The Walking Dead is in trouble. Though last year’s sixth season saw a gradual decline in ratings from the all-time-high that was the fifth season (which ran from October 2014 to March 2015, for those playing along at home), it still managed to more-or-less maintain the series’s forward momentum. This year, however, has so far proven to be an altogether different story, attaining ratings that are at a four-year low.
There are several possible reasons for this. Walking Dead’s narrative has proven to be extremely far-flung in season 7.0, breaking up its characters into several different groups and focusing on each of them in turn; the entire cast of either main or recurring characters has yet to all appear in the same episode, and the bulk of the lineup has only shown up in two out of the six installments thus far.
Then there’s the rapid-fire expansion of the show’s world, as our group of protagonists finally manages to land in an area rich with communities that have each found a different way to survive the zombie apocalypse, whether that be the kind-hearted theatrics of Ezekiel’s (Khary Payton) kingdom or the bullying tactics of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his deplorable Saviors. And, finally, the show’s new tone must be taken into consideration: after six strong years of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his crew overcoming each and every obstacle that has been thrown their way, the seventh season has mercilessly beaten them down – both figuratively and literally – and ground them into broken, helpless servants. It’s been depressing, to say the least.
But each of these hypotheticals would, at least on paper, seem to be non-starters. Season 4.5 similarly divided up its cast for all eight of its episodes, and the viewership clearly didn’t seem to mind then, as that half of the season proved to be more popular (at least, in terms of ratings) than the first half. The explosion of new locations and characters is arguably long overdue, as the show has (until just recently) been solely focused on a tiny collection of survivors, significantly limiting the storytelling palette that other series routinely take advantage of. And the bleak voice so far this year isn’t actually that far afield from the tone that previous seasons took, when our “heroes” found themselves trapped in a colony of cannibals, for instance, or when one of their previous settlements, the iconic prison, was being picked apart by disease and outside assailants (who were led, incidentally, by the Governor [David Morrissey], an antagonist who really isn’t all that different from Negan).
What would seem to be the real culprit here is the sixth-season finale, which featured one of the most blatant marketing gimmicks television has seen in the past few decades, and the seventh-season premiere, which not only was gratuitously violent, but which might not even have been worth the wait. While more viewers tuned in to see whose skull Negan bashed in than had watched nearly all of the previous two seasons, they seem to have been instantly turned off by that installment’s horridly grisly content – and the traumatic effects wrought on the remaining characters. It may have proven to be a one-two punch that possibly scared off all but the hardcore fans, the ones who picked up the series across its first three years and which have fueled its expansion into videogames and theme parks.
But there just may be something even more profound going on here, something that has only taken six seasons and the most excessive gore yet to make individuals realize. For better or worse, The Walking Dead has, since essentially its very first hour, been a show about nothing – there is no knowledge of the world beyond what Rick and co. can see in their meanderings, no explanation of where the zombies have come from, no effort at rebuilding society, no narrative development at all beyond what effects living in a lawless world has on a former man of the law and his son. While this could ultimately prove to be one of the most brazen attempts at post-modern, existential storytelling since Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it could also have finally caught up with the majority of American viewers, who have decided that it is, ultimately, a waste of their time.
If so, it’s ironic that they would opt to cut the series just as it was finally turning the page onto a new chapter, one that – at least, in the comic-book source material – sees our group of survivors finally attempt to rebuild human civilization, marking a decidedly different direction for the narrative.
The other irony in all this? That, should the ratings continue to tumble, The Walking Dead might not be able to last much longer than its already-greenlit eighth season, preventing the story from reaching its (more robust) conclusion.
The Walking Dead returns this Sunday at 9:00 pm on AMC.