In the past few months, fans of The Walking Dead have had no qualms about airing their grievances. The hit series raised eyebrows and turned many away with the first slate of Season 7 episodes. Some fans complained the series was getting too bleak; others said it’s simply become too boring. Though it’s a long way off from being dead in the water, TWD has slid a bit where ratings are concerned. And that’s likely cause for concern for its creative team and AMC.
All hope is not lost, though. The Walking Dead has a few things still working in its favor: The first is a dedicated fanbase that still isn’t ready to give up, despite the series’ slump. Then there’s the never-ending well of solid source material — Robert Kirkman’s comics — that the series can draw from. And of course, there’s the fact that the midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road,” signaled a potential return to form in more ways than one.
There are many routes TWD can take to find its way back. Here are 10 ways The Walking Dead can redeem itself.
1. Make the characters matter again
When The Walking Dead first hit the air, it impressed audiences and critics with its ability to blend action, horror, and some surprisingly meaty character development. Nowadays there’s a bit less of the latter, and the series is suffering as a result. More often than not, we meet characters that we never really get to know, like Father Gabriel, Jessie, or Paul “Jesus” Monroe. It’s hard to form attachments to them, even though we know we’re supposed to. And because of the series’ occasional spread fire narrative method, we lose track of characters we know and love for quite some time.
These days, The Walking Dead seems to be moving toward a story in which the various survivor colonies unite to fight against the Saviors. And this could mean the added benefit of more time with our core characters. If we can focus on them, and see them working together to solve the seemingly unsolvable problem that is Negan, fans could find it easier to invest their emotions once more.
2. Expand the newbies’ roles a bit
In its seven seasons on the air, The Walking Dead has hosted countless characters. Some have stayed for the long haul, many others have come and gone faster than you can say “hastily resolved subplot.” In Season 6 and 7, we’ve met some particularly intriguing characters — King Ezekiel, Dwayne, Jesus, and Enid, just to name a few. There’s just one problem: we’ve barely seen them. The modus operandi when it comes to new characters on The Walking Dead is to create a single episode that focuses on their story, and then let them fade into the background.
It might be a nice change of pace to really get to know these characters over time, because they actually have something substantial to do. We’ve seen hints of Ezekiel’s insecurity about his leadership ability, or Dwayne’s uncertainty about Negan. But seeing these characters really interact with others, especially those they aren’t usually associated with, could do wonders for our ability to connect with them.
3. Knock Negan down a peg
Before we even met Negan, The Walking Dead fans knew that he was going to be a big deal. Whether you’d read the comics or you went in unspoiled, his introduction on the series signaled a huge change. And for the subsequent eight episodes, TWD was more or less the Negan show. That’s not to say he was the dominant character — we went whole episodes without seeing him, after all. But his interminable presence hung over the front half of Season 7, and that wasn’t always, or even often, a good thing. In fact, the series stalled out as soon as it shifted its focus to its newest villain.
For a lot of fans, Negan hasn’t become a villain we love to hate as much as a character whose arrogance is aggravating. Sure, Negan loves gallows humor as much as his pride and joy, Lucille. But that’s not quite as fun, or funny, or darkly charming as the series’ creators may have hoped. In fact, he’s routinely more obnoxious than he is effective — unless, that is, he’s swinging that trusty bat. The day that Negan finally finds out he’s not invincible feels long overdue already.
4. Don’t forget the walkers
To say that The Walking Dead is a show about zombies is to sell it short. But, realistically, the undead masses that keep our characters on their toes are a key element in the series’ success. Though they’re not always front and center, in many seasons they’ve been a looming threat. We saw them trying to claw through the gates at the prison and scratching at the door in Alexandria. Lately, though, the zombies haven’t spent much of any time on screen. Sure, that one rambled on screen to chow down on Glenn’s brains in the Season 7 premiere, and Tara and Heath went toe-to-toe with a few in their episode.
Few would argue that TWD needs to stall its storylines just to show us some walkers, but the series could benefit by remembering that its apocalyptic setting is still very volatile. The Season 7 premiere was a pretty stellar example of how zombies could be naturally integrated in a way that both moves our characters forward and keeps us entertained.
