Arts and Entertainment

The Rise and Fall of The Walking Dead

What led to the fall of The Walking Dead?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ruxia Chen

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is running for his life in Atlanta, unloading on an avid horde of zombies who have started to gruesomely devour his newly-befriended horse. He escapes and finds his way into an abandoned tank, entering through the bottom trapdoor. But with no food or ammunition, things seem hopeless. Unable to end his life, he waits for the zombies to infiltrate his sanctuary. Then, a radio starts buzzing.

“Hey, you. Dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank, cozy in there?”

The Walking Dead was originally a 2003 Image Comics series created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore that ran for over 15 years, ending in 2019 with 193 issues. The television adaptation ran for over 12 years, with the series finale airing on November 20, 2022. The show follows Sheriff Rick Grimes after he wakes up from a coma in an abandoned hospital. He soon finds out that the human population has been infected with a virus that turns them into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. Eventually, Grimes reunites with his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and his son Carl (Chandler Riggs). The rest of the series follow the three, as well as other remaining survivors, through the world of the walking dead.

The series was an instant smash-hit the day it aired. Brought into fruition during the early-to-mid 2000s when the film industry became saturated with zombie classics like 28 Days Later (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Shaun of the Dead (2004), the series quickly capitalized on the zombie craze, growing rapidly in popularity. The show’s award-winning makeup team was especially commended for their realistic depiction of the severely decomposed walkers. Additionally, its thrilling action sequences in combination with its resilient protagonists made for a visually appealing and entertaining show. Stomach-churning scenes that followed beloved characters like Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and Carol (Melissa McBride) slicing walkers in half and fighting other survivors made the series an addictive watch.

The Walking Dead is infamous for its shocking scenes and unpredictable twists. From Rick himself killing rogue members of his own group to heartbreaking death scenes of beloved characters, the show makes it clear to viewers that nobody is safe. Along with this, the show manages to improve on the source material in certain plot points. One such improvement is with Shane (Jon Bernthal), whose intriguing multi-season story arc, which included a captivating love triangle with Rick and Lori, attracted millions of fans who may have not been too enthused by the gory nature of the show. If the show had stayed true to the original comics, Shane would have died by the fourth episode, which would have detrimentally impacted the show’s success. Bernthal’s performance was a high point of each episode, as he captured his character’s guilt, obsessiveness, and deteriorating humanity. Shane’s ruthless savagery, which develops out of a desperation to survive, served as the perfect foil to Rick’s hope and goodwill. Shane’s dynamic with the rest of the cast also intrigued viewers, as it depicted humans fighting to restore faith in a hopeless situation, adding depth to what might have otherwise been an overused, cynical, apocalyptic tone.

The Walking Dead’s popularity lasted for seven seasons before interest in the series took a nosedive. Data from Nielsen Media Research suggests that seasons three through seven consistently retained over 10 million viewers, whereas the final season was unable to attract over two million each week. According to many fans, this decline stemmed from the introduction of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in the finale of season six, who inadvertently exposed the problems within the show’s production. One glaring issue was the series’ excessive character deaths, due to both behind-the-scenes contractual conflicts of the cast and simply for shock factor. In multiple instances, characters who were fundamental to the show’s success and the overarching plot of the show were unnecessarily killed off. As the deaths often felt like plot devices to inject life into otherwise dull writing, viewers became aggravated at the meaningless deaths of their beloved characters. The show’s gruesome deaths resulted in a very cynical and nihilistic tone, which was further emphasized by an increasingly muted color palette, effectively turning away long-time viewers.

These deaths also contribute to another major flaw: repetitive storylines. Subsequent seasons after the fourth became formulaic as the same plot wass essentially recycled. Individual character plots were repetitive as well, notably with Daryl, whose morality was often questioned after being captured multiple times by antagonist groups like the Governor, Negan and the Saviors, and the Reapers. However, Daryl’s tedious arc always ended with his return to Rick along with a renewal of his principles. After years of seeing his character grow and develop on screen, Daryl’s fragile ethos feels unbelievable and overdone. It also doesn’t help that the show strayed too far from its original premise. For a show that was originally about survivors trying to save each other from cannibalistic walkers, it gradually switched its focus to the dangers of humans instead. While the inclusion of human antagonists initially enhanced the show's quality, the repetition of this plotline drained the excitement from the show.

While the show’s poor writing is largely to blame for its downfall, another major issue is its excess of spin-offs. These include Fear The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, The Walking Dead: Dead City, Tales of The Walking Dead, an untitled TV show following Daryl and Carol, and future movies following Michonne and Rick. The excess of content in this one universe might be attractive to some, but for the casual viewer, it is simply an inconvenience, leading to further disconnection.

The finale of The Walking Dead begins with Judith Grimes waking up in a hospital surrounded by a horde of hungry zombies after being shot in the chest, alluding to the very first scene of the show in a full-circle moment. The episode follows the group of survivors as they fight off walkers in an attempt to protect more than a city’s worth of people from being devoured. Delivering on all of the show’s greatest feats such as terrific action, heart-wrenching emotional moments, and future teases, the finale creates a satisfying ending for long-time watchers. Followed by Talking Dead, an after-show featuring cast members and writers, it’s hard not to get teary-eyed while watching the show air live one last time. The Walking Dead is undeniably one of the most influential shows of the 21st century, but unfortunately, it’s hard to call it one of the best of all time without ignoring the show’s copious deficiencies.