[Editor’s note: SPOILERS for season 9 of The Walking Dead ahead]
Despite steadily declining ratings, The Walking Dead Universe isn’t going anywhere. It was announced today that The Walking Dead will get a third series in 2020 joining the original and Fear the Walking Dead.
Season 9 of TWD averaged 4.95 million viewers, that’s the lowest number for the series, ever, even lower than its premiere season’s average of 5.24 million viewers. At its peak, in season 5, TWD averaged 14.38 million viewers. Even two years ago, the show was still bringing in 11.35 million viewers a night. That’s a 56% drop in total viewers from season 7. So how the hell is this show still shambling around, spreading its plague of zombie mediocrity? Well, despite it’s incredible ratings drops, it’s still the highest rated original programming on cable (or will be until Game of Thrones returns this Sunday night). In fact, it’s securely so, and its ad revenues are still the highest outside of NFL games.
Rather than acknowledge that the show’s originality, appeal and fan base are eroding faster than fertility rates of men who recreationally get crotch x-rays, AMC is doubling down on the still viable financial realities of the franchise. People are still watching. Lots of people. More than are watching other programs, and in a highly competitive media consumption landscape, that’s something. But it’s not the story–which we’ll get to in a moment.
Here’s how the third series is being described: it will feature “two young female protagonists and focus on the first generation to come-of-age in the apocalypse as we know it.” Like Lydia and Judith in this past season? “Some will become heroes. Some will become villains. In the end, all of them will be changed forever. Grown-up and cemented in their identities, both good and bad.” Well the rest of that is generic, vague, can be applied to all human experiences ever, and tells us nothing.
Now to the story behind the declining numbers behind AMC’s obstinance. The series has prided itself on its ability to kill off any character at any time. It’s a hallmark of the apocalypse: characters you can’t grow attached to because they might be killed off at any time. Yet, despite that, and despite the fact that the series (generally) follows the plot points of the comic it’s based off, there have always been a few characters who were untouchable. Characters like Rick Grimes, Carl, Daryl, Carol, and Michonne. Only then they killed Carl (when actor Chandler Riggs definitely didn’t want to exit the show). And after that they talked with Rick (Andrew Lincoln), in order to make sure he wasn’t going to leave them high and dry, except, whoops, he was. So producers chatted with season-3-and-on regular Maggie (Lauren Cohen) who also wanted out. Suddenly, you only have three of your core characters remaining, most of the other fan favorites having been killed off in previous seasons.
Now, you’re in a pit of formaldehyde pickle. How do you keep your long-term audience engaged when you’ve killed off everyone they care about? I’m not sure you can. While Game of Thrones was made famous for its plot twists and ruthlessness in terms of character security, would anyone still be watching if its creators had killed off all the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens by season 5? Probably not. Or, imagine, Seinfeld suddenly switched out Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer for George’s dad, Newman, the Soup Nazi, and Mickey (who?).
One way they’ve attempted to circumvent the losses of key cast members was by introducing a series of increasingly more vile and evil villains and gruesome murders. For example, see the penultimate episode of season 9, “The Calm Before” in which the latest villain, leader of the Whisperers, Alpha, kills ten of our heroes and puts their heads on spikes. The reveal fell flat, frankly, as heads on spikes is not the most brutal thing we’ve seen on the series, and the 10 heads weren’t for characters we really cared about. Sure, we lost Tara and Enid, but these characters joined the show well into its course, and were both problematic characters who had acted indecisively and demonstrated a lack of clear survival prowess or even coolness at various points. These aren’t your Daryls or Michones. They’re not even your sword-cane-wielding, tiger-riding Ezekiels (hence one reason he was spared his comic book alter ego’s fate).
Oh, Henry died too, but that kid had had it coming since he was first introduced.
The series couldn’t even muster the juice to offer a real shock, having used all its credit years ago. Thus, we got an anticlimactic season finale the next week that featured no real twists or surprises.
Not to mention, the bleeding is now so strong that major series stalwarts like Maggie can simply vanish from the face of the series’ planet without any acknowledgement other than verbal cues from the other characters. No real sendoff, no prelude the departure, just clean-cut exits that come from nowhere, right while you’re killing off other fan-favorite characters like Jesus (Tom Payne).
To the series’ credit, its creative leads are attempting to introduce new characters to replace the old. Time-jump Judith, played by the phenomenal Cailey Fleming, was an inspired step. And adding deaf character Connie (Lauren Ridloff) is an interesting idea, but an interesting idea, a what-if-this-while-this trope is not enough to replace the emotional value of characters the audience is invested in. It’s also tough to introduce two-dozen new characters and expect us to care about them all instantly. Or to suddenly expect that we care as much for Gabriel and Aaron as we did Carl and Rick.
Rather than double down on your rapidly depreciating franchise by spinning out other unknown quantity series, truly invest in your flagship first. Negan’s still ticking. He’s had a few morsels of redemption that provide the opportunity to give his character new (and more useful) life. Eugene and Rosita are still hanging-in there, though both endured uninspired season 9 relegation to the sidelines. You’ve still got one good season with Michone before Danai Gurira exits the show—give her more than the same tried and tired storyline of whether or not to trust anyone but your own group. Put her out there like the badass she is. Set Daryl (and his hefty securing his allegiance paycheck) lose, night stalker style, on the Whisperers camp—they’ve as good as told him where they’ll be camping! Get in there and kill ‘em!
Don’t water down the zombie pool: invest in the pool you’re already swimming in. That metaphor doesn’t really work, but you understand anyway.