5. Find closure with major arcs
Every series has its strengths and weaknesses. For The Walking Dead, some of its biggest shortcomings are related to how the show’s stories are paced. At varying times, it’s dragged along on a plotline for way too long, and then moved at a seemingly breakneck speed. When TWD takes its time developing and resolving major arcs, it doesn’t always play out well.
There are several pretty big plots that have been brewing for quite some time, now: The cracks in Carol’s seemingly impenetrable psyche, Morgan’s struggle to reconcile killing, and Maggie’s power struggle with Gregory, all seem overdue to come to a head. If the series can make something happen on any of those fronts, it will remind us that it is capable of offering a satisfying payoff; and for many of these characters, that feels long overdue.
6. Let us laugh a little
No one would ever confuse The Walking Dead for a comedy series. But until recently, there was often some sense of humor injected into its increasingly dire mood. We had Abraham, who was always good for a well-timed (inappropriate) observation, Glenn’s hapless early attempts at navigating his relationship with Maggie, and Merle’s uncomfortably blunt appraisal of his peers.
It’s hard to laugh at Negan when he’s bashing our favorite characters’ heads in, so he doesn’t really work as TWD‘s sole source of comic relief. A little bit of levity now and then won’t ruin the darker tone that the series creators seem hellbent on achieving. But it could help us reorient ourselves in this new world order.
7. Rethink the violence
The amount of violence on The Walking Dead has been a contentious topic for fans and critics. Some feel that viewers should know what to expect when it comes to bloodshed on a show about the zombie apocalypse. Others feel that, as of late, the violence on TWD has been more about shock value than actual storytelling. Both camps have valid points, and that fact alone means that there’s something to be said for reassessing the purpose of gore on the series.
Recently, The Walking Dead‘s creative team sent out mixed messages about their reaction to fan outcry after Glenn and Abraham’s macabre deaths. Whether they choose to scale it back or refuse to bend to fan pressure, it couldn’t hurt them to take a step back and figure out why that sequence was so controversial. Was it just because viewers were upset to lose beloved characters? Or was it because the graphic murders and the horrified reaction from the survivors on-screen were over-the-top?
It’s a fine line to walk, but up until now the series has done a decent job of avoiding a major stumble. Now it’s up to the series’ head honchos to find a balance between gore and gratuitous violence.
8. Give the good guys a win
Since late Season 6, Rick Grimes and his friends have done a whole lot of losing. From loved ones to their limited worldly possessions, they’ve been stripped down to their bare essentials. That’s great for character development and all, but it’s also emotionally exhausting for viewers. The Walking Dead has just barely begun to lay the groundwork for the possibility that they will one day be back on their feet.
It would seem unrealistic for the Alexandrians to quickly and easily rise up against the Saviors. But for fan morale, a little win would be a step in the right direction. Rick’s obvious relief at finding a new band of survivors in the closing moments of “Rock in the Road” was a start — but something even more concrete could really help remind us that the heroes of the series stand a fighting chance.
9. Keep the momentum going
The Walking Dead is known for a handful of truly remarkable episodes. Oftentimes, these installments are infused with a kind of electric energy that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately, that type of momentum tends to die off pretty quickly as far as the series’ stories are concerned.
That’s especially true because of the midseason finale format; the series offers up a scenario just tantalizing enough to keep us coming back for more, and returns with a bang to make us feel like we were justified in sticking around. If the latter half of Season 7 could sustain some of the momentum that built up in “Rock in the Road,” it would propel the last episodes into one of the most exciting segments in the series’ history. It would also help make up for the incessantly dreary pattern that TWD fell into almost immediately after the seventh season premiere.
10. Offer the potential hope of an endgame
The Walking Dead‘s first season ended with Dr. Jenner whispering something into Rick’s ear. The question of what information he revealed stayed with fans through most of Season 2. In Season 4, TWD briefly toyed with the idea that Eugene knew of a cure, and that promise lit a fire under many of the core characters — until it turned out to be a lie.
Since then, the series has struggled to offer up any kind of long-term strategy for why we’re watching these characters walk through hell. Will they ever be able to settle down? Will they seriously just have to keep fighting off walkers until their dying days?
These are questions that hang over the series perpetually, and have started to drag it — and fans — down. Continuing to watch a series that offers no sign of an endgame is an untenable exercise in futility. Giving us just a glimpse of the potential for our characters to finally find some peace would go a long way in keeping fans engaged for the long haul.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox
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