In the opening scene of Sunday’s planned Season 10 finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead, “A Certain Doom,” Alexandria’s leader, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), tries to reassure a child who’s hiding from a horde of walkers and Whisperers at the Tower, an abandoned hospital surrounded by the dead. “We’ve seen how many are coming,” the frightened girl says. “Lots more than we have.”
Gabriel kneels and smiles. “See these fingers?” he asks, waggling his hand. “Not much to look at, right? But together, they make a mighty weapon. That’s who we are. Alexandria, Hilltop, Oceanside, people of the Kingdom.” The girl isn’t convinced by the roll call of communities allied against the skin-wearing Whisperers. “Is that enough?” she asks.
“I’m not done yet,” Gabriel responds. The final finger, he says, is for “the others—the ones that aren’t here. Those that might find us help, or come here and help. Together, we will fight. And that’s how we will survive.”
Gabriel’s analogy could come in handy (so to speak) for any AMC executives who are asked to explain the besieged network’s present approach. In the C-suite version, the zombies are the onslaught of streaming services devouring the subscribers that cable networks thought they could count on. The fingers are AMC’s three existing Walking Dead series—the flagship show and spinoffs Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond—and two additional, upcoming spinoffs, one featuring fan favorites and Season 1 survivors Daryl and Carol and another, Tales of the Walking Dead, which will employ an anthology format. Collectively, they’re the network’s survival strategy.
By the end of “A Certain Doom,” Gabriel and his flock have been bailed out by help from afar, and the Whisperers are defeated. But it’s still uncertain whether AMC’s array of Walking Dead digits will work like this …
… or like this.
Last summer, when Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic ended its nearly two-decade run, AMC signaled that instead of winding down its Walking Dead TV adaptations, the network would expand the on-screen universe. As I wrote at the time, that seemed like a tall order, given the original show’s flagging popularity, the difficulty of differentiating between series set in a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America, and the historical lack of a larger scope to the existing series, which had long focused on small bands of survivors in various zombie- and tyrant-packed pockets of the country. Yet the network has pressed on with its plans. Last month, AMC announced that while The Walking Dead would end in 2022 after 30 more episodes—six extra installments of Season 10, which will air early next year, followed by a two-year, 24-episode Season 11—the franchise would continue via at least two new spinoffs and the already-announced series of films starring Andrew Lincoln’s habitually poor planner, Rick Grimes.
This month marks a major step along the plotted path to Walking Dead ubiquity. On Sunday, “A Certain Doom” aired after a six-month, pandemic-induced delay, and World Beyond, which was also originally slated for an April launch, belatedly debuted. Next Sunday, Fear will return for its sixth season and appear alongside the 10-episode first season of World Beyond, which has been billed as a two-season limited series. “That’s a whole lot of Walking Dead programming that I hope folks were hungry for, and we can’t wait to put this stuff in front of them,” says Scott M. Gimple, chief content officer of AMC’s Walking Dead TV stable.
Ten years to the month after The Walking Dead premiered, how hungry are folks for more ways into its mostly miserable world? AMC is staking a lot on non-cord-cutters’ continued appetite for the franchise. As my colleague Alison Herman wrote in March, “AMC is still casting about for its next step, looking for answers to an existential problem—in this case, being a premium cable network in a streaming-heavy world.” Part of that process includes turnover at the top: In March, AMC Networks hired former Lionsgate TV executive Dan McDermott and WarnerMedia veteran David Beck to oversee original programming and business operations, respectively, and AMC Networks president Sarah Barnett stepped down this summer after 12 years at the company.
Glancing at AMC’s slate, one can see why the time might be ripe for a redirection. Better Call Saul has never been better, but it’s entering its final season. Preacher ended last year, after AMC pulled the plug on Dietland, Into the Badlands, and The Son and shortly before Lodge 49 followed them into oblivion. Killing Eve’s third season—shepherded by former Fear writer Suzanne Heathcote—was widely seen as a slump, and The Terror: Infamy was a disappointing attempt to transition to an anthology format, leaving the fledgling franchise’s future unsettled. Other recent attempts to draw eyeballs, such as Joe Hill horror adaptation NOS4A2 (canceled after two seasons) and Jason Segel’s Dispatches from Elsewhere (in limbo after its first season), have failed to find audiences. Another new anthology series, Soulmates, has elicited tepid early reviews.
