The Walking Dead is a show on television that people watch. That was the headline we ran with for my review of the season six premiere—an episode that underwhelmed but nonetheless gave me hope for episodes future—because what the show does, and its quality, doesn’t matter much these days. It’s an unkillable ratings monster. Numbers dipped this season but not by much. Certainly not enough to mirror the show's decline in quality compared to season five.
Season six played with time like it never had before, covering just a few days in the span of eight episodes, with one episode dedicated to filling in the gap of Morgan’s journey since he’d last seen Rick in season three and the premiere going back and forth with black-and-white flashbacks. But the only episode that really worked was Morgan’s. It was one of the best in the series as a whole, a self-contained story following one of its most dynamic characters (the other being Carol) for a powerful and warranted 90 minutes. Morgan has a code distinct from anyone else on the show. He may (quietly) disagree with Rick’s tactics like some of the other Alexandria residents, but their reticence is built solely on ignorance. His “every life is precious” mantra is what’s kept him alive and returned him from insanity.
Unfortunately, like several seasons past, this high point was surrounded by low after low after low. TWD fell back into its pattern of stringing us along for the next Big Moment. We had to sit through long lulls and “we’ve changed because the world’s changed” posturing until an episode-ending cliffhanger set us up for the next week. Unfortunately, none of these intended Big Moments could land.
This week’s mid-season finale brought a quarry full of walkers into Alexandria after a dilapidated church tower punctured the wall to close out the week before. It should have been tense. It should have been terrifying. It should have been “full throttle,” as Norman Reedus described the rest of the season in one of several motorcycle metaphors two weeks ago. Instead it was mostly spent meddling indoors. And when the characters were faced with the horde outside it was borderline comical. Somehow Deanna and the much more competent Maggie and Carol all managed to fall with zombies in pursuit, channeling the obnoxious Hollywood trope. And the Big Plan to escape brought back a simple strategy that’s been curiously underused throughout the entire series: Let’s just cover ourselves in zombie guts. It’s as if the writers trapped themselves in a corner and thought, “Oh yeah, remember when we did this?”
The only casualty we see was Deanna, who’d been rendered useless as a leader and as a character since her husband was murdered. Her sense of humor in the face of death was a highlight but, too little too late. Like many of the other O.G. Alexandria residents who’ve perished, we had little reason to mourn her demise. Speaking of, Denise has been kidnapped by one of The Wolves. Yawn.
It’s become a running joke that TWD’s original characters are now untouchable, but any sense of humor to be found was eradicated with the great Glenn debacle of 2015. Refusing to kill him and instead opting to leave his fate a “mystery” for several weeks has seriously damaged the show’s credibility. The most affecting moments have come from the death of major characters. Remember Lori died during childbirth, and Carl had to shoot her in the head to prevent her from coming back? That was the type of insanity that made the lulls stomachable enough. And it doesn’t even matter if (COMIC SPOILER AHEAD) Glenn’s only been brought back for a more brutal death at the hands of Negan. The bait part of “bait and switch” wasn’t executed well enough to make it worth the payoff. After weeks of waiting, Glenn's survival was revealed perfunctorily and exactly as predicted. Despite his favorite status, the scene didn’t bring a sigh of relief. It was more like, “Yup, called it.”
So where do we go from here? It’s hard to be optimistic about the next half of the season. As compelling as Morgan’s story has been, he’s only ever punished by TWD. The Wolves he let escape Alexandria ambushed Rick on their way out. The lone wolf he captured to pass on his gospel to attacks him when Carol tries to shut down his basement rehab center of one. Once again we’ve been reminded that you can’t take chances in this zombie-ridden world. It’s one of the show’s few themes, and its redundancy has no end in sight. As we saw in the prologue 10 minutes into AMC’s struggle show Into The Badlands (which ugh), Negan is on the way. Another villain to pit Rick against and reinforce his kill-or-be-killed worldview: Rick hasn’t exactly shined as Alexandria’s de facto leader, but look how bad this guy is.
The Walking Dead isn’t like those motorcycle rides that Norman Reedus so very loves. It’s a teacup loop that’ll continue indefinitely.