HitFix

As Ratings Falter, ‘The Walking Dead’ Continues To Drift

The sixth episode of the seventh season of The Walking Dead aired last night. Here are our takeaways from what was a slow, unnecessarily long episode.

Why are the ratings falling?

Ratings for the 90-minute season premiere of The Walking Dead were huge. It was seen by over 17 million overnight viewers, the second highest rated episode of its run. Those ratings, however, have quickly dropped since the premiere. The second episode was seen by 12.5 million overnight viewers, and last week’s episode — seen by 11 million viewers — was the lowest-rated episode of The Walking Dead since 2013.

What is going on?

There’s a few logical explanations for the ratings drop. It could be natural ratings erosion for a drama now in its seventh season. It is not often, after all, that a show manages to maintain its hold as the most popular scripted program on television much longer than seven seasons. More likely, however, the fall in ratings can be attributed to a season premiere that strung viewers along for six months before revealing Negan’s victim. A lot of viewers felt burnt by that, and while many tuned into the season premiere to satiate their curiosity, they bailed afterwards. Others also thought the season premiere went too far and broke up with the series over its level of brutality. The Negan problem that ensued in subsequent episodes didn’t help matters.

Beyond the backlash to the season premiere, however, anyone looking for an explanation for the faltering ratings need look no further than the most recent episode, “Swear.” It wasn’t the series’ worst episode, but like much of this season, it felt like an episode of another show. The entire episode focused on Tara and Heath, two characters we haven’t seen since the 12th episode of last season, which aired on March 6th. Many viewers don’t even remember Heath, who was elevated to series regular on The Walking Dead but never made much of a mark.

Yet, after spending most of the first three out of four episodes with Negan this season, The Walking Dead writers decided, “Hey! We should devote an entire episode to a tertiary character and a character no one remembers!”

We’re six episodes into the season. There are only two remaining until the winter break, and the series decides to devote an extended episode to… Tara and Heath? Meanwhile, fan favorite Daryl has been put on the backburner; Carol hasn’t been seen since the second episode; Michonne was relegated to a meaningless subplot where she went out and shot an animal; Maggie has only been seen once since Glenn died; and we barely got to see new fan favorites Ezekiel and Jerry before they disappeared for four episodes.

Why isn’t the series focusing on the characters we tune in to see every week? It’s not that we shouldn’t see the Tara and Heath story, it’s that it shouldn’t take up an entire week. It should be folded in to another episode as a B- or C-plot.

Look at it this way: My kid loves the Harry Potter books. When things are exciting, he will stay up late, get up early, and read 400 or 500 pages in two or three days. However, when the books are in the process of setting up storylines or introducing new characters, he’ll lose interest. It’ll take him two weeks to read 50 pages, and he’ll jump into other books and put Potter on hold. This is where The Walking Dead is right now: Expanding its universe and introducing new characters. It will all eventually serve a purpose, but right now, it’s painfully slow-going.

Alternately, maybe 5 million viewers gave up on The Walking Dead in favor of HBO’s Westworld.

Oceanside Community

For those The Walking Dead viewers who also watch Fear the Walking Dead, the opening scenes felt more like an episode of the latter. In fact, for a brief moment when two unfamiliar characters stumbled on Tara on a beach, I thought we were finally getting that Fear the Walking Dead crossover episode that no one asked for.

No such luck. Rather, Tara wakes up and follows one of the new characters, Cyndie, to her settlement, which is a variation on the comics’ Oceanside community. This community consists of only women, having lost all its men (and some of its women and children) when they were invaded by The Saviors. They eventually escaped from Negan and formed a hidden fishing village near the ocean, where Tara washed ashore after falling over and bridge and into the water during a scuffle with walkers.

The Oceansiders are, for obvious reasons, suspicious of newcomers. However, they eventually warm to Tara and invite her to stay as an alternative to killing her. They fear that their location could be given away to The Saviors if anyone if anyone ever came to the settlement and left. They have every reason to fear such a thing given their history with The Saviors. During one of Negan’s brutal interrogations, it’s not hard to imagine someone ratting out the Oceansiders, if only to avoid listening to “Easy Street” again.

It’s All About the Bullets

By the end of the episode, Tara has escaped (with the help of Cyndie) and we have a fairly good understanding of why the Oceanside community was introduced to the series now (instead of much later, as in the comics). It’s because they have the one thing that Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom desperately need: An arsenal of weapons and ammunition. The problem is, Tara swore never to reveal the location of Oceanside, so when Rosita implores Tara to provide her intel on the location of bullets, Tara doesn’t betray those confidences.

Yet.

There’s a 95 percent chance that Tara will eventually give up the location of Oceanside once she understands the true threat the Saviors pose. She doesn’t yet have a full picture of how genuinely awful Negan is. Once she gets some face time with him, I have no doubt she’ll change her tune. In fact, the Oceansiders were right to try and kill Tara, because if Tara doesn’t lead the Saviors back to Oceanside, she’ll at least embroil them in the upcoming war.

But Heath! We Hardly Knew You!

In the end, Heath left the show in the same uneventful manner in which he came. He’s probably not dead, and there is a reason for that, but we are probably not going to see Heath again this season, or possibly any other. It’s not a huge loss, however, because we barely knew the character, which — again — goes to the problems that have been plaguing the series all season long: It spends too much time on characters we aren’t particularly invested in. This episode was a misfire all around.

Additional Thoughts

— Another casualty of the long break between Tara episodes: By the time Tara was finally confronted with the news of her girlfriend’s death, it had lost its impact. It was an anti-climactic reveal, Eugene’s tears notwithstanding.

— I suspect that many are wondering if The Walking Dead gets a financial benefit from only including a small number of actors in each episode. I believe that series regulars are paid for every episode whether they appear in the episode or not. However, the many recurring cast members who are not series regulars are only paid on those episodes in which they appear.

— It looks like next week will at least bring back Jesus, Rick, Michonne and Daryl, but the preview for the episode doesn’t give any indication we’ll see Carol and Ezekiel next week. Hopefully next week, the series will finally start to bring all these disparate storylines together.

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