“The Walking Dead” returns on Sunday to kick off the second half of its eighth season and AMC’s monster hit has already been renewed for a ninth.
But I can’t help but wonder: How much life, really, is left in the series?
After all, this is an aging show that too often has shown signs of creative exhaustion, and last year experienced a substantial ratings decline. Most notably, it’s a show that just can’t seem to resist the urge to infuriate its passionate viewers.
The latest wave of fan outrage came last December during the midseason finale when Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) — one of only five characters remaining from the show’s first season — got chomped on by a walker. We all know this means that Carl is a goner, although the finale ended with him still alive. The cliff-hanger will be resolved in Sunday’s somber episode, “Honor.”
The decision by showrunner Scott Gimple and his writers to kill off Carl is the show’s most shocking one to date. It instantly set off an social media firestorm, with fans grousing that they had been “blind-sided” and “betrayed.” A petition was even launched urging AMC to fire Gimple. Just a week after the episode aired, that petition reportedly had garnered 55,000 signatures.
Truth be told, Carl was never one of my favorite characters. I often found him to be more annoying than engaging. However, I agree with fans who said turning him into zombie meat felt like a shock-value moment — just another plot gimmick from a show that wallows in them way too much. (See: Glenn’s dumpster fake-out in Season 6).
Moreover, the Carl twist signaled a major deviation from “The Walking Dead” comic books. In the pages of Robert Kirkman’s ongoing zombie saga, Carl is not only still alive, but has assumed more a leadership role as his father, Rick, grows older. He’s apparently pivotal to to everything that happens after Rick’s all-out war against the villainous Negan. Fans of the source material have concerns that major chunks of the story will have to be modified in the show as it continues.
And it’s not only the fans who are wary. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Norman Reedus, the actor who plays Daryl, wondered if the loss of yet another original character might dramatically alter the DNA of the show.
“The people that started this show, to me, are the heart of the show,” he said. “When you lose those key members, it’s such a big blow to the show, and to the fans, and to us that are there. … There’s only a few of us left … If you wanted to turn it into a totally different show, you get rid of those people. But if you want to hold on to what made the show special, you’ve got to be very careful what you do with those people.”
Meanwhile, the viewers who wanted Gimple out have achieved a victory — sort of. In January, AMC announced that he had been elevated to the newly created role of chief content officer, overseeing the entire “Walking Dead” franchise, including the spin-off series “Fear the Walking Dead.” The move means that Angela Kang, a veteran writer on the series, will run the show beginning with Season 9.
Maybe Kang can revive the fortunes of “The Walking Dead” and inject a sense of freshness that has been missing for so long. She has her work cut out for her. Can she do anything to reshape a show that has been plagued by whiplash-like fluctuations in character behavior, boring stretches of been-there-done-that repetition and absolutely mind-boggling lapses of logic?
Or will she just be part of the problem?
As for the here and now, my guess is that even the fans most angered by the Carl plot twist will be in front of their screens at least on Sunday to pay their respects and observe how his fate plays out. I’ve seen the episode already and will dutifully avoid any spoilers here. Just know that Riggs delivers a rave-worthy performance.
After that, who knows? Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) bloody war with Negan (Jeffery Dean Morgan) will certainly continue and the body count is sure to rise, and more zombies will get splattered into mush. And AMC will continue to draw a sizable audience to its biggest show.
But surely, many others will continue to realize that enough is enough—and that it’s time to walk away from “The Walking Dead.”