Sunday night in the U.S saw the return of the once most-watched television drama in the world for its ninth season, The Walking Dead. After a lacklustre few seasons, can the series, that was once going toe-to-toe with Game of Thrones in terms of pop-culture clout, ever possibly return to the those former glory years?
The Walking Dead was great. There is no denying it was. Critically, from seasons 3-5 the show was in a rich vein of form that few shows could match. After a recent re-watch of the mid-season finale of season 4, “Too far Gone”, where we see the Governor attack the prison and ultimately fail by losing said prison, as well as his life, it reaffirmed my belief from years previous that I was watching a stunning 45 minutes of television, easily one of the best episodes of anything seen this decade on the small screen. Greater significance attached too due to the untimely death of actor Scott Wilson on Sunday, who played Hershel in the show. “Too Far Gone” was Hershel’s passing on-screen. An episode that will forever have added gravitas from here on out, one would agree.
The Walking Dead was exceptional. Ratings during this period were absolutely stellar to boot. The season 4 premiere pulled in over 16 million viewers in the U.S alone. The season 5 premiere over 17 million. The average viewing figures for those seasons were over 13 and 14 million viewers respectively. Whether you loved or hated The Walking Dead, there was no denying that it was popular. No TV show bar Game of Thrones could touch those numbers. The Walking Dead really was great.
It continued to be great. Season 5 had some strong episodes. The same old problems were there, that the season’s were about 3 episodes too long, and the budget clearly didn’t stretch out far enough, so single-location episodes became a bit too frequent, but it didn’t matter because it was great. Then season 6 came around. And it was the same, but something changed. The writing was losing its edge. Cheap tricks were entering the scripts where solid drama once stood. Glenn hiding under a dumpster. That fucking dumpster. But it still had the capacity to be great. Season 6’s “No Way Out” is the entire series’ highest rated episode on IMDb (a 9.6/10 if you’re interested). Carol was still in there. We love Carol. Carol will make it all better. There was a new villain on the horizon too. A guy poised to be bigger and badder than the Governor. A well-liked Jeffrey Dean Morgan was playing him. Negan was coming. The Walking Dead was really improving.
Then that finale happened. Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. Who dies by Negan’s hand? Well we didn’t get to know. Six long, drawn-out nightmare months of waiting after the second bait-and-switch cheap trick of the season. In the finale no less. Fine. Whatever. “We’ll let it off” we all said that summer of 2016. It has enough credit in the bank. It just better pay off. The season 7 opener paid off. It paid off very well. We saw Abraham die. And then we relaxed. Then we saw Glenn (not Glenn!) die as well. Two big characters gone. Christ, Negan isn’t messing around. This is going to be great.
Season 7 of The Walking Dead wasn’t great.
Fifteen episodes of complete toil and slog followed. Misery, after misery, after misery came. Monologue after monologue came. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gave it his all but the material wasn’t there. Andrew Lincoln did his best with a duller than ever Rick Grimes. I’m pretty sure Daryl was .there? The show had lost its way. But no matter. Season 8 is going to be “All Out War”, the posters promised us. One of the comic’s best storylines. This cannot fail, surely? For Christ’s sake: ALL. OUT. WAR.
All. Out. Failure. The episodes were dire. The ratings slipped harder than Steven Gerrard chasing a Premier League title. Less than 8 million in the U.S tuned in to watch the season finale (less than half of its season 5 heyday). Entire episodes involved shootouts where nobody got shot, seemingly like the characters forgot they were all American. Carl took two bastard months to die. The war was won because Eugene rigged the Saviours’ bullets to fail. Nobody got shot, but the damage was done. The Walking Dead was done. It lost its mojo. The zombie-motif became a running joke. Shuffling along, rotting away and all that. Many vowed to give up on the show. I was going to give up. Get it finished. End it.
But something changed.
Scott Gimple, the showrunner since season 4, announced he was going. Angela Kang was taking over. The show’s first female showrunner. She was a veteran writer of the series. She’d been there since season two. She wrote that one where Beth died. That was good, wasn’t it? Alright, maybe this won’t be so bad. Then the news broke that Andrew Lincoln was leaving the show. AMC confirmed that his final episodes would be in the first half of season 9. Fucking hell, Rick might actually die. Season 9 premiered. And it was surprisingly, dare I say, good? Characters actually smiled. There was genuine tension. Maggie finally broke the record for longest pregnancy-to-birth ever.
Angela Kang, if this first episode is anything to go by, has changed the feel of the show for the better. The Walking Dead feels genuinely hopeful for a change. From the brand new opening titles to the way the plan in the museum actually came off, the show has seemingly embraced the positive (Jesus, was Scott Gimple that much of a downer?). Plus, any show where a one-eyed man of the cloth rides a horse, apparently cosplaying as Kung Lao from Mortal Kombat, certainly gets my approval.
The ending of the episode though did showcase the trademark darkness The Walking Dead is famous for. Maggie showing her ruthless streak in playing the grimmest game of hangman ever shows that while change is afoot, darkness always follows light, especially in The Walking Dead universe. It was good to see the show, while positive, still hold that level of threat, but instead of lugging it around like a ten-tonne weight, it nimbly flicked between the two sides with grace.
Only time will tell if The Walking Dead has turned the corner and stopped the rot from setting in from the past few seasons, but if this first episode is anything to go by, the show might have found a new lease of life (I’d still end it sooner rather than later though). Let’s just hope it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of last season.
The Walking Dead is…good, for now. And after the lacklustre efforts of seasons 7 and 8, I’ll take that.
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