Rewatching THE WALKING DEAD or: Seeing How Much Potential This Show Squandered

FULL SPOILERS BELOW

The Walking Dead is preparing to air its eleventh and final season at the end of August. I haven’t watched beyond season 9 — one that lives in infamy due to Rick’s departure. But, the more I think about this particular moment, the more I realized something: is there a season of this show that hasn’t dealt with some sort of infamy? Some sort of blowback?

Season 1 is perhaps the most straightforward run the show has ever had, but it only spanned six episodes. It was tight and straightforward, with a healthy dose of blood and guts intermingled with strong character moments. But seasons 2–6 are known for having a stilted quality with one half being exceptional and the other half being…well, not so much. Season 7 and 8 are largely what ended up pushing showrunner Scott M. Gimple (the longest-tenured showrunner The Walking Dead ever had) out. Depending on who you ask, seasons 9 and 10 are either a refreshing change of pace or yet another example of a show spiraling the drain toward its end, a shell of its former popularity.

What happened? I think that’s the question a lot of fans ask — and even more feel they have the answer for. And I have my fair share of speculations, too: from bloated 16-episode seasons, to constantly shifting showrunners, to the never-ending nature of the show’s plot, to the whiplash-inducing shifts between character moments and non-stop action.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn’t really watched the show in a long time. The last episode I watched was the opener from season 9 — an episode that was released almost three years ago. The last episode I watched live, as it aired, was episode 1 of season 7 — yet another infamous entry in this long-lived show, and one that aired in October of 2016.

So, I decided to go back and rewatch the show. Part of me wanted to relive the nostalgia of those earlier seasons. Part of me wanted to see if there was a precise moment the show lost its way.

But if there’s one thing I discovered in my rewatch, it’s this: The Walking Dead had so much potential. Potential it gradually squandered.

SEASON 1: A PROMISING START

I think the crux of every fan’s frustration with the show (even those of us who loved its campy turns in later seasons) begins in season 1. After one of the most impressive pilot episodes ever made, ranking alongside Breaking Bad and The Sopranos in terms of quality, season 1 largely succeeded in setting up the show. It introduced a band of lovable (and not-so-lovable) characters, added some interesting moral quandaries, and pushed the plot forward at a brisk pace. With Frank Darabont leading the show, character was the main focus, often at the expense of action. That’s not to say the first season didn’t have action. There’s plenty of it in those six episodes. But when comparing season 1 to, say, season 8, the contrast could not be starker.

But I think, as it stands, season 1 was largely a way to prove, both to AMC and to fans, that The Walking Dead could stand alongside Mad Men and Breaking Bad in terms of dramatic storytelling. And, for the most part, it succeeds. The dynamic between Shane and Rick, the trips into Atlanta, the experience with the Vatos gang, and the ending episode at the CDC all prove that the show, when firing on all cylinders, rivaled some of the best drama shows airing. And even when it stumbled, it remained an entertaining and unique show. After all, it was the first zombie show that had an aura of prestige.

But, after the ending of episode 6, I thought, Okay, this is decent. I’m curious to see where they go next. And that’s where a lot of the show’s problems arose, preceded by a confusing move: Darabont firing the entire writing staff, only to then be fired himself.

SEASON 2: A HUGE STUMBLE

Season 2 is often derided as boring. The opening half of the season is indeed slow(er) paced, with most episodes focusing on Carl healing from his gunshot wound, Shane’s descent into madness, and Daryl’s search for Carol’s daughter. And while, upon a rewatch, I really loved some of these moments (including Daryl’s growing depth and Shane’s madness), I can’t deny that the front six episodes dragged in spots. It didn’t have the same balance of character and spectacle that season 1 so flawlessly showcased. The season was further hampered by Frank Darabont’s sudden firing and Jeffrey DeMunn’s early departure (a character death fans are still split on).

The back half of season two amped up the action in a serious way. But what anchored a lot of this action was the drama between Rick and Shane — a relationship the show has never matched in terms of power or authenticity. The resulting showdown between the two of them is appropriately heartbreaking and tense, and it’s some of the best writing the show has ever produced. And it was all possible because the show spent the time developing their relationship and detailing Shane’s gradual fall from grace.

Of course, the failures of season 2 are also the fault of AMC, who cut the show’s budget by 20% and ordered double the episodes of season one — a decision that still boggles my mind. And, ultimately, it was this decision that led to Darabont’s frustrations with AMC, and his eventual firing in July 2011.

It’s hard to tell just how much of the season was stewarded by Darabont, and how much of it was handled by Glenn Mazzara, who took over in his stead. But I think the show took the wrong lessons from the failures in season 2.

