In the wake of The Walking Dead’s well-hyped seventh-season premiere — in which (spoilers) longtime fan-favorite Glenn and medium-time fan-not-least-favorite Abraham got their brains bashed in by Big Bad Negan’s phallic Lucille — the director and cast described the draining production in terms previously reserved for the filming of Apocalypse Now. For Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan), “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” was “10 days of hell.” For Steven Yeun (Glenn), it was “10 days in a hole of despair and shit.”
For viewers, it was 45 minutes that felt like they lasted 10 days. The episode sparked widespread blowback online, prompting complaints about both its level of violence and the way in which that violence substituted for story. Some viewers, whose patience had already been strained by a Glenn-related red herring and a frustrating cliff-hanger at the end of Season 6, vowed to stop watching, which sent Walking Dead–watcher-watchers like me running to the ratings to see how many would make good on the threat. “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,” I wrote in a piece published during the week leading up to the premiere. “But once that suspense is resolved, will an undecided audience keep coming back?”
Thus far, the answer is “no,” albeit by only the lofty spectator standards The Walking Dead established in its fourth through sixth seasons.
The Walking Dead lost more than four full ratings points (and almost three in the 18–49 demo) in its second episode, followed by a slight additional decline in Episode 3. That post-premiere falloff is one of the largest ratings drops in consecutive episodes of a series in recent memory, particularly among instances without a Super Bowl–sized (or otherwise out of the ordinary) lead-in to the higher-rated episode.
“In sheer numbers [the drop is] probably up there, and certainly it’s the biggest this season so far,” says Rick Porter, editor of TV By the Numbers. “But percentage-wise (27 percent) it wasn’t disastrous — more than usual for Episode 2 of recent seasons but not unheard of.”
That’s the positive interpretation: A decline of that size was possible only because the premiere posted such an enormous number. Its 17.03 overall rating and 8.4 rating in the demo were the show’s second-highest ever, behind the fifth-season premiere, “No Sanctuary.”
The pessimist’s interpretation — and prolonged exposure to The Walking Dead will make anyone look at life less optimistically — is that the drop-off was atypically large relative to the series’s established standards. On average, The Walking Dead lost 12.4 percent of its premiere audience in the second episodes of its first six seasons. The seventh-season decline was more than twice as large. Nor did the fan base bounce back after one week of Walking Dead decompression. The most recent episode, “The Cell” — which subjected another fan favorite, Daryl, to treatment barely better (or less boring) than Glenn’s — took the series back to ratings territory it hadn’t seen for a few seasons, posting the lowest numbers since Season 4, Episode 7 (and before that, Season 3, Episode 15).
It’s indisputable that The Walking Dead has given back some of the ratings ground it gained over the past few years, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it sink still further on the heels of “The Cell,” which was almost as repetitive and unrelentingly bleak as the premiere. On the other hand, the series’s audience still dwarfs that of any other cable show. The only other Sunday series that comes close to rivaling its overall ratings, CBS procedural NCIS: Los Angeles, doesn’t do nearly as well in the demo, thanks to that network’s aged average viewer. To put The Walking Dead’s cultural imprint into perspective, its diminished audience this past Sunday was still more than seven times larger than the one for HBO breakout Westworld’s, according to Nielsen’s live numbers. Westworld, whose speculative leanings have fueled constant coverage, makes up some of that difference later in the week, although its audience is nowhere near The Walking Dead’s even after taking time-shifters into account.
But The Walking Dead is risking that large lead by testing its fans’ tolerance for tough watches in a way that’s unusual for a plot-driven, mainstream series, which would be fascinating if the product weren’t so sluggish and insipid. Two out of the three episodes aired so far have been extended torture sessions, broken up by respites of only slightly lesser brutality. Nor has the bloodletting created a compelling opponent. After many a menacing pause and countless close-ups of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s deeply carved laugh lines, we still haven’t gotten a great sense of whether Negan’s goals extend beyond being the boss of northern Virginia, or whether he’s motivated by more than his appetites for bat-driven bloodlust and forcibly stealing his underlings’ wives.
As ruthless and competent as Negan is supposed to appear, he committed the classic villain mistake of leaving a vengeful hero (and, in the cuckolded and disfigured Dwight, a resentful right-hand man) alive, which sets up an inevitable endgame. Thus far, The Walking Dead seems to be choreographing a confrontation between Negan’s saviors, Rick’s survivors, and the “Kingdom” controlled by former actor/zookeeper-turned-tiger-wielding monarch Ezekiel. The expressive Ezekiel, who debuted in Episode 2, is a welcome break from both the blandness of the series’s scenery and from its many monsters in the Governor mold: Where the Governor seemed rational but was secretly warped, Ezekiel seems slightly touched but is secretly sane. Not only that, he’s evidently an actual Good Guy, a rare breed among The Walking Dead’s postapocalyptic leaders — not least because the benevolent ones tend to get got by the bad guys after seeing their strongholds destroyed.
At this point, it’s probably not a spoiler to say that the comic’s story line points to more murder and mayhem ahead; in The Walking Dead’s world, that’s always been true. Based on AMC’s promo materials for Sunday’s installment, the fourth episode will send Negan to Alexandria to collect his tribute and run through the usual sequence of intimidation tactics — whistle, swing Lucille, smile widely and then ominously stop smiling — until he’s satisfied that Rick and his recently reduced crew are still sufficiently cowed. To make more time for monologues and suffering, the episode will run longer than usual, airing until 10:25 p.m. on the East Coast instead of the typical 10:00. In the short term, it’s difficult to forecast a ratings recovery; following a week in which actual events left half the country feeling like Rick and Co. after Negan demonstrated his dominance, an extended episode of The Walking Dead sounds like the most exhausting sort of escape.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.