For the time being, then, the solution seems to be doubling down on The Walking Dead, Dead-adjacent projects, and British dramas (such as Gangs of London, The Salisbury Poisonings, and corporate cousin Acorn TV’s BBC hit Line of Duty—the first season of which, as AMC made sure to reminded its audience, features a face familiar from Fear and The Walking Dead, Lennie James). In addition to the three existing Walking Dead series and the two planned spinoffs, AMC continues to air aftershow Talking Dead—still steered by the evidently un-canceled Chris Hardwick—as well as a trio of nonfiction series hosted by Walking Dead franchise stars Norman Reedus, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Colman Domingo, plus Walking Dead director and executive producer Greg Nicotero’s anthology reboot Creepshow, which first appeared on AMC Networks’ horror streaming service, Shudder.
In other words, the well has run dry when it comes to original programming. In response to that drought, AMC seems to be drilling even deeper into the one well that’s still yielding water. But when a well is clogged with undead, decomposing corpses, the water becomes a bit brackish.
The flagship show remains the most ambitious and biggest-budget enterprise in the TWD stable, as evidenced by Sunday’s throngs of stumbling, lurching extras. The show goes on even as its leads cycle in and out: Danai Gurira (Michonne) departed earlier this year, but Lauren Cohan (Maggie) returned in “A Certain Doom” after missing most of the season while starring in ABC’s one-and-done Whiskey Cavalier. With the protracted Whisperer war concluded, the show is shifting focus to a large, advanced community called the Commonwealth, which came to the fore within the last 20 issues of Kirkman’s comic.
That dwindling stockpile of fresh source material—which the TV version has diverged from in some significant ways—may explain the sunsetting of the flagship show. But considering AMC’s spinoff frenzy, it’s natural to wonder why The Walking Dead is ending at all. “That’s more on the AMC side of it,” Gimple deflects. He hastens to add, “In a lot of ways, it’s not ending, it’s just changing. Robert Kirkman pitched The Walking Dead comic book, ‘The zombie movie that never ends.’ We’re still planning on fulfilling that, just in different ways.”
Even Kirkman’s comic ended eventually. And ending isn’t always a negative: In the world of The Walking Dead, it’s crucial to kill people permanently, lest they “change” in an unwelcome way. Yet AMC is uncomfortable with closure; as the title of Fear’s Season 6 premiere insists, “The End is the Beginning.” When the network announced that The Walking Dead would end, it also assured its fans that the series’ long-lived leading duo would live on—even though news of the Daryl and Carol spinoff will sap much of the suspense about those characters’ fates from The Walking Dead’s final season. (“Might one of them be a walker on the show?” Gimple jokes in a faux attempt to restore that lost suspense, before conceding, “I’m going to say probably not.”)
Although Fear boldly and divisively rebooted itself in Season 4, a reluctance to end things defines its latest batch of episodes also. As Fear’s Season 6 trailer confirmed, Morgan (played by James) is not yet dead at the start of Season 6, despite the seemingly unsurvivable situation he encountered in the Season 5 finale’s cliffhanger ending. Walking Dead watchers are accustomed to characters escaping certain death, but the sense of recycling and implausible plotting are stronger than usual in Season 6’s early episodes. “I feel like I’ve been 16 different somebodys since it all ended,” Morgan says near the start of the season. That’s more true of Morgan—who has ping-ponged repeatedly between pacifism and murderous rampages—than it is of most characters that haven’t lived as long. But as the series splits it protagonists apart and pits them against yet another ruthless leader whose goals may be sensible but whose methods diverge from the good guys’, it’s hard not to think that we’ve trod these roads before.
Traditional ratings suggest that fewer and fewer viewers are interested in retreading them. Nielsen data from the SpoilerTV ratings database shows both the parabolic path of The Walking Dead’s ratings and the steady decline of the spinoff’s.
The progression is even neater when we break it down by seasonal average ratings:
Of course, thanks to cord-cutters, traditional ratings are down across the board, and even The Walking Dead’s dramatically reduced current ratings are high compared to the competition. TWD remains the top-rated cable show in the 18-49 demographic and trails only Paramount’s Yellowstone in total viewers. Thanks to that boost, AMC still stacks up well in the cable ratings race. The Walking Dead and Fear are also available via Netflix and Hulu, respectively, which feeds more money into AMC’s coffers and increases the reach of the franchise to an unknown (but certainly sizable) degree.