SEASON 3: ACTION IMBALANCES AND PLOTTING ISSUES

With Mazzara in the driver’s seat, fans had high expectations for what season 3 would deliver. And, initially (as so many Walking Dead seasons begin), the first few episodes were promising. “Seed”, the opening episode, featured barely any dialogue and was largely grounded in action, seeming to signal to the fans: we heard you, this season won’t be like the last one.

The only problem was that, eventually, the show needed to set up a new antagonist. With Shane dead, the show had to pivot to the comic’s next big villain: The Governor, an eye-patch-wearing maniac who rules the town of Woodbury with an iron fist.

Still, the first half of season 3 largely works. The scenes in Woodbury are appropriately menacing, and the inclusion of Michonne (alongside the return of Merle) gave The Walking Dead the injection of adrenaline it needed. Not to mention, the show threw a huge curveball with episode four, “Killer Within”, when Lori was killed off.

But again, this string of good fortune ended mid-way through the season. Ending on a huge cliffhanger in “When the Dead Come Knocking” the show stumbled, spun its wheels, and ultimately finished with more of an anti-climax than an all-out assault, which most fans of the comics expected. Even fans of the show who hadn’t read the comics, myself included, were confused by how much of a let-down season 3’s finale was. And even with stand-out episodes, like “Clear” and “This Sorrowful Life”, the back-half of season 3 often felt like a cobble of missed opportunities and repeated themes.

Making matters worse was Glen Mazzara’s sudden departure as The Walking Dead’s showrunner. Citing creative differences, he became the second showrunner to depart the show in just three years. While some shows do shift showrunners from time to time (Killing Eve shifted after season 3; Supernatural shifted after season 5), this level of instability was unheard of. And, ultimately, it helped lead to the show’s confused identity down the road. Of course, Robert Kirkman remained an executive producer, but the initial vision of the show no longer existed.

What’s interesting is, in rewatching this season, I think the vacuum of Shane is what hurt this season the most. Yes, he died in the comics rather early on too, but The Governor, in spite of David Morrisey’s impressive performance, never ascended to the same level of on-screen power as Bernthal. Nor did The Governor have the same personal connection to the show or the main group quite like Shane. In some ways, The Governor introduced some unique elements to the show: his wall of zombie heads, for example. In other ways, his arc felt like a retread of Shane’s, but without Bernthal’s charisma or Shane’s importance as a character.

Then, there’s the fact that AMC ordered 16 episodes this season, further stretching the show out (unnecessarily, in my view) without raise the budget. In essence, AMC required more from the show while forcing Mazzara to spread his resources even thinner, all while fans clamored for more action and less “talking about things.”

This is why the back half of season 3 so often resorted to “bottle episodes” (episodes designed to limit budget costs). “Clear”, “Arrow on the Doorpost”, and “Prey” are all classic examples of bottle episodes, largely limited to one location and only involving a few characters at a time. And while the occasional bottle episode is understood by fans, and even embraced on occasion (think Breaking Bad’s “Fly”), having back-to-back bottle episodes, with disproportionate amounts of dialogue-heavy character moments, all on the back of the first half of the season’s action-heavy focus, is a recipe for discontent. The underwhelming finale was really the straw that broke the camel’s back on what was an initially promising season.

SEASON 4: PACING? WHAT’S THAT?

With Mazzara gone, the show was once again left without a captain. So, the executives at AMC called upon Scott Gimple to helm the season, crossing their fingers and holding their breath in hopes that he would bring some stability to this incredibly popular and increasingly volatile show. Initially, his promotion was welcomed by fans. After all, Gimple wrote some of the show’s most compelling episodes — “Save the Last One”, “Pretty Much Dead Already, “18 Miles Out”, “Clear”, and “This Sorrowful Life.”

But Gimple was also left with the task of finishing up the Governor’s storyline, something Mazzara failed to do with season 3. Therefore, the first half of the season is focused on the prison, re-establishing The Governor, and the eventual battle. Gimple’s approach to structure was largely character-focused, with each episode centered around a different person. And while some episodes were more successful than others (“Internment” was by every measure the most successful result of this new structural experiment), this stretch of episodes was the most stable the show had been since the first half of season 3. Even the Governor’s stand-alone episodes, which were not exactly greeted with fervor, paid off in the heavily lauded “Too Far Gone”, which finally gave fans the assault on the prison they wanted — both those who read the comics and those who didn’t.

