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Can ‘The Walking Dead’ Win?

Entering its seventh season, the AMC drama remains caught between pulp and prestige. Worse, as its alienating cliff-hanger shows, it’s out of compelling questions.

AMC
AMC

On Sunday’s Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead, the most drawn-out at-bat since Bartolo Colón struck out Ricky Gutierrez will finally come to a close. When we last saw our cast of 11 scraggly survivors, they were kneeling before a whistling, wisecracking Negan, the latest Big Bad obstacle between Rick’s crew and the freedom to tour Alexandria’s outskirts with only walkers to worry about. Negan, needing to punish one person for the Grimes gang drawing first blood against the Saviors, swung his beloved, barbed-wire-wrapped bat at … someone, and there the plot paused for more than six months.

AMC’s promos for the premiere have made a promise to prospective viewers: “YOU. WILL. KNOW.” The message is half hype, half apology for the frustrating cliff-hanger that followed a clumsy sequence of storytelling decisions at the end of Season 6: Morgan’s predictable regret about refusing to kill killers; ass-kicking Carol’s abrupt turn toward pacifism; Rick’s convoluted plan to protect Alexandria; and The Great Glenn Fake Out, in which the fan favorite and father-to-be emerged unscathed from what were portrayed as unsurvivable circumstances. The unsatisfying finale, “Last Day on Earth,” fell flat not only with critics, but also bombed among the masses, producing by far the lowest average IMDb rating of any episode in the series, according to user-rating data wrangled by GraphTV proprietor Kevin Wu.

<a href="http://graphtv.kevinformatics.com/">GraphTV</a>
GraphTV

Unlike its spin-off, The Walking Dead’s viewership hasn’t suffered from its creative malaise. Although no individual episode in Season 6 matched the ratings peaks of seasons 4 and 5, the sixth season as a whole declined by only 8.5 percent, on average, from its Season 5 high, finishing just behind Season 4 for third place in the season-rating rankings. AMC has already announced a renewal for Round 8. Even when The Walking Dead disappoints people who are paid to opine about TV, the show always wins in the ways that matter most to the people who put it on air.

<a href="http://www.highcharts.com/">Highcharts.com</a>
Highcharts.com

The Walking Dead perplexes critics because it’s caught between pulp and prestige. From season to season and showrunner to showrunner, it lurches between being worthy of flattery and being little more than a breeding ground for GIFs of gory walker kills and rants about characters’ dumb decisions. Wu’s data supports The Walking Dead’s reputation for inconsistency. Of 20 popular shows with a similar number of episodes in the IMDb database, only Arrow and Dexter have a higher standard deviation in episode rating (i.e., variation from the average rating) than The Walking Dead’s 0.6. (The shows with the most consistent quality — Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The Sopranos — have standard deviations lower than 0.3.) And The Walking Dead’s trend is toward more fluctuation, with its sixth season showing the most mercurial user ratings of any season in the 20-show sample aside from Dexter’s much-maligned final season.

The show’s main claim to deserving extended discussion is its focus on the emotional and psychological fallout from an uncivilized life. In the first few minutes of the two-hour series retrospective that aired on AMC last weekend (you might prefer the four-minute version), several actors summed up the show’s themes with questions: What prevails in a world that’s chaos? Can you maintain some semblance of society as we know it? How do you keep hope alive? Who do you become? What choices do you make? How bad do you smell? (That last one was mine.)

Those were worthy questions once, but 83 episodes in, they’ve all been asked and answered. We know the way this works: Our heroes discover a seemingly safe place — Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria — only to realize that the apparent oasis isn’t as peaceful or impregnable as it seems. This safe/not-safe sequence has been recycled so many times that complaints about the cookie-cutter recipe are almost as stale as the onscreen product.

To survive each threat, the protagonists are forced to debase themselves or compromise what remains of their moral codes; to cling to their goodness, they have to be a little bit bad, which prompts more of the same tiresome soul-searching that’s accompanied previous crises. In the AMC featurette, a few actors talk about turning points in their characters’ arcs, but every turn they cite (Rick killing Shane, Carl shooting Shane’s hungry corpse) sent them in the same ruthless direction.

