They may share a title, but the first season of The Walking Dead and the more recent seasons of The Walking Dead are not the same television show. The first season’s pilot was filmed in a grainy 16mm that would make the late George A. Romero proud; the season’s showrunner was Frank Darabont, the man responsible for critically acclaimed dramas like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile; the fate of any character not named Rick Grimes was totally up in the air; and it delivered six mostly compelling installments of TV that considered the philosophical and moral costs of survival. AMC, home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, had another big hit on its hands, a show that was somehow twisting the pulpy zombie genre into prestige TV.
But The Walking Dead began evolving (or devolving, if you prefer) after its promising first season, as things fell off the rails both off and onscreen. Darabont was fired midway through Season 2, reportedly after arguments over budget issues with AMC, while other producers, including Walking Dead comics creator Robert Kirkman, openly rebelled and filed lawsuits against the network over the distribution of the show’s profits. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead moved at a catatonic pace, spending full seasons on farms, while aggravating characters (LORI) overstayed their welcome and a nihilistic brutality seeped into the show’s ethos. The breaking point came in the Season 7 premiere, when new villain Negan viciously pummeled two characters with a spiked baseball bat. The show had luxuriated in Negan’s sadistic violence, turning his choice of victims into a full-fledged marketing campaign, and then basically becoming torture porn when the time finally came for him to take a swing. Since then, despite a few bright spots, it has continued to make television that seems primarily manufactured to make its own fans revile it.
But there is hope. The Walking Dead now is, in essence, a TV zombie. It will continue to live on, piling on season after season. The Season 8 premiere was the show’s 100th episode, and the producers will giddily tell you they’re up for 100 more. (AMC, which doesn’t have another hit on its roster, probably is too.) It’s no longer in the same conversation as Game of Thrones or Stranger Things; instead, it belongs with the other never-ending phenomena like Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural—surprisingly popular shows that you can’t believe haven’t died off yet. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. In a few fleeting moments last season, and in Sunday's Season 8 premiere, “Mercy,” The Walking Dead leaned more toward what a zombie series should aim to be: campy, post-apocalyptic nonsense.
The series has entered its “All Out War” story line from the comics, which pits the three communities of our protagonists (Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom) against Negan and the Saviors. The title is self-evident, if melodramatic, but that’s the point.
The premiere sends Rick and his new army straight to Negan’s doorstep, equipped with armored cars and a buttload of guns. Negan gets to monologue a bit, at which point it’s best not to think too hard about Rick letting him talk so much, even though he has dozens of guns pointed at Negan, who has only a baseball bat. Eventually, Rick tires of the talking, gives Negan and his goons a count to 10 to surrender, and starts spraying bullets when he gets to “seven.”
The chaos that ensues is a mindless, Michael Bay–ian mishmash of guns and explosions. Daryl sets off a series of bombs to lure a massive zombie horde straight to the Saviors’ doorstep. Negan makes the ridiculously impractical decision to run for cover with no weapons but his bat. The group’s RV—RVs have been the show’s unofficial vehicle of choice since Season 1—is laced with explosives and used as a battering ram to take out the Sanctuary’s entryway. Daryl, Morgan, and Cheryl set up a trap for a group of Saviors on the road, which, yes, caused a giant explosion.
For a show that has been infamously dreary, the episode is a ton of dumb fun. It carries on a vibe of frivolity that began to brew last season. The introduction of King Ezekiel and the Kingdom brought the show some much needed levity, thanks in part to Ezekiel speaking like he works at a Renaissance fair, and his trusted bodyguard, who’s known for throwing deuces and declaring his profound love of cobbler. And, of course, the tiger.
Bringing in a tiger that obeys a faux-monarch and somehow recognizes antagonists from allies in the heat of battle is objectively awesome and gives a literal striped face to a new mantra of silliness. It’s things like that—like Rick fighting what can only be described as a zombie gladiator—that The Walking Dead should strive for. In other words, they’re no longer mimicking much better auteur-driven television—instead, they’re doubling down on the absurdist zombie mayhem.
Of course, there’s always the chance The Walking Dead reverts to its old ways. Negan—and every other character the audience knows by name—survived the battle in “Mercy,” and he picked up a hostage (sorry Father Gabriel), which could stall the momentum of Rick’s uprising until the midseason finale, an infuriating move The Walking Dead has pulled before.
Would a lowbrow, action-oriented future betray the inherent bleakness and ruminative plodding of seasons past? Consider how creator Robert Kirkman has treated the comics. He’s trolled his readers with an alien invasion and by making the Governor a cyborg—he knows how to have a bit of fun with his source material, which, again, is about zombies, and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. After seven years, The Walking Dead TV show is learning to do the same.