But AMC still had not raised the show’s budget. They were spending $3 million per episode on average. That is what AMC spent on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy. However, considering this is a post-apocalyptic show that requires more action, effects, and sets than all three of those shows combined, it seems odd that AMC didn’t raise the budget (especially since they were making money from the show hand over fist). The only comparable show, in terms of expansiveness and effects work, was HBO’s Game of Thrones, which had an estimated $10 million-per-episode budget.

Even if you haven’t seen the show, you might be able to tell the trajectory of season four after the prison: slow, character-focused episodes with little-to-no action. Back-to-back, for seven episodes. And even “The Grove” (an Of Mice & Men-inspired entry) and the season finale, “A”, weren’t enough to save the back-half of the season from feeling meandering.

It was around this time where I noticed an unfortunate pattern: the show’s lack of a substantial budget, along with its requirement to fill sixteen episodes, hampered its ability to balance action and character. Big explosive set-pieces defined the first halves of seasons 3 and 4, but the show seemed to veer off into introspective contemplation for the back half. Similarly, Rick seemed to be following the same arc: starting as a confident leader, losing his ability to lead, and then regaining his strength. They were both patterns fans were quickly becoming frustrated with.

This was also the time that a lot of fans, myself included, became concerned with the show’s lack of direction. Three times over, the show’s central group had found a shelter, had it attacked and abandoned it in search of a new home. How many seasons could this pattern truly go on for? Even with Kirkman (at the time) still putting out issues of the comic series, the show should have become a force unto itself, creating a vision of the end so it could drive toward it. But, with AMC still raking in tons of cash, producers instead starting saying they had no plans to end the show anytime soon.

That, more than anything else in my view, is what truly hurt the show.

SEASON 5: OPEN WITH A BANG, END WITH PROMISE

In my opinion, season 5 is the strongest entry in The Walking Dead. It opens with a huge gunfight that’s exciting and tense. The following episodes are uniquely excellent — perhaps the best opening three episodes the show ever produced. It recaptured that balancing act season 1 delivered.

The back half of season 5 did something no season prior had managed: it changed up the entire dynamic of the show, making it feel fresh again. The arc in Alexandria is some of the best stuff the show has done. It made me want to watch the show. With the introduction of new characters, it felt like an entirely different aspect of the show had opened up.

Of course, season 5 wasn’t without stumbles. Beth’s arc was a mixed endeavor for some, and Tyreese’s death felt odd and sudden. But, for once, those stumbles didn’t define the season.

But this stability did not last long. In fact, it barely lasted another half-season.

SEASONS 6 AND 7: LOSING FOCUS ON CHARACTER

Up until this point, The Walking Dead did its best to make the show a meaty drama series, with character work in focus and zombie horror and gunfighting action in the background. Sometimes it did this well, other times it leaned too heavily in one direction. Season 6 and 7 is where the show lost its focus on character — or, at least, when the show stopped being able to effectively balance all of its characters.

See, the show opened up even further in Season 6. The introduction of the Wolves, the Saviors, the Kingdom, Oceanside, and Hilltop bloated the number of characters astronomically. Not only that, but the core cast of characters (or, at least, the folks from seasons 1 and 2 that still remained) were often split between these different communities. That, coupled with the show’s increase in action, meant there was less time spent on new characters, making it more difficult for fans to get attached to them. The show also seemed less willing to kill off existing characters (or, in the case of Glenn, resorting to a weird “fake-out” death that ended with him…dying anyway? Still can’t wrap my head around that one).

And then we have Negan. Look, I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and I think he played the hell out of the character. But Negan’s dialogue so often was just him spewing a monologue, leaning back while holding Lucille, and occasionally murdering someone. Yes, I understand that the show was faithful to the events in the comic (at least, they were as faithful as they could be while airing on AMC), but this was a perfect opportunity for the show to flex some independence. Because while Negan may work in the comics, he did not translate well to TV. He was hammy, verbose, and more akin to a schoolyard bully than a psychopathic murdering machine.

That’s a shame because up until his reveal, Negan was the most exciting aspect of the show fans looked forward to, especially comic-book readers. Negan falling flat was part of the reason the show declined so precipitously after the season 7 premiere.

SEASON 8: ALL OUT WAR, BUT WITHOUT INVESTMENT

Season 8 was the first season in which I did not watch a single episode live. Nor did I have much interest in doing so. The end of season 7 felt about as underwhelming as season 3’s finale, and — frankly — the show was wearing thin on me. By the time season 8 aired, I’d lost interest in the continual cycle of violence that defined the show. And perhaps I would have remained interested if it hadn’t been the same cycle of violence, defined by some menacing mad-man who monologues too much and kills too little. Villains who I didn’t feel nearly connected to as I did the Rick/Shane drama back in season 2.

