It’s been years since I watched any show with “Walking Dead” in its title the same way I watch other TV. On Sunday, when Fear the Walking Dead’s Season 4 premiere followed The Walking Dead’s Season 8 finale, I also wanted to watch hours of zombie-free televised entertainment: Killing Eve, The Good Fight, Billions, Barry, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Silicon Valley, The Last Man on Earth. (Remember when Sundays seemed dead?) None of those other shows routinely leaves me feeling like I didn’t get the dopamine delivery I ordered. Yet I study the two that do, the Walking Dead duo, like Bill Belichick obsessively breaking down tape after a tough loss, wondering, What better play could have been called? Why wouldn’t they run that route? Why won’t they stop fumbling?
Why do I do this? Neither the original AMC series nor its leaner, lower-rated spin-off merits that level of attention to its X’s and O’s. Yet more than 150 combined episodes into their runs—approaching one week of solid life that I’ve voluntarily devoted to makeup-covered extras getting stabbed through their prosthetic skulls, and scruffy, flannelled leads endlessly debating whether killing is OK—I’m still staring at tape, hoping to see … something. On one level, I want the Walking Deads to stay the way they are, preserving the perverse, time-wasting pleasure I take from trying to pinpoint where they went wrong and how a different writers’ room might have averted disaster. On another level, I want the Walking Deads to be better than they’ve been, justifying several seasons of sunk cost. Maybe I’m still studying the film because on any given Sunday, the shows can come close.
This was one such Sunday. First, The Walking Dead tied up a two-season storyline with a one-episode reset that ended a war with uncharacteristic clarity, sentimentality, and positivity. Then, the prequel spin-off fast-forwarded and rebooted itself with what may have been its best hour ever, ranging far afield from its typical tone and territory and introducing a new crop of characters motivated by more than moral debates and avoiding disembowelment. No one notable died on either series, but that didn’t feel like a letdown; when The Walking Dead works, it’s more than Negan’s game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe. This was deck-clearing, slate-cleaning, precedent-setting stuff. It was also likely the latest in a long line of deceptive teases, but forget that for now.
Recappers and critics have been torturing themselves with the self-defeating desire to turn The Walking Dead into prestige TV since Rick & Co. were struggling against The Governor and Fear was still a twinkle in AMC’s eye. Back then, though, that desire wasn’t Walking Dead–defeating; no criticism could touch, let alone topple, cable’s highest-rated show. In retrospect, the Walking Dead IP’s popularity probably peaked on TV in 2015, when in March TWD’s fifth-season finale drew 15.8 million viewers—its third-highest total to that point, trailing only the fourth and fifth season premieres—and in August Fear’s pilot drew 10.1 million viewers. For a time, it seemed as if the spin-offs would keep coming and the sun would never set on AMC’s (and creator Robert Kirkman’s) postapocalyptic empire.
In time, though, on-screen repetition and audience attrition took their tolls, and the ratings regressed. Prior to this past Sunday’s episodes, the all-time week-by-week rating trajectories for each series looked like this:
Midway through TWD’s Season 8, the series’s third showrunner, Scott Gimple—who had shepherded the series since Season 4 and authored the bungled death of Glenn, the bleak Season 7, and the recent, shocking killing of Carl—shifted into the newly created role of chief content officer for the Walking Dead TV franchise. That realignment removed him from his hands-on role in plotting the course of the series, and none too soon, judging by recent seasons’ swiftly declining viewer scores.
Veteran writer Angela Kang, who’s worked on the series since Season 2 and whose episodes evince a greater care for character development and dialogue than has been the norm for the series, replaced Gimple as showrunner. That leadership swap mirrored a similar change in oversight of Fear, whose original showrunner stepped down after Season 3, handing off his duties to Once Upon a Time tandem Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg. Fear also recruited new recurring cast members Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope, Justified, The Mindy Project), Maggie Grace (Lost, Taken), Jenna Elfman (Dharma & Greg), and most intriguingly, Lennie James, who’s portrayed the enigmatic Morgan on 50-plus episodes of OG TWD and now becomes a crossover character as Fear—in one timeline, at least—takes a two-year jump to catch up with its companion program.
Taken together, these changes on both sides of the camera constitute a massive shake-up for the franchise, one designed to reverse the dual declines in quality and attention. Sunday was the first convincing sign that the rearranged deck chairs could pay creative dividends.
