It seems like so long ago. The fifth season debut of The Walking Dead, in which Carol leads a zombie army in an assault on Sanctuary, was watched by a staggering 17.29 million people in the United States alone. The show’s seventh season bow, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” had the show’s second-highest rating, despite the widely-mocked cliffhanger at the end of season six. Fans flocked to their televisions to find out just what beloved survivor Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s over-the-top Negan bludgeoned to death with that barbed-wire bat. Since that orgy of skull-crushing violence, however, the ratings have joined the brains and blood of Glenn and Abraham, trickling away into the dust of television’s new golden age.
The Walking Dead, now in its ninth season, is suffering from its lowest ratings since the show’s derided second season, and quite frankly, it’s unfair. It’s understandable that viewers, burned by years of sub par writing and dubious character decisions, would lose interest in the long-running post-apocalyptic show, but strangely enough, The Walking Dead might be stronger than it’s been since the phenomenal debut event that elevated a niche comic book to national attention, made stars out of a half-dozen character actors, and transformed an entire television network’s business model from prestige to geek.
The direction of a television show can change on a dime, owing to the power of the so-called showrunner. That’s the creative engine behind the scenes who determines just what direction a show is supposed to take and how best to get there. The showrunner is a combination of executive producer, head writer, script editor, manager, casting agent, and network liaison. They have almost unlimited power with a show, reporting in this case to AMC’s Chief Creative Officer for the Walking Dead universe.
Witness the chaos behind the scenes of TWD season two. Frank Darabont, tired of clashing with network executives, leaves the show and several actors leave with him. Without Darabont’s brilliant pilot movie, The Walking Dead doesn’t exist. Enter former The Shield writer Glenn Mazzara, who rights the ship with a steady hand and transforms the show from the cash-strapped talky drama of S2 into something leaner, meaner, and with more action. It’s a complete philosophical shift in the program, and without Mazzara, The Walking Dead would have become just another cable drama. Instead, ratings improved, critical opinion improved, and the average viewer numbers doubled the impressive first season. Interestingly enough, Mazzara brings on the people who would be crucial in controlling the show’s destiny for the next six seasons and beyond, Scott M. Gimple and Angela Kang, as part of a dramatically overhauled writer’s room.
Now, Scott Gimple yields the day-to-day control of The Walking Dead to Angela Kang, who seeks to arrest the juggernaut’s ratings slide. However, is it worth it to viewers who have been burned to return to the show? Given that a change in showrunner can drastically alter an entire show, the swap from Gimple to Kang yielded immediate changes.
First, given Kang’s background and experience as a writer, she has put a renewed focus on the show’s writing. That yielded immediate results in the episodes as produced. The first three episodes of the show’s ninth season were three of the best back-to-back-to-back that The Walking Dead has ever had. Under Kang’s hand, the show feels more like a mystery than a soap opera or an action movie, and the writing has shown marked improvement thanks to new writers like Geraldine Inoa and Vivian Tse. Those higher Rotten Tomatoes scores aren’t inflated; there’s a renewed focus on characters having motivations for things that wasn’t always present in previous seasons. Characters speak to one another without feeling the need to over-explain for the audience. Even Daryl Dixon, who hasn’t spoken in several seasons and is in dire need of a direction, talked to Carol about his desire to live apart from the survivor groups and forge his own path in a scene that worked because of what wasn’t said as much as what was said. For the first time in a while, The Walking Dead felt comfortable in leaning on its history, perhaps because the rush of new viewers won’t be coming.
Aiding the show in its efforts to return to form are a couple of significant time-skips, chopping years off of the process of reunification and degradation between the survivor groups. They came together, for awhile, and then gradually fell apart, as the trip between Hilltop and Alexandria is longer in a post-gasoline society. We didn’t get a long discussion of how they were running out of canned goods, or how the gasoline had turned bad in engines, it was simply taken for granted that people would figure that out. Eugene drops a throw-away line talking about turning expired ketchup packets into soup. Bio-diesel features heavily in trade between the communities.
Rick Grimes is gone, and the show might be better for it. Just from the critical consensus, the least acclaimed episode of season nine thus far has been the Scott Gimple-penned “What Comes After.” Best known as the episode in which Andrew Lincoln says his temporary goodbye to the Walking Dead universe, it’s a fitting finale to both the era of Scott Gimple’s direct daily involvement in The Walking Dead and to seeing Rick Grimes every week. Grimes will return in a series of spin-off movies involving Gimple, but the mothership now has a new pilot and a new figurehead on the bow. It’s not an entirely new cast, but without the Grimes family taking the lead, The Walking Dead is free to be a different show, and will be free to reinvent the source material to fit the current cast.
Rather than being guided by the Ricktatorship, every community has its own needs, its own wants, and its own motivations. No one’s forcing the Saviors to integrate, or trying to save Sanctuary as the community fails due to a lack of farmland. If the Oceanside community is still hunting down Saviors at this point, no one’s going to stop them so long as they stay away from the few Saviors that have been rehabilitated by Hilltop or Alexandria. If Michonne wants to not go to the fair, no one’s around to make her cooperate with the Kingdom’s urge to have a community fair. If Maggie wants to run off with the traveling circus and abandon her community to the leadership of others, there’s no guiding hand to rein her back in.
There’s an unpredictability to The Walking Dead now. There are impressive new villains in the form of The Whisperers, who made a splashy introduction in episode 8. The surviving characters are in deep trouble, trapped in one of the creepiest set pieces the show’s done in years. The enemies can blend in with the zombie hordes that shadow characters wherever they go. Neglected characters like Daryl, Carol, and Michonne can take more active leadership roles, while allowing underdeveloped characters like Ben and Aaron to take up important plot positions.
The Walking Dead isn’t a new show, but perhaps it is a show in the first stages of rebirth. Season nine has featured a significant changing of the guard in behind the camera, and a passing of the torch in front of the camera. The show’s commitment to visual storytelling remains, and the script quality has shown significant improvement. It’s a new start, without scrapping the entire show and starting over. That doesn’t typically go over well, even when it’s needed.
The Walking Dead has refreshed, without losing what brought about the initial attraction to the show. It’s about civilization versus anarchy, the living versus the dead, working together to survive rather than squabbling over the dwindling remains of the old world. Rather than mourning over what’s been taken away from the show, Angela Kang and company are pulling a Hilltop and building on what works and improving on what hasn’t.
There is still awesome zombie killing action, but at the moment, The Walking Dead seems more like Game Of Thrones with non-frozen undead, a political drama punctuated by graphic violence and supernatural monsters. There’s as much politics as there is bloodshed, and if that sounds like an interesting twist to the known Walking Dead universe, then consider trying The Walking Dead on for size once more. Like a well-sewn zombie skin suit, it might just fit.
The Walking Dead season 9b arrives on Feb. 10.