The Walking Dead’s quality hasn’t declined in lockstep with the size of its live audience. Episode-by-episode IMDb user ratings support the perception that the series has rebounded from its bleak, brutal, Negan-centric seventh and eighth seasons; after a necessary reset in the Season 8 finale, the show has charted a more rewarding course.
At this late date, though, it’s unlikely that The Walking Dead name alone is capable of being a kingmaker. If Fear’s ratings are any indication, the brand had better be backed up by a show that does things differently and does things well. Based on the two episodes provided to critics, World Beyond falls short on both counts.
On a recent Talking Dead preview, World Beyond showrunner Matt Negrete said, “I think fans of The Walking Dead can expect more of what they love about The Walking Dead.” But World Beyond will thrive or dive based on the ways it stands out. One of World Beyond’s claims to doing things differently is its setting: It begins 10 years after the fall of civilization, which World Beyond’s characters associate with the traumatic crash of a zombie-ridden airliner on “the night the sky fell.” Then again, The Walking Dead’s time jumps have taken it approximately 10 years past the apocalypse, too. (Fear, a prequel, is still several years behind.) World Beyond also revolves around a young cast, but Fear has featured its share of adolescents, and The Walking Dead has provided the perspective of someone who’s coming of age in the end times via Judith, Rick’s hardy daughter.
World Beyond’s relatively sheltered teens don’t possess Judith’s survival skills. The series is set on a protected college campus outside Omaha, where two teenaged sisters, Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alexa Mansour), are among the almost 10,000 survivors who have largely learned to keep the nightmarish world of walkers at bay. Iris and Hope have developed different ways of reckoning—or not reckoning—with the psychological fallout from the deaths of law, order, and their mother when they were kids: Iris, the goody-goody valedictorian, is modeling herself on their scientist father and studying biochemistry and immunology in hopes of finding a cure for walker-itis, while the hopeless Hope, a fatalistic rebel, is brewing contraband hooch.
The sisters are taking care of each other in the absence of their father, who’s stationed at an outpost of the Civic Republic, a shadowy, militaristic organization located somewhere in the Southwest that’s loosely linked in the “Alliance of the Three” with the Campus Colony and an unseen settlement in Portland. When representatives of the Republic arrive at the Campus Colony, Iris holds up a welcome banner and Hope flips them off. Although the girls are competent and capable on campus, they’re not nearly as lethal as the Republic’s seasoned soldiers; they’ve been instructed in the art of killing walkers (or “empties,” in Nebraska parlance), but they haven’t done the deed. “They are in a place of safety and they are wholly aware what the world is, but they haven’t been out in the world,” says Gimple, who cocreated the series with Negrete.
Unsurprisingly, a series of events soon sends the sisters outside the walls, where Iris comes face to face with the gruesome reality of the ravenous monsters she’s clinically called “reanimated necrotic matter.” The siblings are accompanied by a couple of kid sidekicks, the ostracized and mostly silent Silas (Hal Cumpston) and the learned, offbeat Elton (Nicolas Cantu), who believes humanity has roughly 15 years to live and wants to see the scenery before the species goes extinct. They’re pursued by their guardian, self-defense trainer Felix (Younger’s endearing Nico Tortorella in a decidedly non-rom-com role) and Huck (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru), a self-described strong, silent type. The backstories of Iris, Hope, and Felix are fleshed out through a heaping helping of flashbacks, and while the writers clearly care about these characters, they haven’t quite convinced me to.
World Beyond’s somewhat YA tone may ensnare a new demographic, but it’s unlikely to seduce Walking Dead veterans. Two elements may make it more enticing. The first is the promise of learning much more about the mysterious Civic Republic, whose emissaries first appeared in The Walking Dead—they’re the ones in the helicopters who abducted Rick—and have since crossed over into Fear. The second is the limited life span of the spinoff: 20 episodes only, which may make it more goal-oriented than the sprawling series that spawned it. “There’s a real quest aspect to the show,” Gimple says.
