Falling viewing figures, tedious episodes, a distinct lack of hope in the plot - has it all gone wrong for Rick and co.?
So what’s going on with The Walking Dead, then?
Warning: full and complete spoilers up to the show’s most recent episode, ‘Swear’, are posted below. Proceed with caution!
Barring the explosive and rather sadistic opening episode – which delivered on that hideous seven-month cliffhanger with an exceptionally gooey climax – there hasn’t really been much to shout out about regarding the current goings-on in the post-apocalyptic state of Georgia, with each weekly instalment of our favourite zombie show seemingly trapped in a state of mourning regarding the infamous events of the season opener. Our heroes in particular seem paralysed by a mix of fear and suppressed rage over Negan’s swift strike(s) of his barbed wire-bedecked baseball bat: the displaced and disgraced Rick is a broken man, Daryl is an impassive, imprisoned mute and Glenn – poor, sweet Glenn – has gone to join the big walker in the sky, along with the similarly unlucky Abraham.
The show seems to be in a transitional phase at the moment, and Sunday’s episode (which aired in the UK last night) offered little improvement with its unblinking – and, sadly, rather boring and uneventful – focus on Tara, who until that point had largely been a peripheral figure in the Walking Dead universe.
And fans of The Walking Dead appear to be voting on the show’s current direction with their remotes: the official viewing figures for last week’s episode saw ratings in the US plummet to their lowest numbers in three years. We’re just two episodes away now from the mid-season break, with December 11’s ‘Hearts Still Beating’ probably the only viable opportunity for the show to deliver some sort of adrenaline shot of excitement into a so far limp seventh season.
So what has gone wrong since the hit show’s resumption back in October? Here’s a few key explanations for its current downward spiral.
Too many tedious episodes
Oh look, it’s the nomadic Carol and the pacifistic Morgan. Plod, plod, plod. Ah yes: Maggie, Sasha and – gasp! Who could forget? – Jesus! Plod, plod, plod. Oh, and what ever happened to Tara and, er, whatshisname – oh yeah, Heath? Plod, plod, plod.
Even the excitement of that opening episode was interrupted by a weird sequence whereby Negan took Rick out on a drive (as part of his “breaking into submission” process), which was the first instance this season where viewers no doubt screamed at their screens something along the lines of, well:
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Last night’s episode particularly subscribed to this notion, coming off like a forgettable instalment of Lost: Tara woke up on a rather nice beach, before stumbling into a paranoid coastal community who live in fear of a big group of baddies (remember ‘The Others’? ‘Member?). Despite operating a policy of shoot-on-sight with strangers, the group then went against their own reasoning by sparing Tara. It was just one of many frustrating aspects of ‘Swear’ that led many of us to drift off and think of the innumerable other activities we could have pursued in the 42 minutes we actually spent watching yet another dry Walking Dead episode.
The increasingly blunt threat of the walkers
It’s curious how, in the world of the undead, they’ve become so, well, un-threatening. Note, for instance, how Tara glided through a hoard of walkers on the bridge in the latest episode with relatively little trouble – sure, there might be an issue with applying real-life logic to a TV show about the unscientific zombie phenomenon, but c’mon.
It’s reached the point now where viewers know not to approach a clearly ‘dangerous’ scene that involves walkers with any sense of trepidation, which reduces The Walking Dead‘s initial scare factor that fuelled its early seasons to almost zero. The last truly haunting walker encounter came with Noah’s grisly death in season five, and, while you could argue that the still-alive characters in the Walking Dead universe have mostly adapted to their new surroundings, there’s still a part of you that wills on some sort of walker-induced disaster to happen.
The overall sense of acceptance regarding Negan’s omnipotence
The Walking Dead has always needed nasty antagonists to keep you willing on Rick’s sweaty cause: think The Governor, the Terminus cannibals, even Merle. But with Negan, the show has raised the stakes of villainy to new heigts while concurrently slamming straight into a big plot-sized brick wall.
While Maggie, Rosita and sniper-in-training Michonne are the three most vocal about fighting back – discounting Enid and Carl’s ridiculous precociousness (dude, you’ve lost an eye and nearly an arm – hang back a bit) – they’re very much in the minority, with the events of episode one scaring the rest of Rick’s group witless. And with the fear displayed by the three other survivor groups we’ve encountered this season – the Hilltop, the Kingdom and the newly-introduced female community – it really does seem like he is the king of this new world.
While the show continues to loosely follow the blueprint set by the Walking Dead comics – meaning that have no fears, they’ve got stories for years! – there will clearly be some resolution to the Negan problem at some point. But if fans aren’t given a sense of hope for the good guys prevailing in the end, then, well, there’s an important question that needs asking.
Will the fans stand for it for much longer?
A significant portion of viewers in the US – and, last night, in the UK – seem to be reaching the end of their tether when it comes to the show. Some have suggested it can shock us no further, while others have said that they’ve even been skimming through episodes in recent weeks to find points of action where the characters are, y’know, not endlessly ruminating on how much of a bastard Negan is.
Last week’s tedium at Hilltop saw viewing figures drop to 11 million in the US, the smallest recorded figures since 2013’s ‘The Sorrowful Life’ (season three, episode 15 – with 10.99 million views), and viewing figures for ‘Swear’ aren’t expect to exceed that. And for good reason: since Negan delivered on October 23 with ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’ (17 million), the show only managed to maintain its previous season average for one episode before dropping down to the measly 11 million-mark. While that may seem like a number that’s not be sniffed at, contrasting the drop in viewers to the show’s past glories doesn’t make great reading for both the Walking Dead’s showrunners or its network, AMC.
Can the tried-and-tested Walking Dead formula of a) All seems to be fine in Rick’s world, especially in this lovely new community we’ve built for ourselves!; b) Oh, wait, no, there’s a nasty new villain for us all to hate; c) Shit, he’s ruined our lives and, damn, a beloved character has been brutally murdered!; d) Oh, there’s no hope whatsoever in this bleak, bleak dystopia; e) But wait! An almighty fight has broken out and the nasty new villain has finally got his comeuppance! continue to work in the seventh season? Here’s hoping our watching restlessness is blown away by the remaining two episodes of the half-season, and that The Walking Dead comes back altogether stronger in 2017. But, at this current rate, we’re zombie-walking to despair on a once-great show.