The Walking Dead is having a creative renaissance
While most assumed The Walking Dead would be a mere genre show, the series shocked the industry by premiering with 5.35 million viewers. Many assumed it was a Halloween one-night wonder, but viewership steadily kept rising, turning the program into not only a mainstream hit, but the highest-rated show on television and the biggest scripted series in the history of cable TV. An incredible 22.37 million watched the season 5 premiere, and even two years later — when the show should have been experiencing natural viewer attrition — 21.53 million people tuned in to the season 7 premiere to discover the identity of Negan's victim(s).
However, many consider that point to be the beginning of the end. That natural audience erosion finally came, as new streaming options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others siphoned off viewers. Meanwhile, complaints poured in that the brutality of the Negan regime made the show too depressing (which is saying something about a story that centers around people being devoured by zombies on a regular basis). Viewership steadily declined, with the recent Oct. 14 episode (the second installment from season 10) garnering 5.61 million viewers over seven days — just 25% of the show's peak audience, meaning three out of four viewers have moved on.
That's a shame, because those who have moved on are missing a program that has been revitalized in seasons 9 and 10 under new showrunner Angela Kang. (Former showrunner Scott M. Gimple has become chief content officer for the franchise, overseeing all three scripted TWD series, including a new one debuting in 2020, as well as an upcoming Rick Grimes theatrical film.) Five episodes in, the current season has felt like one of the strongest in years.
While The Walking Dead may not dominate online watercooler discussion every Monday morning like it used to, it is still easily the most watched scripted cable series on television. And the fans who are still watching have been rewarded for their devotion with some of the best story lines and developments in the show's long, illustrious run.
Why is The Walking Dead having such a creative renaissance? Here are five reasons.
1. Great Villains
A group of humans who hide among the dead and wear zombie skin masks over the faces, the Whisperers are one of the most formidable and intriguing baddies in The Walking Dead comics. But how would that translate from page to screen? The answer: tremendously.
Samantha Morton is electric as the cult-like group's leader, Alpha, displaying both public power and private vulnerability. Her off-kilter speech patterns and posture make every scene with Alpha an adventure, and her mysterious — and sometimes seemingly contradictory — motivations help to make her the most unpredictable villain we've ever experienced on the show, and that includes Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Meanwhile, Ryan Hurst has given Alpha's lieutenant, the enigmatic Beta, an equally creepy and quiet strength. The battle between Beta and Daryl (Norman Reedus) was one of season 9's highlights, and now that the big fella and Negan have crossed paths, another duel could be in the future. But Beta is more than just muscle. The fact that the character never takes his mask off gets at some serious trauma that has yet to be fully explained, and Kang promised EW that when we do see Beta's face it will be "Walking Dead weird."
In the hands of lesser actors, characters walking around in costumes pretending to be zombies could come off as hokey and cringe-inducing, but Morton and Hurst have somehow managed to give Alpha and Beta depth while also making them legitimately scary. That's no easy task, they just make it look easy. Speaking of villains…
2. A Kinder (but Not Gentler) Negan
As great a character as brain-bashing Negan was when he was first introduced in issue 100 of the comic, he became even more interesting after losing the All-Out War and being stuck away in a cell by Rick (Andrew Lincoln). The same has been true on the TV show.
While there were complaints from fans about the Negan villain years, the problem was never with the character itself, but rather the reaction our heroes had to that character. Watching Rick cower in fear, Daryl be tortured, Aaron (Ross Marquand) get the crap beaten out of him, and everyone generally just be miserable was tough to take for a prolonged period of time.
Now that Negan is no longer the source and cause of all that suffering, it's as if the character has been freed — and I don't just mean literally, as in his recent cell departure. Kang and her writing team have done a masterful job of showing a somewhat reformed and evolved Negan. The trick is that the dude is still kind of an a—hole. Even when Negan does something heroic, like saving Judith in the season 9 finale, he manages to find a way to piss people off with his attitude. Or he goes and saves someone, like a blinded Aaron a few weeks ago, but only after leaving him by himself in the woods and silently watching him struggle before stepping in at the last minute. The producers keep taking great pains to not make Negan too nice, which is a welcome change from television's often unbelievable transformations.
Perhaps the best example of Negan 2.0 occurred this past week, when Negan befriended a young boy. After telling the kid what it was like to be a on a plane ("It's like voodoo magic, man"), he went on to espouse the joys of "nut tapping." On one hand, Negan was taking the time and making the unprompted effort to bond with a boy in need of a father figure. On the other hand, he was doing it by espousing the joy of hitting other dudes in the balls. So, twisted and demented, but also kind and caring. Oh, and when wannabe Negan disciple Brandon killed that boy in a misguided attempt to impress his idol, Negan bashed his brains in with a rock, proving he is as dangerous as ever if you cross him.
That's the new Negan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been engaging in a master-class performance bringing that character to life. Instead of being the guy you love to hate, Negan has now become the guy you kinda hate to love.
3. Going Old-School
It's no accident we've been seeing a lot of Daryl and Carol (Melissa McBride) scenes so far this season. And it's no accident that we will see even more of them next week. As the only links back to the show's first season, Daryl and Carol are Walking Dead royalty, and they are being treated as such.