In The Walking Dead’s finale, “Wrath,” the long-brewing conflict between the Kingdom, Alexandria, and the Survivors comes to a head and ends with one skirmish, thanks to Eugene’s intentionally mismade batch of bad bullets and a sharp pane of glass that slashes Negan’s neck (but not quite enough to kill him). The episode suffers from some of the same sudden character flip-flops that have marred recent seasons: Killing machine Morgan makes another turn toward pacifism, Gabriel continues to bounce between bravery and cowardice, and Eugene switches sides yet again. Overly convenient timing, too, is an issue, as the Oceanside survivors arrive right on cue, dispatching a pack of marauding Saviors via Molotov cocktail. Rick’s reading of his letter to Carl lays on the life lessons a little thick, and the suggestion that Jesus—the only one in the Walking Dead world who’s still a stickler for the Geneva Conventions—might disagree with Rick’s decision to let Negan live is, to put it kindly, puzzling. The “All Out War,” as the comics called it, was tied up a little too tidily, but no one watching would have wanted it to drag on any longer.
With the show’s latest Big Bad under lock and key, TWD has an opportunity to embrace its rarely seen optimistic side. Aside from the Season 1 road trip to the CDC and Eugene’s supposed quest for a cure in Season 5, the series has never made much time for the world beyond the group’s borders, or the future that will follow the characters’ current showdown with the local megalomaniac. Already, comic readers are wondering when the next villains will show their faces (or, you know, not show them). But between Rick’s new Siddiq- and Carl-inspired merciful streak; mysterious, sporadic helicopter sightings; Georgie’s handy manual for restarting society; and the absence of any obvious adversary, both Kang and the Kingdom have time to build a firm foundation for the years ahead. The Walking Dead has done misery many times over. A temporary respite would be a welcome change of pace.
If TWD doesn’t deliver, though, there is another (sky)walker. Fear’s premiere, “What’s Your Story?,” was a wild departure from the series’s familiar formula. Morgan, the episode’s emotional center, walks off a Walking Dead set—appropriately, a garbage dump—and drives, runs, and traipses all the way from Virginia to Texas, the cinematographic grayness of his surroundings reflecting his lack of lust for life. Morgan may not be right in the head, but he has the right idea: Picking up stakes and moving to one of the many deserted swaths of a mostly unoccupied country is a strategy Rick could have considered instead of sending his troops to be slaughtered by the roguishly grinning dictator who happened to live next door.
As Morgan follows his inscrutable internal compass from place to place, possibly setting a record for distance covered on land in the span of one Walking Dead episode, he encounters gunslinger John Dorie (Dillahunt) and SWAT van–driving Althea (Grace); the former, who—hallelujah!—has a sense of humor, is looking for a woman named Laura, and the latter is collecting the life stories of the people she meets. Neither of them belongs to a settlement, and neither seems to mind; nor does either one appear to have tiresome qualms about killing. Although the episode is the start of season, it could pass for a self-contained installment of a Walking Dead anthology show, an idea that’s always seemed to make sense. Kirkman has created an undeniably engrossing setting for storytelling; is it too much to ask to see some of the sights?
Not until the final few seconds of “What’s Your Story?” do Fear’s returning cast members (minus Madison) make an appearance, looking as dirty as TWD’s Daryl and, evidently, less law-abiding than they once were. Frankly, they weren’t much missed for the first 40 minutes. For one episode, Fear felt like it could go anywhere and be anything. It won’t stay so adventurous—new showrunners or not, these series still have budgets, and budgets entail building sets and staying put. But it opened up the Walking Dead world in a way that made me want to watch more.
The Walking Dead franchise may still spin off again, and its existing series may have many more episodes ahead; TWD hasn’t come close to catching up to the comics. For AMC’s assembly line to stay productive, though, the conveyor belt couldn’t keep moving at the same speed. Sunday’s resets and reboots scrapped a cycle that wasn’t working, potentially correcting some of the series’s most glaring mistakes. As statistician Phil Birnbaum once put it, “You gain more by not being stupid than you do by being smart.” He was talking about baseball and blackjack, but the axiom applies to TV too.
In October 2016, I wondered, “Can The Walking Dead win?” Winning wouldn’t require the Walking Dead duo to be the best shows on TV. Winning would mean eliminating that old feeling of frustration, leaving the simple pleasures of unspectacular Sunday TV: laughing a little, experiencing suspense, being temporarily transported, and coming back next week for the next dose of dopamine.
For one week, The Walking Dead won. Next week will be another battle.