The seventh season of AMC's The Walking Dead was pretty polarizing. Starting off with the one-two punch of both Glenn and Abraham meeting with the wrong end of Negan's pet baseball bat, Lucille, viewers were quickly divided into those who thought the premiere was tense, gripping and shocking and those who felt it prioritized brutality and scare tactics over a genuinely compelling narrative.
The divide only deepened from there. As the audience spent more time with Negan and the Saviors, a glut of other characters and groups were also introduced and the show became more about the human vs. human struggle than ever before - a theme that wasn't quite to the taste of viewers tuning in for some blood-soaked zombie action. Some loved it and believe the show is as strong as ever, while others hated it and are claiming the series has run its course. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
The Walking Dead remains immensely popular and highly lucrative. and clearly many people greatly enjoyed season 7. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's performance as Negan was a particular highlight, and the show's expert technique of creating tension still reigned supreme throughout. There were also plenty of key character moments: Maggie's growth this season was subtle yet effective, Daryl's escape and return was heartwarming, and action sequences such as Rick and Michonne's two-car zombie kill of the week aren't likely to be forgotten any time soon.
However, season 7 also had its flaws and nowhere is this more apparent than in the significant portion of fans who have voiced their displeasure at this recent run of episodes. The dissent translated to the ratings too, as despite still being one of the most watched shows on television, this year's finale episode posted the show's lowest finale figures since the much-derided second season. With that in mind, what can Scott M. Gimple and his team do next term to keep the current fans happy but also appease those who felt season7 didn't meet their expectations?
For what seems like the majority of its run, The Walking Dead has attracted criticism for utilizing a pace slower than the Walkers themselves. Often, momentum that builds towards meatier stories is derailed simply because it takes such an awfully long time to get there. The Terminus arc was a prime example in season 4, with viewers quickly getting sick of watching their favorite characters walk along the same set of rail tracks week after week, and the situation has barely improved in season 7.
Essentially, the entire run was the set-up chapter for the true Negan arc, All Out War, which will likely be the main concern of season 8. This material could, however, have easily been condensed into a half-season, meaning that the All Out War story might've begun in the show's mid-season premiere if The Walking Dead had just sped things up a touch. Robert Kirkman and the show's creative team have stated numerous times that their opus is a character piece with zombies, rather than a zombie piece with characters, and therefore the slower pacing is necessary to truly explore the nuances, motivations and personalities of each character.
It's a fair point, and the show's success is partly due to having gradually crafted characters that audiences give a damn about, but often these character moments will be gifted a scene - or even an entire episode - when it may have been more concise and interesting to have them incorporated into scenes that also drive the plot forward. Arguably, this fault has been exacerbated by the show's success - after all if your next season is already guaranteed, why rush?
Cut the filler
On a similar note, even The Walking Dead's staunchest fans would likely have to admit that there are some episodes that simply pass you by. The Daryl and Beth episode in season 4 and the flu mini-arc whilst the survivors were still camped at the prison are 2 of the most prominent examples. Season 7's most notable culprit was 'Say Yes', which saw Rick and Michonne on the hunt for guns and also furthered the slightly-more-important-but-still-not-completely-engaging subplot with Rosita and Sasha on a very obviously doomed mission to assassinate Negan. The Tara-centric episode 'Swear' was similarly underwhelming.
You could make a successful argument that such installments build characters and foster relationships, but it's impossible to deny that these filler-ish offerings represent clear lulls in their respective seasons, and can be frustrating when viewers are keen to see the next chapter in the primary storyline. In any series, filler is rarely synonymous with quality and the real trick is to integrate it seamlessly so that the audience doesn't realize they're watching an episode designed mostly to meet an episode quota. With The Walking Dead, such episodes tend to stick out like a sore thumb - partly due to many fans being familiar with the comic book source material - and as such, they'd be better off cutting it completely, even if this means shorter seasons.
Fewer new faces
The seventh season of The Walking Dead was bursting with new characters and communities, with essentially four new settlements introduced - the Saviors, the Kingdom, the Junkyard and Oceanside - in addition to the development of other recently added figures such as Jesus and Gregory at the Hilltop. Arguably, debuting such a raft of new faces in one season was a mistake and led to a significant amount of scenes dedicated to establishing these new characters. Naturally, expecting viewers to fully engage with all the newbies is unrealistic and so what remained was a lot of figures feeling under-developed and not quite fleshed out enough to fans to care about their well-being.
The Saviors and Kingdom residents are, of course, integral to the plot and their presence in season 7 was always a given. However, the Junkyard community (an original creation of the AMC show) and the Oceanside group (who don't appear until much later in the comics) perhaps were a tad unnecessary at this stage. Certainly, these additions led to some standout moments - Jadis' betrayal in the season finale for example - but perhaps this screen time would've been better spend helping to establish the Kingdom, Hilltop and Savior communities instead.
As things stand, viewers know very little about the individual residents at these locations and those they are familiar with are relatively one-dimensional, fitting neatly into a simple stereotype. In the Kingdom, Richard was the noble rebel, Jerry is the funny guy and Benjamin was the innocent youngster, and even leader Ezekiel could've benefited from some additional development. As far as the Saviors go, Negan has been the star of the show but the other characters in the group are little more than nameless thugs at this point, even if Steven Ogg's Simon is incredibly entertaining to watch. Season 8 would be helped hugely if The Walking Dead refrained from any further additions and worked with what they have.
Varied and Shorter Episodes
With the increase in locations, The Walking Dead was presented with a conundrum over how to structure its episodes. Largely, it chose to focus on one community per episode, with viewers in Alexandria one week, the Kingdom the next and then on the Saviors' Sanctuary. Not only has this method worsened the show's already meandering pacing, but it also means viewers have extended waits between seeing their favorite characters or getting an update on the plot thread currently interesting them the most.
Take a quick look at television's other contender for hottest thing on the small screen right now, Game of Thrones, and you'll see each episode effortlessly flitting between a number of different locations and groups, only focusing on a single character when completely necessary. When The Walking Dead did follow such a pattern, it was arguably far more entertaining and certainly a more accessible watch.
Season 7 also saw a general increase in episode length. Although viewers may expect bumper episodes for premieres and finales, a number of other offerings this term had bloated run-times, even though the episode itself seemingly had nothing extra to offer. It's perhaps not a coincidence that the recent criticism of The Walking Dead kicked off around the same time that both the location list and the episode length began to extend. Keeping things concise but varied could vastly help season eight get off to a better start.
Stick to the comics
Comic to screen adaptations of any kind rarely benefit from deviating from the source material and The Walking Dead is certainly no exception in this regard. In all fairness, season 7 wasn't a huge detour by any means and several scenes were ripped straight from the pages Robert Kirkman's masterful series. The changes that were made weren't hugely successful, however. As previously mentioned, the addition of Oceanside and Junkyard communities may have done more harm than good and TV-original subplots such as Sasha and Rosita's plan weren't exactly season highlights.
Naturally, the AMC adaptation can't copy the original work verbatim. The vastly different character line-up means figures such as Daryl and Carol need to be taken into account and it's also important to remember that there are more restrictions on TV shows than comic books - much to the chagrin of readers dying to see Negan unleashed in all his F-Bomb glory. Still, All Out War was a hugely popular arc in the comic series and there really isn't any need to meddle with this winning formula too much. The more authentic the adaptation, the better.
Bring back Frank
Lawsuit be damned, get Darabont on the phone, AMC!
The Walking Dead season 8 premieres this Fall on AMC.