What’s odd is this should have been the show’s defining moment. It had a CGI tiger being eaten by zombies, big action set pieces full of gunfights, and tons of character deaths. The problem was quite simple, though: fans weren’t emotionally connected to what happened this season. Nobody was under the impression that Rick, Daryl, or Carol was going to die. The majority of the characters who did bite the dust were folks we barely spent any time with, and therefore didn’t care for at all. And the one big character that did die, Carl, felt so out of place it broke viewers’ immersion in the story.

Then, naturally, the show’s budget reared its ugly head again. It still had not been raised, despite now needing to accommodate a CGI tiger, an ever-expanding cast, multiple sets, massive gun battles, tons of walkers, and sixteen hour-long episodes. Inherently, this was a recipe for disaster (one that is unfortunately very noticeable on a rewatch, especially Shiva’s death).

This is where I ended my rewatch. I still don’t feel much urge to finish the show. And having been reminded how quickly things spiraled down the drain, I’m not exactly surprised.

SO, WHERE DID THE SHOW GO WRONG?

I’m not a TV writer, nor am I an expert in these matters. But I think, in my rewatch, I’ve identified three significant ways in which the show squandered its promise.

  1. LACKING A COHERENT VISION (AND AN ENDING)

For me, this is the thing that really killed the show from the get-go. The overall vision of a show is generally the result of its showrunner. The showrunner is the person who decides on a season’s general trajectory, the show’s tone, and the overall vision. Of course, AMC could step in at any point and change things, but showrunners are generally given a fair amount of creative freedom — Breaking Bad, for example, is Vince Gilligan’s baby, through and through. Nobody denies that Mad Men was Matthew Weiner’s creative vision. And in both instances, these showrunners were given the freedom to create their show.

The Walking Dead was never afforded that stability. Darabont got fired before season 2 aired. The original vision of the show left with him, replaced by Mazzara’s more action-heavy approach. Only Mazzara left, too, thus his vision was replaced by Scott Gimple’s. In essence, The Walking Dead has existed as four different shows throughout its lifespan, each defined by whoever sat in the showrunner’s chair. That resulted in a wildly incoherent show, one which oscillated between heavy character drama and “Trash People” with rebar-impaled zombie pets.

On top of that, The Walking Dead, up until recently, never had a solid end goal. This cyclical “find a shelter, hunker down, get invaded, find a new shelter” formula was fine for a season or two. But with four different main locations over the course of five seasons, all of which fell for the same exact reasons (and, largely, due to the same type of antagonist), the repetition wore thin quickly. Plus, with diminishing attachment to new characters and increasingly silly antagonists, the show seemed to constantly spin its wheels without any definitive direction. Couple that with the confident announcement by one of the show’s executive producers in 2014 (when season 5 was airing) that they were preparing continue for another 7 years, and you can see what I mean.

Any show, no matter what it is, needs to have a rough outline of its entire trajectory. That doesn’t mean it needs an ending to be ready before the first episode airs, but the showrunner should at least know what that ending will entail. To me, it seems that AMC and the revolver door of showrunners were more than willing to milk the show for its popularity as long as they could. Ironically, that resulted in a lot of fans abandoning ship after season 8.

2. INCREASINGLY UNDERWHELMING CHARACTER WORK

This one is pretty straightforward. Both in terms of protagonists and antagonists, the show never successfully expanded its cast outside of season 5. By that, I mean to say that, as a viewer, I was never invested in the new characters we met — only in the older characters I’d been introduced to in prior seasons. As the original crew from seasons 1–3 died off, the show was unable to replace them with newer, fresher faces. A lot of characters are introduced between seasons 6–10, and none of them (except for maybe Negan, who does have fans within the show’s community) have the depth and the emotional connection with fans as Daryl, Carol, Rick, Shane, or Glenn had. That’s why a lot of the stuff in season 8 didn’t work — the emotional stakes weren’t there like they were in season 4 when The Governor assaulted the prison; like they were in Season 2 when Rick stabbed Shane; like they were in season 5 when Beth was killed; like they were in season 1 when the group watched the CDC explode before their very eyes.

For a show like this to work, which thrives both on character and sudden, jarring deaths, there needs to be an emotional core that connects the audience with the people on screen. The show lost sight of that. Part of it was out of the writers’ hands — after a while, with too few resources and too many balls in the air to juggle, they were bound to falter. But the show also got lazy with the arcs it produced, with the cyclical way the farm and the prison were introduced and dissolved. With the way characters died, with the ways they barely escaped death, with the hammy monologues both The Governor and Negan liked to give.

