As the eighth season of the ailing zombie show returns, what needs to be done to stave off the stench of creative inertia?
Its time for a reckoning. Not the one foretold in the last and increasingly fatuous season of The Walking Dead, between Ricks Alexandrians and their diabolical oppressors, but something far more radical. Sure, everybody enjoys seeing guys who look like white supremacist throwbacks getting eviscerated (apart, presumably, from white supremacists), but that will not be enough to save the ailing zombie show.
No, the reckoning I have in mind involves a cull of leading characters. Only through that kind of bloodletting can The Walking Dead stop the zombified plod of the last season. Only through being creatively unfaithful to the source material can The Walking Dead stop losing viewers and critical favour at the rate it did this spring.
Yes, some critics complained that season seven was too grim and violent. I dont think that was the problem at all. The Walking Dead, like any drama set in a post-apocalyptic zombie-filled milieu in which society has fallen apart will show human life as nasty, brutish and short, must be grim and violent. No, the problem, rather, was that the violence didnt spell the end for some of the shows most expendable characters, namely those supposed to be our heroes. The writers should be creatively faithless to the original graphic novels and be more ruthless in bumping off dull central characters who are dragging the drama down.
Let Game of Thrones narrative daring be the guide: in George RR Martins books and TV version, every now and again a leading protagonist, without whom one thought the show could not continue, was brutally offed. In season one, it seemed impossible that the show could survive without Sean Bean and yet it did precisely because of that chastening sense of narrative jeopardy namely that anybody, no matter how seemingly central, could be terminated. And that sense of the expendability of any character has a worthwhile fidelity to the world in which the drama is set in Game of Thrones no one was ever secure in this cod-medieval world of nasty diseases and tooled-up nutjobs behind every bush. In the grim universe of The Walking Dead, nobody should delude themselves that theyre not one bite or baseball bat whack from oblivion.
Lets start with Rosita. Ive had just about enough of her armaments expertise, her mildly decorous wounds (Carl loses an eye, she gets pretty little cut on her cheek). She has to go, in part as punishment for the intolerable yet emblematic thing she did in last seasons episode 14. If you remember, in one of the seasons many redundant subplots, she and Sasha were holed up near the Saviors compound. But instead of putting a bullet in Negans head, Rosita taught Sasha how to create various rope knots. In any sensible society, any TV character who knots things when she should be killing a guy who has beaten her lover to death and then put her and her friends to work providing fortnightly tributes, deserves to be taken out, and I dont mean to a candlelit dinner.
That subplot was typical of what went wrong in season seven and what must be corrected now. There were too many side narratives that were hobbled from the outset: we never really believed that Sasha and Rositas rogue mission would succeed and so, all the while knowing that Negans murder would be deferred until the next season, we watched with an increasing sense of frustration the storyline dwindle into two women yawnsomely bonding and sparring over the memory of their dead lover Abraham. Its drama of deferral was no drama at all.
If season eight learns from season sevens missteps, it will be in this particular: no more attention-sapping subplots about characters nobody cares about (remember that hour of your life youll never get back in which Tara visited the all-woman camp at Oceanside?) that serve chiefly to deplete narrative energy.
Rosita isnt the only character who needs to be removed. Its time to kill off Rick. He needs to go in part because Andrew Lincolns country needs him. Its time for him to come home and replace Hugh Bonneville in a money-spinning Downton reboot, which, as you know, is the only way the UK can come out of Brexit with a balance of payments surplus.
Who else? Eugene, the sobbing invertebrate must be put out of our misery. How? Death by rogue CGI tiger is a possibility. So far as Im aware, the tiger has not yet killed a named character, just lackeys and the undead. Thats clearly a misuse of Shivas talents.
There are only three characters who should survive. Carole and Morgan, partly because their compunctions about choosing the way of violence seem to me to be essential counterpoints to the rest of the show. And Negan.
These modest proposals to retool the ailing franchise are, I submit, necessary but perhaps not sufficient. The Walking Deads problem is that its possible narrative moves are constrained in a manner that more open-ended franchises are not (thats why, say, Coronation Street, set in a Manchester street, or Greys Anatomy, set in a Seattle hospital, look as though they could carry on forever, changing characters and storylines with an abandon denied The Walking Dead). There will always be zombies in The Walking Dead and always be humans imperilled by them. Otherwise it isnt the Walking Dead. It cannot escape that central predicament without losing its identity. That identity was its charm and now is its problem. Or one of them.
In two short years, indeed, The Walking Dead has shifted from unmissable to expendable. In 2015 it seemed incisively resonant, evoking albeit unwittingly Trumps Mexican wall and Europes refugee crisis, while effectively indicting mimsy western decadence through focusing on a survivalist fantasy drama in which effete journalists like me would be the first to get murdered by the undead and deservedly so. Now? Maybe the inconvenient truth is that after seven seasons not even Greg Nicoteros genius with modelling increasingly grotesque zombie walkers is enough to captivate. Maybe the truth about the show is that its more dead than its fans dared imagine. Like the last can of beans in the last convenience store to be raided in post-zombie apocalypse Georgia, even The Walking Dead must reach its expiry date.
- The Walking Dead starts in the US on 22 October at 9pm on AMC and in the UK on 23 October at 9pm on Fox