Warning: contains spoilers and terrible Photoshop.
The only obstacles to the continued existence of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead are withering inspiration, good old-fashioned RSI and, of course, the inescapable hand of time upon Robert Kirkman’s shoulder. In contrast to its TV counterpart, the comic has no budgetary constraints; there are no actors’ contracts to renegotiate and no expectation that the narrative should end (although Kirkman is on record as saying that he has an end-game in mind).
Things are different out there in TV Land: only soap operas and sci-fi shows about regenerating, time-travelling aliens are encouraged to flow endlessly towards infinity. That The Walking Dead will end is a given; it’s as certain as Daryl meeting his hideous, fan-angering death at some point in the not-too distant-future. So how should the show end? And in what ways can it end?
If we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, The Walking Dead is unlikely to end with Rick Grimes alone in a cabin wearing a bushy beard and a lumberjack shirt, having entrusted his infant child to a murderous psychopath. We can also be reasonably sure that he isn’t going to jump on Daryl’s bike and slam himself head-first into Vic Mackey’s truck. And it definitely won’t all end on the big Gleggie wedding:
“Ah, Maggie and Glen’s wedding. That was such a beautiful day. So romantic.”
“Aw, that’s nice. Did you get good weather?”
“Oh yes, the rain stayed off, very lucky in that respect. Although we were attacked by a vast zombie horde and the photographer was eaten, but apart from that.”
“…What’s a ‘zombie’?”
“Are we really still not calling them that?”
Broadly speaking, the narrative possibilities for The Walking Dead‘s departure are limited, and pretty much boil down to three. There’s option one: everyone dies. Literally everyone. Every single character plus the unseen population of the entire planet. This kind of super bleak send-off was used to perfect effect in Charlie Brooker’s scathing, zombie-centred satire Dead Set, but Kirkman and Co would be ill-advised to bow out on such a nihilistic note. After all, The Walking Dead is a show about people: a bunch of weary but hopeful survivors we’re supposed to care about and root for. As much as we may have willed gruesome deaths for certain among them, we want these people to win. There has to be some sort of overall point or message to the show that doesn’t eventually reveal itself to have been a decade-long chant of SUFFER SUFFER SUFFER SUFFER punctuated by DIE.
The only way The Walking Dead‘s creative team could have its wake-cake and eat it with option one would be to kill off its entire ensemble and then flash forward eighty years, focusing on a new mob of survivors who are in the process of rebuilding human civilisation, their success inspired by the struggles, sacrifices and victories of the Grimes Collective. Rick and Daryl and Morgan and Maggie et al would be revered as Gods and legends in the pages of the new human history, and we the audience would rest thankful in the knowledge that all of the misery we’d witnessed for however-many years actually meant something. The creators of Star Trek Enterprise recently opted to close their show with a similarly toned ending, and I gather that worked out pretty well, right?
Maybe we should hang our sheriff hats on the hook of option two: our plucky survivors find a cure for the zombie epidemic and the world is saved. Hooray! Hmmm… Not great either, is it? I mean, yes, it’s always vaguely preferable for hope to trump despair, but wouldn’t that ending be a little too convenient, and evoke far too much of the spirit of the largely execrable World War Z? Besides, the possibility of a cure has already been teased and played-out through the Eugene and Abraham save-the-world storyline. Not to mention the fact that Asylum’s Z Nation is built upon and fuelled by a similar cure-based premise.
There’s always option 2.1: hole up and wait for the walkers to ‘die’. Given the steady rate of walker decomposition we’ve witnessed across the seasons, it’s inevitable that the drooling hordes will eventually fritter away to skeletons. The trouble is, without a cure for the base-line infection there would be no way to prevent the re-emergence of fresh zombies: one night-time heart attack for Old Mr McGillicuddy, and it’s back to screaming, chewing and head-stabbing. (On a side-note: why don’t the characters in The Walking Dead sleep in shifts? If I was living through the zombie apocalypse I’d want a team on-hand to make sure that nobody got up in the middle of the night for a human-shaped snack)
The mechanics of The Walking Dead‘s plague (or Rick’s Pointlessly Kept Secret, if you prefer) – how the disease causes people to reanimate as walkers regardless of the manner of their deaths – has been both a blessing and a curse for the show. A blessing, because there’s an ever-present underlying threat, which lends tension even to calmest or quietest of scenes. (It was never an option for the gang simply to hide in a shopping mall for twelve seasons and live a perfectly nice life among the mannequins, scoffing tinned food and fighting the occasional biker gang.) A curse, because even if they eventually ‘win’, they can never really ‘win’. No respite from vigilance. No open caskets. No more funeral services without heavily armed ushers.
So we’re left with option 3: our plucky survivors realise that there is no ending: it just goes on and on and on and on. (Ding ding. Rick Grimes is in the diner eating onion rings with Karl and Michonne. He looks up at the door, and everything fades to black, but we all know that a zombie with a cleaver for an arm is about to stagger out from the toilet and chop n’ chomp him to death) They will forever be frightened, hunted and consumed, engaged in a life-long struggle to preserve their humanity in the face of never-ending hordes of walkers and the increasing savagery of their own kind. But they accept it. Because it’s better to fight and survive – to live to hope, to hope to live – than to have your bowel chewed in two by a dead guy.
The only problem with that ending is that this harrowing, exhausting, bittersweet mind-set is pretty much written into the DNA of the series, and has always been the over-arching theme. “We’ve got to keep going.” “We’ve got to survive at any cost.” The destruction of the CDC, the destruction of Hershel’s farm, the destruction of Woodbury, the destruction of the prison, Amy’s death, Dale’s death, Beth’s attempted suicide, Beth’s death: it’s all a vast litany of drudgery and despair that the Ricktatorship has been forced to absorb and deflect in the name of hope and survival. At one point in the fifth season, when our rag-tag band of nomads are at their lowest ebb – dirty, defeated and dying of thirst – Rick tries to cheer them up by telling them that it’s they who are the real walking dead, not the zo…walkers. His point being that if you consider yourself dead already then paradoxically you’ve got a greater chance of survival. Nice pep talk, Rick. If option two pans out there’s a career waiting for you at the Salvation Army suicide hotline.
What a bleak way that would be to end the show. Just Rick staring at the camera as if to say, “There are another 346 seasons of The Walking Dead after this one. You just won’t be seeing any more of them. Wish us luck.”
There is a fourth option, a ‘smash the glass in case of emergency’ final solution: defy the TV Gods and turn The Walking Dead into a soap opera, and keep it going forever. We don’t have to call it a soap opera. We can call it a ‘Lack of Hope-opera’ or something. It would be like some post-apocalyptic EastEnders that somehow still isn’t as depressing as actual EastEnders. Better yet, model it on a US soap opera. That way the writers can introduce Rayne, Shane’s even crazier twin brother; resurrect the Governor even though we saw him being shot in the head at point-blank range (“Ah, but it was a false head, you see, all part of my evil and dastardly plan, muhahahaha.”); and give Carol a long storyline about trying to conceive using a turkey baster.
And we might – we just might – get a shot at that Gleggie wedding after all.
Over to you: What do you think out there in Geeksville? How do you think the show will end? And how do you think it should end? And who will be the first person to comment: “This show should’ve ended after the pilot. It’s just people talking in forests now.”?
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