This isn’t to say I think the writing staff on the show is bad at writing. I can only imagine how difficult and frustrating writing for this show must be, what with its never-ending nature and the constant flux of characters — not to mention a renowned and beloved comic series to stay faithful to. But after a while, it seemed like the creative passion behind the show burned out. And nowhere is that more prevalent than in the show’s character work.

3. THE BUDGET

This is the one thing the showrunners and the writers couldn’t control. AMC’s unwillingness to increase the show’s budget, even as it attempted what was essentially a 16-episode war in season 8, boggles my mind. It’s this lack of funding, in spite of massive returns, that ultimately cut the show’s legs out from underneath it. There’s only so much one can do when they aren’t given the money to do it.

I can only imagine what this show would have looked like if AMC spent anywhere near what HBO shelled out for Game of Thrones. Maybe the results wouldn’t have been entirely noticeable. But I have a feeling the seasons wouldn’t have been as uneven if there was more money to work with.

AN IDEAL VERSION OF THE SHOW

So, what does a more stable, more fully realized version of The Walking Dead look like? I’ll admit, this is infused with my personal bias. I do not have an objective perspective on this. But, given everything I’ve mentioned up until this point, I think these three things could have given the show the most room to succeed, and would have made the most out of its potential.

  1. CUT EPISODES FROM 16 TO 10

The show’s biggest challenge has always been its attempt to balance its budget and its pacing. By cutting each season’s episodes from 16 to 10, the budget per episode could be lifted. Additionally, each season wouldn’t have felt as puffy and unnaturally extended. With a 10 episode order, the show could more naturally blend character work with action, reducing the whiplash viewers experienced every season.

Imagine season 2 with a 10 episode order — with the search for Sophia taking three or four episodes instead of seven. Imagine season 3 with a ten episode order, with the fat cut away from the latter half of the season and more of a budget for the prison assault the comics detailed.

This wouldn’t be a perfect system, of course. A shorter season would mean episodes like “Clear” may not have been made (or, at least, wouldn’t have been a stand-alone episode). But I think the show’s overall integrity is of more importance than a handful of stand-out episodes.

2. HAVE A DEFINITIVE END POINT

Yes, The Walking Dead was a massive success. Even now, as its viewership has dropped, it still beats many shows in ratings. From a business perspective, I can understand riding that wave as long as possible. However, doing that inarguably hurt the show. If the show had an end goal, a targeted number of seasons, or even the vaguest remnant of an idea as to how the story could end, each season would feel like a step toward that end, rather than a retread of old themes.

It wouldn’t necessarily require the show to deviate from the comics, either. The “All Out War” section of the comics is arguably the most action-packed, giving the show a natural crescendo. This kind of climax would also feel final, with plenty of opportunities for character deaths. “All Out War” also serves as a natural conclusion for Rick’s story, whether the show’s writers want him to live or not.

The big point here is simple, though: the show and the comics are two different entities. The show should not have tried to exist ad infinitum to follow the comic’s storylines. Not only have I already mentioned how some things, like Negan, are more effective in the comics than on screen, but a TV show cannot exist in the same endless cycle as the comics. Actors grow tired of roles, children like Chandler Riggs grow quickly, and viewership naturally declines after a while. The show needed to account for all of these things, but instead AMC and the revolving door of showrunners decided to keep pressing forward. Now, Andrew Lincoln has left the show, the majority of characters people liked (including Carl) are dead, and the show’s viewership has slipped drastically — from 17.29 million viewers during the season 5 premiere to 4.00 million viewers during the season 10 premiere.

All of that could have been avoided if somebody — AMC, Darabont, Mazzara, the producers — stepped in and chose an end goal from the beginning.

3. STICK WITH ONE SHOWRUNNER (OR, AT MOST, TWO)

This is the one thing that I think nobody could have really controlled. Frank Darabont’s firing and Glen Mazzara’s departure kept the show in a constant lurch, so that it didn’t achieve any creative stability until season 4 (and that only lasted through season 8, with mixed results).

Ideally, the show should have stuck with either Darabont or Mazzara (if Darabont’s firing was unavoidable). This would have created a more seamless and cohesive vision for the show.

At the end of the day, I still love the show. Those early seasons, even with all their imperfections, had a certain kind of magic. I can only imagine what a more fully realized version of this show would have been — and I’ll admit that I’m sad about the missed opportunity.

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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.