Few are the series that improve with age. It’s been 15 years, at least, since The Simpsons was essential viewing. The internet has just about settled down after the climax of Game Of Thrones jumped the dragon. Then there’s the soon-to-be-rebooted Dexter, which concluded so disappointingly in 2013 that, for a minute there, you yourself might have hoped for the sweet release of the killer’s table.
Even rarer are the shows that escape the trough and return to something approaching their best after a tour of the doldrums. The West Wing ended strong, despite the exit of creator Aaron Sorkin at the end of season four. 10 years on, it’s just about possible to talk about Lost without erupting with fury – the hit drama’s late on revival only added to the disappointment of the series toothless ending. And what of Homeland, which reached its creative peak just when everyone had decided they’d had enough of its silly shit and stopped watching. And then there’s The Walking Dead.
If you were to plot the highs and lows of the 10 seasons of The Walking Dead to date – which we have, here – that graph would either look like the Kathmandu skyline or a very alarming heart-rate monitor. Now in its 11th year, there’s never been a series more wildly inconsistent that The Walking Dead. There are weeks where AMC’s adaptation of writer Robert Kirkman’s hit graphic novel – the run of which wrapped up in 2019 – is not only essential television, but transcendent viewing. Rarely has episodic TV been as surprising, cathartic or unsettling as season four’s ‘The Grove’. These were great times for the show; so strong was the story that 17.3 million Americans tuned into the premiere of season five.
And then… well, then there’s season seven. And season eight. And the 13 episodes of season two where – with the exception of show stalwart Daryl (Norman Reedus) making a necklace out of zombie ears – very little happened beyond a lot of very sad people sat around, being very sad, on a farm. I made it through the farm year and was rewarded for it. The prison; the Governor; the arrival of Michonne; Oooh! Morgan’s back! What a trip it all was. But season eight broke me. And I wasn’t alone – by the middle of the run, just 6.8 million were tuning in regularly. I can tell you exactly when I bailed. At the end of the episode entitled ‘Honor’, in which Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) dies.
Not that I was particularly attached to Carl/Coral – if I could have reached into the screen in seasons prior, picked Rick Grimes petulant spawn up and placed him at the decaying feet of the nearest zombie, I would have. Happily. But the character had grown in complexity as Riggs had grown in years – he was, after all, just 10 years old when the show debuted. When the time came to kill him off, it felt like a desperate move.
Prominent characters had met their end before, yes. But this was the first time a major death felt like a stunt – or, as has been rumoured, a sacrifice at the feet of the cult of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan. A reason to extend his run, at the expense of the show. “Hey, don’t think about the inertia of the storytelling! Yeah, sorry about the Trash Hipsters and the introduction of the anaemic Oceanside plot arc! Look at Carl! He dead!” I stepped away – into the path of sister title Fear The Walking Dead, which – as unlikely as it seems – had become the better series.
But at the start of season nine I started to hear rumblings – maybe whispers is a better word, given the debut of Samantha Morton’s troupe of skin mask-wearing cultists – of a revival taking place, a resurrection if you will. A new showrunner came aboard, Angela Kang – with Scott M. Gimple taking an oversight role. It even rebranded with new opening credits. And, when Andrew Lincoln was written out in the superb episode ‘What Comes After’, in the ongoing absence of Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and with Negan’s appearances stunted by his residence in a jail cell, The Walking Dead became an ensemble show once more. When an infusion of a raft of likeable, nuanced new characters – known as Magna’s group – was introduced in the aforementioned episode, they had space to develop and grow, without two of the star characters dominating proceedings week to week.
The arrival of the affable Luke (Dan Fogler) was the infusion of sporadic levity the show desperately needed. The complicated Lydia provided a new reason for a jaded cast of players to keep on fighting. Nobody said the undead apocalypse would be a hoot, but a few years into Trump’s tenure, the more apocalyptic the real world felt, the less appealing The Walking Dead’s weekly misery became. Light and shade restored, the season’s penultimate episode ‘The Calm Before’ aired in March 2019. It was the best episode since season four, heartbreaking rather than just cruel, thanks to the variety of tone throughout.
And then into season 10 where we find ourselves currently. The Walking Dead no longer feels like a chore. With new strands of intrigue opening up week to week – what happened to Rick? Can Negan really be trusted? Who are the survivalists hunting people in the woods? The show is now rarely a burden on those who’ve come this far and are reluctant to bail early. Viewing figures remain low – but, lurching towards season 11 and the conclusion of the main series, any remaining fanbase is perhaps more engaged with these characters fates than ever before. If you’re exiled, it might be worth coming back.