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You’d be forgiven for not knowing what’s going on with The Walking Dead at the moment.
Once TV’s most-watched series, AMC’s long-running zombie drama is…still one of TV’s most-watched series but significantly less so than it was at its peak. The show, based on Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s 198-issue comic of the same name, still receives plenty of active fans and bemused weekly onlookers. Here at Den of Geek we’re a bit of both.
We know people are still watching The Walking Dead, now three episodes into its 24-episode final season. And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the average TV viewer’s knowledge of the show ended years ago. (Perhaps not coincidentally right around the time that Glenn died and actor Steven Yeun began his rightful ascent as a movie star).
Consider this feature a public service announcement then. As things stand right now, The Walking Dead is more like Little House on the Prairie than Night of the Living Dead. It’s also quite good…perhaps the best it’s been in nearly a decade.
It’s no secret that zombies themselves are often the least interesting part of zombie storytelling. While The Walking Dead has produced some of the most visually interesting zombies in the history of the genre, the show’s success was never tied to the shambling hordes of dead bodies that gave it its name. When deployed correctly, zombies are a setting, not antagonists. They are an environmental risk that also just happen to serve as a reminder to beleaguered survivors that no matter how tough things are now, they could always be worse. You could always become one of them.
It took The Walking Dead a surprisingly long time to fully understand that inescapable fact of zombie drama life. It wasn’t until midway through season 5 that the survivors found a fulltime sanctuary in the form of the Alexandria Safe Zone, were able to catch their breath, and begin the work of rebuilding rather than merely surviving. Not coincidentally, the back half of season 5 was arguably The Walking Dead’s first golden era. That era didn’t last long, however, as Alexandria’s nation-building efforts were quickly interrupted by a war with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his Saviors.
While the “All Out War” arc is one of the most beloved aspects of the original comic, when adapted to screen it quite simply did not work. The cartoonish aspects of Negan’s personality were grating rather than appealing and the show’s limited budget could’t accommodate a full-on war in addition to all the zombies. Not only that, but the Savior war came across as an unnecessary interruption. The Alexandrians were building something. They were confronting their own flaws, fixing them, and trying to create a new society out of the ashes of an old one.
Now in season 11, the Alexandrians are back to building again and it’s leading to some surprisingly effective television. Much of AMC’s marketing material for The Walking Dead’s final season has revolved around the concept of hunger. Following the conclusion of yet another war (this time against the creepy Whisperers), our remaining survivors have been placed back to square one. The Hilltop Colony and The Kingdom have been decimated and only Alexandria remains as a viable home, albeit barely. The Alexandrians are faced with a threat more terrifying than the dead: the world.
Months of total war led to ignored crops which led to blight which led to a starving populace. That hunger engendered the season 11 premiere cold open in which Carol, Maggie, Darly, and company go on a very dangerous food run, something they should be long past needing to do 10 years into the post-apocalypse. When that run fails, it sets Maggie, Negan, and Daryl on the path of an even more dangerous food run through a subway and eventually into the waiting arms of new antagonistic group The Reapers.
In episode 3 “Hunted”, however, viewers finally get to see what Alexandria’s hunger looks like on the ground level. And this is where the Little House on the Prairie stuff comes in…though in a darker fashion. “Hunted” mostly follows Carol as she leads a mission to find some horses. But why would they need horses to ride if they’re hungr….oh God, they’re going to eat the horses, aren’t they?
Sure enough, the climax of “Hunted” isn’t Maggie and Negan’s struggles against the Reapers (though that does play a role). Instead, it’s a heartbreaking scene in which Carol gently lays a horse down and tearfully slits its throat, letting all the blood drain out into a metal pan to keep the meat tender. It’s a shocking moment (made all the better by what appears to be the greatest horse actor since Mister Ed) and it hammers home just how fundamentally the main focus of The Walking Dead has changed.
To be fair, things have been changing for a while now. The series’ fourth showrunner Angela Kang (who took over from Scott Gimple who took over from Glen Mazara who took over from Frank Darabont) appears to be its best. Starting with Kang getting the main job in season 9, The Walking Dead has slowly been trending upward by reinvesting in its characters (which is particularly impressive given the massive amount of casting turnover in that time).
Now that the show has settled once again into examining the real cost of survival, it’s only gotten better. Before the tragic horsemeat episode, season 10 featured a touching, bittersweet hour in which Carol simply cooks a soup. Given that the community’s solar panels were destroyed in the Whisperer War and rats are jeopardizing the grainary, Carol’s soup feels like a bigger victory than actually winning the war.
The good news is that based on the comics arc and what’s been announced for the final season, The Walking Dead will continue to move in the more interesting direction of world-building as opposed to world-breaking. Things may be incredibly bleak for Alexandria at the moment but thanks to Eugene, Yumiko, Ezekiel, and Princess, we know another, safer community is out there.
The Commonwealth is everything that Alexandria isn’t: enormous, secure, and very well-fed. Still, there are certain to be some sociopolitical issues with any society that big. (A particular Commonwealth arc in the comic is called “The Rotten Core” for a reason).
The path that The Walking Dead’s final act is on is a fascinating one. Sure, a starving Alexandria would happily rebuild the world to exactly what it was before. But when confronted with that previous world’s inequities will it all be worth it? Guess we’ll find out when The Walking Dead moves from Little House on the Prairie to Black Mirror.