Spoilers for The Walking Dead season 8 follow.
The Walking Dead was once the undisputed king of American cable television. From its third season until its sixth, it had the highest 18-49 viewership of any TV show in America, and it twice boasted more than 17 million viewers. The last time it hit such a peak was with its controversial seventh season premiere in October 2016; just 18 months later its draw has fallen by 63%, with its latest episode pulling in a relatively paltry 6.3 million viewers – only 300,000 more than its first season’s finale in 2010. As things stand, the reign of The Walking Dead is hanging by a thread – and it’s not hard to see why.
Though once comparable to Game of Thrones in popularity, TWD stopped growing its fanbase two years ago with a cliffhanger that proved fatal not just for its characters, but also its own viewership. The notorious question of which member of Rick’s group Negan was going to kill – one stretched over the entire summer of 2016 – was answered in an episode that drew complaints for its goriness, and for its twist. Having ‘fake-killed’ Glenn once before, the show offed that beloved character alongside another – Abraham – in a turn of events that shocked for all the wrong reasons.
Since then, it’s continued to erode its audience’s patience and goodwill with excessive world-building and unsatisfying character choices. As season 7 continued, the world Rick Grimes and his crew inhabit expanded from a small region of Georgia to a large network of settlements containing a much larger number of characters. Walkers were seen far less often; the heart-in-mouth horror of the zombie bite was traded in for formulaic spats with human villains. Individual episodes became an excess of exposition mired in one of several locations, making overall story progress painfully slow. Monologues began to abound as the comics’ All Out War arc was bloated to fill two 16-episode seasons. All of this discomfort came to a head in December 2017, when 18-year-old actor Chandler Riggs – who played original character Carl Grimes – was revealed to be leaving the show, counter to the comic-book storyline. More than 80,000 fans have since signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from his position. Instead, Gimple has received a promotion.
The decision-making around Carl is emblematic of how Walking Dead fans and showrunners no longer see eye to eye. Much like in Game of Thrones, deaths in The Walking Dead are only impactful when they serve a greater narrative purpose than pure shock. TWD has thrown many of its most beloved characters into the meat-grinder to spice up a storyline, and it’s now dangerously low on people to root for. Carl was a character who had against all odds lived through the harsh world around him and become a formidable survivor in his own right. His midseason death feels tacky and sensational rather than emotional; the payoff is supposedly a set of crucial letters he wrote to Rick and Negan – revealed in the latest episode – but it’s impossible to see them as justification for Chandler Riggs’ exit, especially when the actor was reportedly keen to continue with the show.
While Game of Thrones‘ popularity continues to rise – its season 7 finale was watched by a record 16.5 million fans – The Walking Dead is on course to have its worst season finale in seven years. That’s not to say there isn’t any hope for the future: season 9 has been confirmed with a new showrunner, Angela Kang. The grim Negan years are set to come to an end with Sunday’s season 8 finale, potentially allowing Kang to revitalise a series viewers are clearly growing bored of. But where there’s potential, there’s also an overconfidence that seems to actively disregards the desires of its audience: AMC boss Josh Sapan has promised decades more of the franchise. Decades? Isn’t this series all about brains?