Hope is hard to come by in The Walking Dead’s world, where we’re happy when the blood on the baby carrier turns not to be the baby’s. Aside from the “Eugene is a scientist!” subplot that few viewers fell for, The Walking Dead hasn’t offered much hope for reconstruction since the CDC exploded in Season 1. Even when characters do look long-term and the show’s scope broadens beyond day-to-day survival, we don’t buy it, because we’ve been burned before. While individual episodes are often entertaining, the series has nothing new to say. That’s why The Walking Dead universe seems so well suited to an anthology series: Although the core questions wouldn’t waver, fresh faces and settings might distract us from the sameness.

The prevailing response to the end of Season 6, which spanned the negative side of the spectrum from apathy to outrage, was the first serious sign that The Walking Dead’s wider audience could become disillusioned, although it’s too soon to tell whether its ratings will sink in turn. We almost certainly won’t see a sizable drop-off from previous premieres on Sunday, when casual watchers will tune in to see who was on the receiving end of Negan’s assault, and hate-watchers will hope he keeps swinging. But once that suspense is resolved, will an undecided audience keep coming back?

Although The Walking Dead was known early on for its willingness to kill characters, the show has gone easy on the eject button lately. Since Season 3’s mass cast-extinction events, in which we lost Lori, Andrea, Merle, and T-Dog (RIP), the show has regained more Season 1 staples (Morgan) than it’s jettisoned. In that sense, it would be significant if one of the first-season survivors dies during the premiere — perhaps along with a relative latecomer, as the internet strongly suspects will happen based on events in the comics, on-set sightings, and absences, and in-depth analyses of “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe.”

Even so, it’s hard to see how any death could disrupt the group’s eventual recovery, especially since we know from the sneak peek that Rick remains on track to outlive another adversary who’s probably destined for a fall. Negan might be more imposing (and compelling) than Gareth or the Governor, but six seasons of precedent suggests that the clock is already ticking down to the episode when someone or something removes the rakish grin almost permanently plastered on Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s face.

Moreover, if the rumors are accurate, the impending demises could sever one or more of the show’s few promising relationships, leaving it even more mired in anomie. During the retrospective producer Denise Huth says, “There will be much more loss than anything they’ve ever encountered before,” which doesn’t seem like a sentence any worn-down Walking Dead watcher would want to hear. Of all the critiques that could be leveled against the show’s first six seasons, “not enough loss” wasn’t high on the list.

For now, “Who’s about to be murdered?” is the only question on most viewers’ minds. Unless the promised loss leads somewhere new, that’s a boring place to be. In Game of Thrones, to name another high-kill-count cultural phenomenon, each death serves a purpose, removing pieces from a very busy board and pushing the series further down the path toward a real resolution. The difference is that Games of Thrones’ end is in sight, while The Walking Dead could go on until Rick’s baby, Judith, dies of old age. Somehow, comic book creator Robert Kirkman’s output hasn’t slowed even as his empire has expanded: In fact, he’s nearly matched the show’s clip, producing an additional 15 volumes in the time it’s taken AMC to adapt the first 17. As a result, AMC hasn’t made up much ground on the ongoing comic, whereas HBO has already caught up to and surpassed its source material. It’s easier to stomach some hardship when we know there’s closure coming.

In The Journey So Far, Kirkman says that Season 6 left viewers “angry and frustrated and sad — but engaged.” If they stay frustrated and sad in Season 7, that engagement could fade. No one wins when TV turns into a preemptive vigil, and the death watch won’t drum up intrigue indefinitely. The postapocalypse shouldn’t look like a picnic, but with bleakness behind and bleakness ahead, it’s hard to see how Walking Dead can be better than a slog interspersed with sporadic set pieces and sacrifices. As Norman Reedus (Daryl) says in the retrospective, “I don’t think anybody sitting there thinks there’s any way out.”