When it returns for its eighth season in October, The Walking Dead will move at a much faster pace. Several factors – including a ratings dip and outspoken fan frustration – is likely the cause of this much-needed change. Whether this increase in speed will involve AMC cutting the episode number per season down or a complete reworking of the 16-episode season structure is not yet known.
The Walking Dead took a dip in the ratings this past year. Season 6 averaged around 14 million viewers, while season 7 averaged around 10 million. Due to its large cast and sprawling story, the pace of The Walking Dead has always been a problem. Since the beginning, many fans have complained about its glacial plot development and often unfocused narrative, which would divert in sudden single-character spotlight episodes that would do little to the overall plot.
“By virtue of the fact that the narrative has turned into one of pretty intense conflict, it’s going to affect the structure in ways that make it a bit more kinetic, a bit more breakneck – shifting away from entire stories in one episode, and sort of fractured over several episodes, with little pieces of each story coming together. … Because we knew the way that 7 was going to be structured, and we knew we wanted to mix it up in 8, and we knew what 8 was going to be and how that would dictate a very different kind of structure anyways. So, yeah, things are going to move, and possibly not have the kind of deep dives into characters in single episodes, but rather laying out the pieces as we go on.”
This change has been a long time coming. One of the points of the series has been experiencing the day-to-day life of the zombie apocalypse. The gimmick is novel, but at this point, well worn. Character development is important – especially in a series that treats their characters like interchangeable chattel – the sudden shifts in narrative are jarring. Many spotlight episodes (usually giving a particular character focus in completing a specific task) can be a chore to watch, especially if it is more of a side-quest than something that feeds into the main plot. They can often disrupt the flow of a season and feel more like padding than organic character or plot development.
One of the greatest examples of this is the Governor storyline in seasons 3 and 4. In The Walking Dead’s desire to ratchet up tension and suspense as much as possible (something the series exceeds at), there were too many diversions, subplots and dead ends. The result was two unfocused seasons that never quite captured the sense of dread the comics had when the Governor was around. In translating the high watermark of Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic, the show faltered because its own shortcomings suffocated the arc.
While these changes are welcome, they need to be instituted with care. Part of the strength of the series is its day-to-day aspect. However, if the show balances the character growth with quicker plot development, The Walking Dead season 8 could be its best yet.
The Walking Dead returns for season 8 in Fall 2017.