The idea of being a victim of one’s own success has always been a difficult concept for me to grok. It comes off like a billionaire telling you that money can’t buy you happiness as they dab away their tears with a golden hanky. However, having witnessed the strange trajectory of AMC’s undisputed hit-of-the 2010s The Walking Dead stumble forth into the proverbial sunset over the course of these past few seasons, I think I’m starting to come around on the whole “We’re so good, we’re bad,” thing.
An unstoppable ratings, merchandising, and live event juggernaut, it seemed The Walking Dead could do no wrong just a handful of years ago. But a combination of bad execution in the writers’ room and an almost breathtaking level of oversaturation has conspired to bring down this once-mighty empire of the dead a peg or two at least. There currently exist three TV series that take place within The Walking Dead universe, all of which air on AMC, as well as planned movies and even more TV coming down the pike. But with every passing day it seems like there are fewer people around who care.
Given that The Walking Dead plane has been begging for a landing strip for at least a few seasons now, the current flight path feels pretty doomed-to-failish and in some regards outright boondoggley, like the massive final season launching on August 22 – two months earlier than normal – and encompassing 24 episodes – eight more than usual – before spinning off Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) into their own as-yet untitled series, for example. As difficult as it is to imagine even more TWD content on TV than there already is, the people in charge of The Walking Dead seem firmly dug into their plan, thus, the plane flies on.
But I’m here to discuss another edition to The Walking Dead Pantheon of Inexplicable Decisions: the recently concluded six-episode epilogue to season 10.
Prior to airing, it was unclear what these additional episodes would entail. However, when The Walking Dead season 10 finale brought back Maggie (Lauren Cohan)—who best embodies the results of Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) prior predatory violence, having been rendered a widow, a single mother, and a survivor of his horrifying and arbitrarily cruel abuse—it had all the appearances of a clue. And since Carol had set Negan loose while Maggie was away so that Negan could effectively rescue the rest of our heroes from The Whisperers, the set-up was perfect: How will Negan and Maggie coexist now that she’s back? That would certainly make for a compelling six-episode addendum. And that’s exactly what the fantastic first of these six episodes initiated. Unfortunately, though, Horror Fans, in true late model Walking Dead fashion this approach was just as quickly abandoned in episode two.
What these episodes deliver instead is a series of vignettes that attempts to get us up to speed on each of the disparate groups that comprise our ensemble of protagonists. The second episode is a flashback depicting a friendship Daryl had forged with a woman in the woods following the disappearance of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) five years earlier. That’s followed by an episode in which Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) survive a harrowing night being forced to play Russian Roulette after they’re unwittingly caught sleeping in another man’s apocalyptic abode. The next episode catches up with Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Princess (Paola Lazaro), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) who are now imprisoned in separate boxcars at the trainyard where we last saw them surrounded by dollar-store stormtrooper-lookin’ dudes in the closing moments of the season finale. Now they struggle to agree on a plan to escape their confines. The fifth episode has us walk a day in Carol’s shoes as she struggles to feel useful, wanted, or even liked. This is typified by her complicated relationship with her foil, Daryl.
The season ends with a Negan flashback episode, another chapter in the show’s doomed character rehabilitation project. It’s a trick that not only can’t work but it has befouled other previously well executed elements of the show’s development. It continues a trend that’s plagued the show since introducing Negan halfway through the sixth season. The series badly picks and chooses when its fealty to the comic’s timeline and to fan-favorite characters (namely Negan) is worth the negative story consequences wrought by that loyalty. And even as the episode tries to generate empathy for him, it turns out that prior to Negan becoming a murderous and cruel piece of shit, he was basically just that in nascent form—a violent deadbeat who regularly cheated on his wife until he found out she was dying of cancer. And, yes, her name was Lucille.
Season 10 finally ends with Negan and Maggie passing on the street and giving each other all the side-eye—and in slow motion, to boot—apparently saving what should have been this six-episode epilogue’s main thrust for next season.
These episodes are a microcosm of the series at large as of late: a few excellent episodes fueled by the talent of an excellent cast are sprinkled throughout a majority of episodes in which not much of consequence happens, characters take turns refusing to take action, and every couple of weeks things are put on hold while the writers play a side mission, usually in the form of a flashback episode trying to smooth over prior missteps.
At this point, critically analyzing The Walking Dead in earnest feels moot. The show has always been an incredible anomaly. An ultra-gory television series about the zombie apocalypse? Prior to 2010, that seemed about as likely as a real plague running rampant across the planet, killing millions and causing near-total upheaval. How about an ultra-gory zombie apocalypse series that runs for over a decade while dominating the ratings for much of that time? I know, I know, crazy, right? So, pointing out all the ways this show gets it wrong now feels akin to ragging on commercial aviation. Yes, the Chicken Kiev looks like an old bar of soap…but you’re sitting in a chair 38,000 feet in the air, hurling across the continent at over 500mph where in a mere matter of hours you will land, safe and secure. And full of bad Chicken Kiev. Yes, it sucks. But it’s also damn near miraculous.
The Walking Dead series will mercifully end sometime in 2022. When it’s gone, we will be able to better understand what this phenomenon actually was and how it came to be. In the meantime, though, I’m just happy to have a window seat.