Sunday Nights with The Walking Dead

Tonight, after I polish my lesson plans, grade a few papers, and make a weekly call to my dad, I’ll settle down to my favorite Sunday evening activity, watching The Walking Dead. It’s one of the few shows I watch in real-time, and my routine is simple: I watch the latest episode, usually eating ice cream, and tweet spoiler-free commentary during the commercials. Tonight’s installment is especially significant because it’s the season seven finale. If you’re a regular viewer, you know there’s a lot going on right now.

The Walking Dead is entertaining in the way most quality science fiction is. The best sci-fi sets up a premise using a genre trope—zombies (known on TWD as walkers), nuclear annihilation, alien invasion, giant insects, interstellar exploration, artificial intelligence—and then it becomes a sociological what-if tale. Okay, the world’s gone to hell, it says. Now what are you going to do about it? 

My early history with The Walking Dead was a bit unusual. When it premiered in 2010, it looked like it would be right up my alley. I was familiar with the graphic novels, and the series promised to be dark and gritty. Also, AMC was building an impressive track record for producing quality shows like Breaking Bad. On the other hand, they’d also just cancelled their espionage-thriller-mystery Rubicon, and on a cliffhanger at that, so I was feeling a little gun shy about investing time in another series.

Bearing this in mind, my wife and I decided to strike a compromise with AMC. We committed the entire first season to DVR and waited for word on whether the network would renew it for a sophomore installment. Eventually, they did, we finally watched it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  

Anyone who’s ever made a statement that begins “I know it’s a zombie show, but…” knows the true strength of The Walking Dead is its people. This show has taken characters who could have easily remained clichés and transformed them into living folks who do smart, stupid, and surprising things. Obviously, there’s Rick Grimes, the former deputy who’s arguably the story’s protagonist. There’s Carol Peletier, the woman who’s brilliantly grown over seven seasons from victim to protector. There’s also Daryl Dixon, the fiercely loyal loner who’s inspired such fan devotion that some viewers have threatened to riot if he ever dies. (Spoiler Alert: They mean it.)

Then there’s everyone else, and the cast of players is vast. The zombie apocalypse premise is interesting, but following these characters as they make their way through a broken world is what keeps fans planted in front of their televisions. Instead of leaving us to focus on distracting but relevant questions like who cuts the grass or how gasoline can remain useful for so long in the apocalypse, these people keep us returning week after week to find out what choices they’ll make.

Another highlight of The Walking Dead is its sophisticated take on villains. The show has progressively raised the stakes on the bad guys, moving from the early villainous anti-heroes like Merle Dixon and Shane Walsh to more pronounced threats like the Governor, the inhabitants of Terminus, the Wolves, and Negan.

For the most part, the villains have worked in the show’s favor, but honestly, I’m still not sold on Negan as a compelling baddie. He’s certainly villainous, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him like the creepy dude he’s written to be, but at times he seems on the verge of twisting a non-existent moustache, being super evil just because he needs to be in order to give our heroes a big bad to unite against. And above all, he has to be worse than anyone who’s come before.

If The Walking Dead has a drawback, in fact, it’s this tendency to constantly up the ante. The producers are concerned about our need for more over-the-top villains, crueler character deaths, and gorier walkers. In response, they give us Negan, the now famously violent events of Season Seven Episode One, and newer cutting edge zombies designed to make our skin crawl.

These people and situations are realistic, the argument goes, or at least as close as we can expect in a lawless world teeming with zombies. Evil people perpetrate terrifying deeds, virtuous people die for stupid reasons, and there are apparently as many varieties of zombies as there are choices in the toothpaste aisle.

The problem with the trend of escalating terror is that it can only continue in one direction. Now that we’ve met the baseball bat wielding Negan, a foe like the Governor seems like a paper tiger, even with the eyepatch. Having experienced a ruthless group like the Saviors, we laugh at the paltry threat posed by that flu outbreak in the prison during Season Three. From a storytelling standpoint, raising the stakes makes sense, but at times it leaves me feeling manipulated.   

Ultimately, the most perplexing thing about The Walking Dead is that while its outstanding qualities make me turn a blind eye to the not-so-good parts, the good elements also make the drawbacks less excusable. The show is good enough that it doesn’t need those distractions. Still, I keep watching. It’s good television, and it’s quality storytelling.

Seriously, though, that post-apocalyptic grass would be a mile high by now.