Whether you loved or hated The Walking Dead, there's no denying it's been a cultural phenomenon in recent years, going toe to toe with special events such as the Oscars, and on some occasions the Super-Bowl. Sunday nights from 9P.M–10P.M belonged to The Walking Dead, breaking television records due to an over abundance of loyal fans and newcomers alike. Yet, if you look at how the show has been received in the last two seasons by those same loyal fans, it's clear they don't have that same enthusiasm they used to have.
Now, The Walking Dead has never been a perfect show. It reached its height popularity around the fifth and sixth seasons, yet there were still people who strongly disliked the show. In recent seasons, it's the exact opposite. As Hershel once said, "It's a bait and switch"; it's less common to find people who like the show rather than it being less common to find people who hate the show. So what happened?
I used to be one of those fans that defended The Walking Dead. I promoted it heavily on social media and introduced many of my friends to the show. Admittedly, with these past two seasons, The Walking Dead has lost my interest. I still watch it, but only in hopes that it'll get better. I've also been rewatching previous seasons (currently on Season 3) and the show feels drastically better than these newer seasons. Then it hit me, The Walking Dead now chooses to focus on spectacle over story.
Big shocking events has become a gimmick of the show. What used to pull people in was the characters and their journey. In all types of media, people care about the story. For example, you read a book, if the story is bad, it isn't a good book. The story is what people become invested in, and what keeps people returning for more. Bingeing shows are popular because if the story pulls you in, you continuously want more of it.
Quality entertainment is why people loved The Walking Dead. Killing off characters used to mean something because not only did we care about the characters, it fit the story. The most popular deaths such as Sophia, Dale, Shane, Beth and so on, were sad because we gravitated to their problems and how their deaths carried weight throughout the story even after they were gone. Shane's death in the season 2 episode "Better Angels," changed Rick into a killer and begins his season 3 arc. His presence haunts Rick even if he isn't there anymore. Shane's death still serves the story seasons later as his death is a big aspect of who Rick has become, which also fits certain themes the show presents to the audience such as, "keeping your humanity in a world that doesn't reward you for it."
Most recently, the biggest deaths are to get the show more ratings. Before deaths served the quality of the story, while now the deaths serve the purpose of shocking the audience. This first became apparent with Glenn's death. In episode 3 of season 6, Glenn supposedly died. Walkers tearing your insides apart? I mean that's how Dale died in season 2. So how can you possibly survive that? Well a few episodes later it's revealed a body on top of Glenn is being torn apart as Glenn escapes under a dumpster. Allowing a huge majority of people to believe Glenn died and grieve for weeks before realizing he survived. Then in the season 6 finale, have the newest villain of the show Negan, kill an unknown character in a cliffhanger I can only described as giving me blue balls. Returning to find out it was Abraham and Glenn who Negan kills. The issue here is people already went through Glenn's death making it less impactful when it actually happened.
Mind you he died 10 episodes after his fake death. With all this happening in a short span of episodes, I ask myself, what was the point of caring about what happens to Glenn if he "died," then 4 episodes later survived, then 10 episodes later died again? Which seems to be a common question people have in recent seasons. What's the point? Any story has to have a point to keep an audience invested. Surviving is not a good point, because it's boring. Season 1 was about a man finding his family and later seasons emphasized keeping his apocalyptic family alive. But there's only so much you can do with that and the show has done nothing to change up that formula. Only retreading old story lines with new unlikable characters; causing a lack of interest amongst fans.
So what to do? Take the story in new creative directions? Of course not, just start focusing more on heavy action and kill off main characters for shock value, which seems to be what the writers of the show have done. Take Carl's death for instance in Season 8's mid-season finale "How It's Gotta Be," which was a marketing stunt to boost ratings when the show would eventually come back. The episode was only advertised as "Don't miss the moment everyone will be talking about," only to have audiences sit through a boring mid-season finale with the final scene revealing Carl was bit off screen in a previous episode. Only to have us wait for the show to return to finally see Carl's death.
Carl has had mixed reactions from fans. If you love or hate him, he's still important to the show. He's the son of the main character and one of the first main survivors! His death should have been universally heartbreaking to watch. Yet, it came out of nowhere, didn't fit the story, and felt like his only purpose of dying was so people can start watching the show again. This was clear and only made people roll their eyes with anger as Carl deserved a better end.
Spectacle also consumes The Walking Dead in regards to big action set pieces being first and foremost over developing the characters and their story. The best episodes of the series in my opinion balanced action within the story. For example, Season 4's mid-season finale "Too Far Gone" had Season 3 building up to this big climatic battle between our main survivors and the Governor. The action fit the end of that story arc and I remember watching it feeling like anyone can die. When that walker was sneaking up on Daryl, it felt like Daryl was going to die. The action was intense because I cared about the characters and wanted to see them wind up okay, eventually being heart broken when core characters died with the prison by the end of that episode. The story made the action more satisfying to watch because it was built up within previous episodes and left the characters in a new interesting situation in the following episodes. The action here is important because it ended one storyline and began another.
Meanwhile, in Season 8, the first few episodes are just straight gun fights with little character growth, and eventually it became boring. I didn't feel as though any main characters were going to die, and since there didn't seem to be any story to latch onto, there was no reason to care. I was just watching things unfold. No one important died, the characters didn't gain any new knowledge about the world or themselves, so it felt like I was stuck on limbo just like the show was.
It also doesn't help that a majority of the new characters that are introduced are unlikable, so it's hard to care about them. The solo episode with Tara and Heath was a drag to watch because I don't care about those characters. Yet, the show tries to shove these characters in our face pushing characters such as Rick and Daryl to the background. Daryl is a fan favorite, he's one of the best characters on the show, but he barely shows up anymore, and when he does, the show gives him nothing impactful to do. Not giving us anything to care about with these new characters with the addition of giving fan favorite characters nothing to do makes everyone feel expendable. Again, they killed off Carl for no logical reason and the only aspect of that death people talked about was how it was forced.
To sum up, The Walking Dead now chooses to focus on action and shocking events to get people to continue watching. Forgetting that people only ever watched the show because they cared about the characters and their story. From the looks of things, season 9 will suffer a huge loss since it's been announced Andrew Lincoln who plays Rick Grimes will be leaving the show. Rick Grimes is the heart of the show and it's hard to see any version of The Walking Dead without him. But who knows, maybe season 9 will favor story over spectacle. I hope so, since it used to be my favorite show to watch. The writers just have to remember the importance of storytelling.