Gimple preaches the importance of variety, but World Beyond feels like an extension of the series we’ve seen. I have, for some reason, subjected myself to all 200-plus combined episodes of The Walking Dead and Fear, but as I watched screeners for those shows and World Beyond, the three blurred together to such an extent that I had to check the Walking Dead wiki to recall why I was supposed to care about the dramatic death of a character who joined The Walking Dead in Season 7. Granted, watching episodes of all three series back-to-back-to-back after a long layoff isn’t the way AMC wants them to be seen, but my confusion speaks to a certain sameness that threatens the franchise’s bid for novelty—and, by extension, longevity.
Compared to other cinematic and TV universes, Gimple acknowledges, “We have another challenge in this, that these characters share a universe that is going to be similar no matter what, whereas the Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man hang out in very different places.” The characters may call their undead adversaries “walkers” on the flagship show, “infected” on Fear, and “empties” on World Beyond, but a zombie by any other name smells as nasty.
The franchise still finds ways to differentiate those increasingly decrepit walkers: World Beyond introduces us to a moss-covered living corpse that’s nearly returned to nature, an “empty” that doubles as a beehive, and a recently turned terminally ill patient kept at bay by the bars on her door, while Fear shows off a formaldehyde-embalmed, well-preserved walker that haunts a funeral home. But true originality may have to wait until 2023, when the Daryl and Carol spinoff is supposed to premiere and when Tales should be well past its current conceptual stage.
“When we get to Daryl and Carol and hopefully when we get to Tales, they’re designed to be incredibly different from the shows that come before them,” Gimple says. Reedus has hinted that the former series will adopt an itinerant structure that may turn it into a fictionalized counterpart to his motorcycle travelogue. As for the latter, an anthology series has seemed like a natural fit for the franchise for years. My former Grantland colleague Andy Greenwald advocated for an anthology-style spinoff in 2013, and it sounds as if Gimple is thinking along similar lines.
“With Tales of the Walking Dead, we’re telling stories from all corners of the universe, with some characters that we’ve seen before,” he says. “These are hour-long episodes, little movies. You might find out something about … a character that’s no longer with us or a character that was on Walking Dead and survived till the end and we continue their story intermittently with Tales. But we’re also very excited about showing you characters that you’ve never seen before, situations you’ve never seen before, all over the Walking Dead timeline.” Gimple goes on to tease a range of storytelling styles: “some horror, some black comedy, some straight adventure.” It’s a compelling pitch.
More intriguing still is the potential for new creative visionaries. Although Gimple guarantees that “Daryl and Carol will have a very different feel than Walking Dead, a different tone, a different drive,” the spinoff will be helmed by Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang. World Beyond’s Negrete is another Walking Dead alum, having served as the series’ co-EP and as a writer since Season 4. While some amount of experience with the franchise may be helpful from a production standpoint and in ensuring narrative continuity, it could contribute to the difficulty of telling them apart. Gimple lays out a Mandalorian-esque model for Tales, in which writers and directors young and old would be invited to put their own spins on the series. “Bringing on new voices is critical to get a new feeling,” he says.
In World Beyond, Felix says, “Sometimes you don’t get to choose your direction. Sometimes you don’t get to know where you’re going.” Gimple hopes he knows where The Walking Dead is going: Between the Commonwealth and the Civic Republic, the bedraggled franchise is trying to build toward a more sophisticated society and a more sweeping scope, with a shared universe but less shared DNA. Part of that blueprint for AMC’s zombie perpetual motion machine involves the Grimes movies, which Gimple still envisions as a trilogy.
“The pandemic has slowed us down quite a bit like everyone else, but we’re using that time to hone and to heighten and to make it as great as possible,” he says, noting that he’s working closely with Lincoln and Kirkman, the latter of whom also has a hand in the shows even though he’s stopped producing new comics. “We continue to talk and consult all the time about stuff,” Gimple says. “It’s just we don’t have a surprise every month, which we loved. It was great to be able to work on the show and still be a fan of the story unfolding.”
When I observe that Gimple is the one unfolding it now, he says, “Got a hard act to follow.” If he follows it all the way, he’ll have to end things someday on the screen, as Kirkman did on the page. But if he has his way, that day will be years away. “It’s over, right?” Daryl asks Carol in “A Certain Doom.” The war with the Whisperers is, she assures her friend. But she also reminds him, “We still have things to do here.” AMC won’t have it any other way.