The season premiere scene in which Daryl referred to Carol as his best friend and they spoke of hopping on his bike and heading out west together was a treat for longtime fans. At the same time, the show may be setting up Daryl — the only longtime major character on the show who has not had any sort of love connection — to finally find romance. He has become close with Connie (Lauren Ridloff), even learning sign language to better communicate with her. Whether their relationship will fully blossom remains to be seen, but even having Daryl flirting with flirting allows the character (and viewers) to experience something new 10 seasons in.
As for Carol, her two scenes with Alpha — who stuck the head of Carol's adopted son, Henry, on a pike — have crackled with intensity. The character of Carol is always at her best when she is on a mission, and the promise of another confrontation with Alpha has fans buzzing with anticipation. One of the strengths of season 10 is that it all feels like it is building to something, and you sense that every time Carol is on screen.
4. Still Taking Risks
One of the most remarkable things about The Walking Dead has always been the storytelling risks the show has taken. Generally, the more popular a show becomes, the safer it acts as it tries not to rock the boat while satisfying a big-tent audience. However, even when TWD was the biggest thing on television, Gimple always insisted on pushing the creative envelope by telling stories in a non-traditional manner.
Viewers will gleefully point out the times it didn't work, like dumpster-gate and the infamous victim point-of-view cliffhanger from season 6, while casually ignoring all the instances in which the risks paid off in big ways, like the surreal and moving season 5 installment in which Tyreese (Chad Coleman) was visited by the ghosts of Walking Dead past before moving on and joining them ("What Happened and What's Going On").
Under Kang's tenure, the show has continued to push the envelope, especially in terms of nonlinear storytelling. The season 10 premiere kept rewinding time to show us the same period in different places. The week after that, we kept flipping back and forth between seven-year periods to see the parallels between the origin of the Whisperers and their current hierarchy. The week after that, we saw 49 hours of a zombie siege in about 2 minutes. None of these were mere gimmicks, however. All worked to frame the story in unique ways that also kept the viewer off balance just enough to keep things interesting.
And as if to prove that nothing is off limits, Kang started the season… IN SPACE!!! While The Walking Dead in space may sound like the most ridiculous thing imaginable, it was anything but — answering a question most of us were not even smart enough to ask: What happens to all those unmanned satellites after the fall of civilization? It was a smart, bold play that not only felt new and fresh, but also set up the conflict to come as our heroes had to cross into Whisperers territory to contain the blaze caused by the downed satellite.
Keeping the core of what made the show great while continuing the take risks and try new things is paramount if The Walking Dead is going to continue to succeed creatively, and so far Kang is off to a tremendous start in that regard.
5. A More Collaborative Environment
Every showrunner has their own style, and when you talk to TWD cast members about Kang, one of the first things that is likely to be mentioned is how open she is to ideas and input. While the showrunner trusts her instincts and is confident in her storytelling choices, Kang also enjoys feedback and consultations with the actors bringing the words to life, and that feedback often leads to big changes and big moments on the show.
One such example involves the creepy mantra we saw Alpha and Beta recite at the end of episode 1002: "We walk in darkness. We are free. We bathe in blood. We are free. We love nothing. We are free. We fear nothing. We are free. We need no words. We are free. We embrace our death. We are free. This is the end of the world. Now is the end of the world. We are the end of the world."
Instead of being cooked up by a committee in the writers' room, the mantra was actually something created by Ryan Hurst to help motivate himself before a big scene. As Hurst told EW: "The little story behind the mantra was, I wrote the mantra as a way of what I would say to myself to sort of get in character after I would get my mask on and be in costume and I would say it. And then I told Angela that and she was like, 'Oh my God, we're using it!' I was like, 'Great!' And I think the way that they use it is perfect too."
Another major moment from season 10 — the surprise kiss between a suicidal Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) — was inspired by a chat Kang had with Gurira. "The idea of doing this kiss here came about in an unusual way," Kang explained to EW. "I was having a conversation with Danai and she said, 'You know, it'd be interesting if somebody tried to kiss Michonne and she responded.' Because Michonne's got all of her own things that she's dealing with and there has been no exploration of her romantic or sexual side with her since Rick's supposed death or disappearance. And so we bounced that around and were like, 'Ah, I don't think we're going to do that.' And then this other pitch came around, which is because we were working on this Ezekiel story, the room kind of came up with this idea of, what if Ezekiel in his depression wants to connect? He just feels so alone, and he feels so sad. He just gets some signals crossed for a second, and then immediately realizes that he kind of screwed that up and pulls back."
Kang has a comfort and connection with the cast because she has been working on the series since season 2, so when she stepped into her new role of showrunner, she was already well familiar with both the characters and the actors playing them. Trust had been forged on both sides. Often when a new showrunner comes aboard late in a program's run, it can have the feeling of merely playing out the string, but that is certainly not the feeling with Kang. The cast of The Walking Dead feels revitalized, and with every stellar episode, the show's viewers are starting to feel the exact same thing.
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