Let me preface this piece with a confession: I haven’t watched The Walking Dead in at least five years. My relationship with the show ended following the lacklustre conclusion to the third season. Many people have suggested the fourth is the best so perhaps the joke’s on me, but here’s the reason I never came back: I just couldn’t cope with the nihilism. If there is a TV show built on a deeper sense of profound doom than the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic, it’s doing a very good job of hiding itself.
The Walking Dead has, from the very beginning, been predicated on the fact there will be no happy ending. The zombies will never be eradicated. The world will never be saved, the virus never cured. The survivors will spend the rest of their lives fighting impossible odds only to one day die, either naturally or horrifically. No light exists at the end of this tunnel. Bleak, huh? Bleak and, for many, alienating. The Walking Dead is shedding viewers by the episode as it’s Eighth Season airs in the US. Many have suggested the rot has been setting in for the last couple of seasons, for several reasons (stand up, Negan). It feels like a show approaching its death throes which is ironic, because The Walking Dead refuses to end in kind of conventional sense.
Endings are fascinating to me. Endings are where the power lies in storytelling, no matter whether you’re dealing with a TV show, movie, book, video game, anything with a narrative structure. You’ll hear many fiction writers talk about how they’ve figured out their conclusion before anything else, novelists in particular. That’s a much harder maxim for television writers to follow given the mercurial nature of the business. Movies are able more conclusively to craft an ending if they are telling a contained story but now almost every cinematic experience ends with the promise of a follow up, whether a straight sequel or a cinematic franchise. The solitary, told story experience is one to be cherished, in whatever form of media.
Endings are, after all, why we absorb stories. We start a story because we want to know how it ends. Sure, a good story will allow us to enjoy spending time with the characters, and often we won’t want it to be over in a hurry, but ultimately we want to know who sits on the Iron Throne, or if Agent Mulder will find the truth, or whether Harry will end up with Sally. Sometimes the answer is clear, other times it’s more obtuse or open to interpretation. But we crave that sense of an ending, and a feeling of payoff. See my thoughts on how Stranger Things recently hit a home run on this score.
The Walking Dead, therefore, is an example of a project working in contrast to this accepted narrative desire. Kirkman’s inherent nihilism visible in his ongoing comic series is now struggling to translate into a satisfying television experience. For a long time, this wasn’t the case; The Walking Dead started in 2010 and has consistently, for years, been the most successful cable series on TV for AMC. They started slowly with just six episodes, testing the water to see if popular culture was ready to accept the zombie once again as a serious threat, away from the cultural consumerist satire of George R. Romero or a dozen spoof movies.
The answer should have been obvious – zombies have always been one of the most pervasive monsters in cinematic culture, serving as textual metaphor for the decline of Western civilisation since Romero popularised them in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. They may not have been on TV for a long time but the zombie has never gone away. The Walking Dead was almost instantly the talk of the town – a monster hit (pun intended) which seeped very quickly into TV pop culture, spawning legions of merchandise opportunities, a million GIFS, and eventually a spin-off series in 2015’s Fear the Walking Dead. It’s dominance seemed assured.
In the last couple of years, the bubble around what seemed to be an in-assailable piece of television has begun to burst. The Walking Dead seemed able to weather multiple changes in behind the scenes showrunning personnel over its first few years, but it’s steadily proving unable to overcome and survive its own–acknowledged–lack of forward momentum. A podcasting friend, Steve Norman of the excellent Failed Critics, discusses in their latest episode the malaise many fans are feeling with the Eighth Season of The Walking Dead; an overabundance of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s villain Negan, plots stretched out beyond their shelf life, and elsewhere I have heard claims of many of the most popular characters (such as Daryl Dixon, arguably TV’s biggest heart throb of the decade) being sidelined as part of a wider, often less interesting ensemble.
The biggest concern, however, always seems to come right back to the fact The Walking Dead isn’t *going* anywhere. Though a show about survival, a show in which the true monsters are very much in the guise of men (the idea perhaps being the titular ‘walking dead’ are the humans who are still roaming the earth, not the zombies), audiences are parting ways simply because Kirkman and the creative team steadfastly refuse to give Rick Grimes and the other survivors a break from the relentless, downbeat and ultimately futile horror of a world in which there is no salvation or hope. Having no direction, no goal line, no essential payoff, could actively serve to destroy the series before its time.
This begs the question, therefore – does every show need not just a complete ending, but to be *about* something? Seinfeld, famously, was described as a ‘show about nothing’, when in truth it was about *everything* in terms of social minutae, but the active point in the minds of Jerry Seinfeld & Larry David was that these characters would never learn from their mistakes, never grow, and never reach a point of catharsis. And they never did. Despite people’s issues with Seinfeld‘s misjudged finale, nobody called the show out for that choice. Maybe the rules are different given it was a comedy. Surely dramatic shows, especially ‘genre’ storytelling, require that payoff, that development, that sense of ending and closure?
We’ve had multiple different examples of this in recent television. The Sopranos, with its painfully enigmatic cut to black before witnessing the assumed death of Tony Soprano, saw David Chase toying with our perceptions on what we consider adequate payoff; some loved the eternal level of ambiguity, others cursed the fact you will always be questioning precisely what happened. From the perspective of artful storytelling, The Sopranos feels like an intentional decision rather than a spur of the moment quirk. Lost, conversely, divided opinion even more strongly; Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse chose to end their series with a titanic, metaphysical revelation which many felt cheated by. It’s taken me a full rewatch of the entire show, with seven years distance, to accept the ending of ‘The End’ on my own terms. Interpretation with a show such as Lost is key – you take from it what you need to.
Importantly, however, in both of these examples, there *was* an ending. Character arcs reached a level of resolution, as did specific narratives. That sense of closure may not admittedly have been quite as satisfying as some of the other, most celebrated endings of popular genre or cable television series – take the darkly poetic conclusion of Sons of Anarchy, for example, or the way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine made sure it spent a good ten minutes at the end of its massive final episode giving characters true resolution; contrast this with the maddening ending of Star Trek: Voyager just a few years later, which went for an abrupt, thematic conclusion to its ongoing journey when what viewers wanted was to know where these characters ended up.
There, in that phrase, we have it. ‘Ended up’. Why do we engage with narrative? The majority of the time, particularly in conventional storytelling, we don’t start with a theme. We engage with a story because we’re interested in the setting or the concept alongside whatever it’s thematically trying to do, but we always stick with a story because of the characters involved. How many TV series had a fantastic concept, brilliant creative minds involved and visual style, only to disappear after a season or two? Barring a few notable exceptions, they vanished because people failed to care about the characters they spent time watching. Our engagement wasn’t with where these people ‘ended up’. Their story. Their journey, reflecting our own lives or providing escapism and excitement we will never get to experience.
In the long run, we want these people we care about through the screen or on the page to go somewhere. We want them to reach their destination, achieve their goals, or change in a positive (or sometimes negative) fashion. Stories cannot exist in isolation and stagnate. What happens if they do? They die. They collapse in on themselves. They stop becoming about a journey and start feeling like a ship stuck on the sea bed, straining and groaning to move with no idea what direction to go in. Has this now happened to The Walking Dead? It’s not for me to judge, but its entirely possible the series may be on this path precisely because it refuses to embrace a destination. Theme and concept have superseded the satisfaction of knowing these characters are still on a journey.
A message, therefore, to all TV shows out there. Embrace closure. Commit to an end game. Allow your characters, your world and your central mythology the opportunity for catharsis and evolution. Otherwise you may find yourself as one of those pieces of fiction loved by many, yet forever lamented by more as storytelling which failed to stick the landing.