By the end of the month, The Walking Dead will have returned and we”ll know if their cliffhanger gambit paid off in the long run. After months of gruesome speculation over which of The Group met Lucille, fans will have a definitive answer. Negan will settle in as the new villain, and the precious inches of happiness and hope carved out by the population of Alexandria will be obliterated.
I have been trying to write down my thoughts about The Walking Dead for weeks. Here we have a show that has garnered the interest of a huge number of people. Audiences have flocked to the dystopian zombie universe like a metaphorical herd. But that means after six seasons, there is a lot of pressure to keep viewers on their toes. The logic goes that if fans know the cast is safe, the drama dissipates. It”s that same storytelling logic that keeps fans of Game of Thrones from growing overly attached to characters.
So why am I still excited about Westeros but not about zombie-infested Virginia? Both display a casual violence towards their main cast. Both are damn near nihilistic in their views on humanity. Both toy with the emotions of the viewer using fake-outs and cliffhangers. The only difference? The Walking Dead promises a never-ending sea of misery. As an open-ended series, there is no goal. No end point. Introducing Negan is just another level of fresh hell for The Group to brace themselves again. AMC”s President of Original Programming Joel Stillerman has talked about Robert Kirkman”s approach to The Walking Dead universe as someone who “loved zombie movies, but felt like the worst part of them was always the ending. You always had to manufacture some ending.”
Meanwhile, as bad as things get for the cast of Game of Thrones, knowing the disparate pieces of plot are moving toward a resolution softens the emotional drain. Things are awful but there is a plan in place to move everything towards – if not a happy ending, at least an ending.
All The Walking Dead has on offer is misery and comeuppance for the heroes as far as the eye can see. Take the entirety of their promotional push for Season 7. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Lucille, front and center. Just casually reminding you someone is getting beaten to death in the premiere. Then there are actors such as Tom Payne telling media outlets that things are going to be awful all season.
“The beginning of next season is going to be very tough and pretty graphic and horrible. But it sets up the whole season, it's the beginning of the whole next story, it sets up Negan, this awful, awful person and the things that he is capable of doing. And that sets up the challenge for Season 7.”
Does the audience want a whole season of a psychopath being awful? Do we need to see Glenn, or Daryl, or perhaps even Maggie sacrificed on the altar of shock value? Humans are awful. We get it. The Governor was evil. The people of Terminus were evil. Daryl”s gang during his loner arc was evil. The Wolves are evil. Negan is the evilest evil. One hundredth verse, same as the first. It”s exhausting and, based on a sample size of 341, not that entertaining.
Informal Poll: #TheWalkingDead keeps saying Negan will make this season “terrifying” as the baddest bad guy. Is that something fans WANT?
– Donna The Dead (@MildlyAmused) September 28, 2016
At this point, it feels almost as if The Walking Dead says more about how the the writers feel about humanity than exploring how humanity would function in a post-apocalyptic world. After all, zombies are merely a stand-in for a nuclear explosion or a fast-spreading disease. Would society collapse? Probably. Would some humans turn into tire fires of base instinct? Definitely. But at some point, I have to believe the species would get its shit together. We lived in functional small-knit groups for millennia before high-speed Internet. Surely we could do it again. And surely those communities could create drama that doesn”t involve an ever-increasing threshold of depravity to keep ratings up.