[Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy.]
The Walking Dead is not a very happy franchise. Though it has been rightfully praised for its gripping story and characterization, it's hard to deny that its audience appeal lies as much in ghoulish curiosity as it does in eagerness to see fan-favorite characters survive and thrive. Much like Game of Thrones, many of The Walking Dead's most memorable moments have also been the most devastating - from poor Sophia wandering out of the barn to Lizzie's last flower-picking.
That's not to say that The Walking Dead is an unending parade of misery. While there's not much humor in the show it does have its lighter moments, and the more hardships its characters go through, the more the audience roots for them to survive (in most cases, anyway). One of The Walking Dead's longest-surviving characters has even become the subject of his own loose-knit fan campaign: "If Daryl dies, we riot."
But The Walking Dead has to end at some point. Characters on the show have shared their own opinions about mankind's fate, with the CDC's Dr. Edwin Jenner miserably proclaiming that the zombie outbreak is humanity's "extinction event," and Hershel Greene taking the more optimistic stance that, "Mankind's been fighting plagues from the start. We get our behinds kicked for a while, then we bounce back." Hershel, sadly, did not bounce back.
Will Rick and co. end up being wiped out with the rest of humanity, or will The Walking Dead end with the main characters on the road to successfully restoring civilization?
An important deciding factor will probably be the question of whether the show ends by cancelation, or whether the showrunners choose to finish the story on their own terms, as was the case with shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. The former fate is likely to leave characters in their near-permanent state of misery and struggle, with plot threads still twisting in the wind, while the latter offers an opportunity to finally break the status quo - for better or worse.
The Walking Dead doesn't follow the beats of Robert Kirkman's original comic book series exactly, instead including enough deviations to make the fates of its characters uncertain. Judith, for example, is still alive in the TV show, despite having been killed off in the comic books - and Daryl was never in the comics at all. That's enough to offer hope that some of the TV show's fan-favorite characters will escape the nasty fates that they met on paper.
With that said, Kirkman is an executive producer on The Walking Dead and his comics have, so far, offered a rough roadmap for the show. Season 5 ended with the characters starting to settle into the Alexandria Safe-Zone, which first appeared in Issue #69 of the comics. Speaking to EW last year, Kirkman confirmed that he does know how the comic will eventually end - though he hasn't yet worked out exactly how he's going to get there.
"I do know what I'm building toward... I don’t know exactly what issue that’s going to fall on, per se, and I do have a lot of road laid out before that that is going to take a long time, but I certainly know exactly what I'm building to... About a year or two ago, I finally nailed down exactly what I want the ending to be. So now I’ve kind of got two trails of story going in my head. One working to where I’m at very far into the future, and one working from the end backwards. When those two stories meet, then I’ll know exactly how long the story is. I'm rapidly approaching that point."
Assuming that Kirkman's planned ending is a hopeful one with a core group of survivors still left alive, and that the producers elect to go with a similar ending, The Walking Dead still needs ratings to stray strong enough to carry the show to that point. Right now there seems to be little danger of a ratings drop-off extreme enough to lead to cancelation, with the Season 5 premiere setting a new series-high record, so perhaps the greater danger is that AMC will elect to keep the show running for as long as possible, with no intention of ending it on its own terms. After all, The Walking Dead's original creator, Frank Darabont, is long gone and the series has since changed hands several times since then. Unlike FX's recently concluded drama Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead is not a show with a single series-long showrunner calling the shots.
Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, whose show ended on a ratings high and with the death of the main character, has addressed the idea of dark, tragic shows having happy endings, describing the world of his biker drama as "sad and heavy," but always with "some sense of hope." In an interview with E! Online, Sutter said that he was surprised by fans who were disappointed with the series finale.
"I want to reach out to them and say, 'Yo, what we're writing here is a tragedy. It's always been a tragedy in the Shakespearean or Greek sense. It has to end tragically and we all knew that when we were getting into it.' I knew that he wasn't going to end up at a carnival buying snow cones for his sons and that was the last shot. I always knew this was going to end badly."
The Walking Dead is similarly sad, heavy and deeply tragic, and Sutter's reasoning raises the question of whether a purely happy ending would even make sense for a show that has developed a reputation for brutal treatment of its characters - whether they be young, old, male, female, well-loved or hated. Would a happy ending be antithetical to the spirit of The Walking Dead?