves the series well. Maggie and Negan are outsiders, interlopers in a world that they don’t understand that’s twisted in strange new ways under the new regime. The Escape from New York comparisons are inevitable, but apt. The island appears to be dominated by a criminal element ruled over by The Croat (Zeljko Ivanek), who gives The Duke of New York a John Wick twist. Negan is a leather-clad wanted criminal who is given the choice to either undertake a rescue mission or be turned over to the authorities for execution. Maggie is the Lee Van Cleef-style gun at Negan’s back, forcing him along on this fool’s errand. I have no doubt that other comparison points will show up eventually.
That’s not a negative. The rubble-strewn city is full of dangers, both familiar and novel. The set-up works because it’s familiar to the audience and uses characters that are familiar to the audience, but it’s a completely new environment for those characters. Negan puts a nice button on that as he steps off Maggie’s boat and onto Manhattan for the first time.
Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan don’t have much to do, at least in the first episode. There are a few solid action sequences, and a couple of terse dialog exchanges between the two, but given the relative quickness this spinoff came together, neither actor has to do much to get back into their familiar characters. Maggie still hates Negan, Negan still pushes Maggie’s buttons, and there’s still familiar friction between them. There aren’t any new revelations between the two of them, even as Negan introduces his new ward Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) and pointedly refuses to address a question about Anna and their baby or explain just why he’s being chased by Marshal Perlie (Gaius Charles) and the authorities of New Babylon.
It doesn’t especially matter in the long run. This is a world where, as Eli Jorne’s script says, everyone’s a bad guy to someone. Negan killed Glenn, but how many husbands and fathers has Maggie killed over the years? Negan spent years making up for his past, running from his misdeeds, only for them to catch up to him. Whether it’s bashing Glenn’s head in with Lucille or, in this case, unwittingly creating a new psychopathic warlord in the person of The Croat, who has taken The Saviors play book and put it to vicious, effective use. Unlike Negan, he also seems to really enjoy his work, at least in the brief scene we’re given of him handling business, with Zeljko Ivanek providing an immediate, gleeful burst of evil energy on first appearance.
A rag-tag group of individuals who don’t like each other but are forced to work together to survive a hostile post-apocalyptic Manhattan and an army of armed goons led by a psychopath. It’s standard stuff for The Walking Dead, but the new environment makes for interesting viewing, and Loren Yaconelli makes the most of the creepy setting and the variety of fun new threats inherent in New York City, from armies of cockroaches to walkers with rats in their mouths so that when they groan they spit rats at you. There is little need to reinvent the wheel, and Yaconelli makes sure proceedings move along quickly. Maggie and Negan slot in where we last saw them, and Marshal Perlie gets a strong introduction (and a fittingly cool Old West look that sets him apart perfectly from the scruffy survivors around him).
The walker air raid was enough to get my attention; the possibilities provided by a 23 square mile island with a population of 1.63 million potential walkers will no doubt hold it. We’ve seen walker hordes before, but this would be off the scale and Dead City hasn’t even scratched the surface of possibilities provided by the new setting like, say, CHUDs or baseball-themed street gangs. The familiar story skeleton doesn’t really matter; it’s what Dead City does with it that determines just how worthy of a spinoff this will be.