The Walking Dead has condemned itself for all timeNovember 5, 2018
Last week on The Walking Dead, it appeared that the show had taken a step in a bold new direction. Press releases had announced that series star Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) would depart the series well ahead of the expected midseason finale send-off. And then it looked as if new showrunner Angela Kang had opted to kill Rick off even before the announced date. It was quick, clean, and surprising — a stark contrast to the show’s tradition of milking key dramatic moments to the point of audience fatigue. The episode’s ending seemed in line with Kang’s vision for a reimagined Walking Dead. It seemed too good to be true.
Last night’s episode, “What Comes After,” not only undid that invigorating switcheroo, but it subverted the entire matter of Rick Grimes’ expected departure, moving things in an entirely new direction. It was, without a doubt, a masterfully executed surprise. But that doesn’t mean it was satisfying or that it sent the show off in the right direction. To unpack exactly what happened last night, we sat down to discuss “What Comes After,” the episode’s biggest surprises, and what it all means for the future of The Walking Dead.
Warning: Major spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 5 below. Our reaction to the just-announced movie trilogy follows at the end of the post.
Wait, what just happened?
Bryan: I guess I should start off by tipping my hat to the team at The Walking Dead. I gave the show the benefit of the doubt, and you totally fooled me by pulling the same kind of trickery and shenanigans that have frustrated so many viewers over recent seasons. High fives!
Joking aside, “What Comes Next” was a combination of the kind of effective tropes we’re used to seeing in TV-character send-offs. In this episode, Rick has numerous visions where he talks to people who have died during the series, providing emotional closure for some key relationships. But it also throws in a heavy dose of the kind of strained-credulity shenanigans The Walking Dead is known for. In this case, the biggest one comes right at the top: after getting thrown off a horse, impaled by rebar, and cornered by two hordes of zombies, Rick manages to escape!
A drawn-out, slow-motion chase follows, but it’s mostly satisfying because it delivers the kind of honest, emotional conclusion that the show has seemed so afraid of tackling in recent seasons. A few moments from the episode’s end, Rick has made his peace with everyone, and he appears to sacrifice himself to take out a massive group of zombies in front of the people who love him most. Daryl appears utterly lost; Michonne is emotionally torn apart. It feels operatic. Nine seasons into the show, The Walking Dead actually sticks the landing on the death of Rick Grimes.
But then, we find out that he’s not dead after all. Instead, he gets rescued by Jadis and flown away in a helicopter. Seriously?
Nick: I always expected Rick to get away from his initial predicament, so I didn’t find it all that surprising when he wound up lumbering through the woods. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it all a bit touching, despite how ludicrous the dead friend hallucinations and near-death zombie escapes became after… well, the first one. As much this show has jerked its audience back and forth, subjecting them to grueling stunts and meandering, pointless storylines, it’s impossible for me not to be fond of Rick.
He’s been a proper stand-in for the audience and the show’s central anchor throughout its entirety, and I’ve always felt like Andrew Lincoln was giving it his all as an actor, despite the less-than-stellar circumstances the show forced him into. Rick and Hershel discussing Maggie’s future or Rick tearing up over killing Shane were powerful moments that excused the fact that they only existed as the delirious visions of a dying man who somehow keeps escaping a literal army of the undead. Watching his final moment and the faces of the characters he’s left behind, truly hit home for me.
As for the big reveal at the end, well, part of me felt like it might go down like that, given the prominence of the Jadis subplot. But I was still shocked at Kang and the writers’ raw audacity in going for it. It’s almost to the point where I’m not mad about the cop-out, so much as I’m impressed that they all felt confident enough to pull it off. At this point, any genuine surprise that has nothing to do with the comic books is enough to get me excited, if only because I know the show’s fan base is going to have a field day with this one.
Let’s talk about the flash-forward
Bryan: That’s fair — though it doesn’t say much for how the fan base feels about the show at this point, does it? The whole thing ends up being a double gimmick as well: not only does The Walking Dead pull a fake-out on Rick being dead, but it sidesteps the ramifications of that story decision by jumping into the future. After Rick is flown away in the Jadiscopter, the show transitions into a scene where a group of new people is attacked by a swarm of zombies — except this group is rescued by a young girl who looks no more than 10 years old, a girl with a katana, revolver, and familiar hat. She introduces herself as Judith Grimes, Rick’s daughter.
There are a few things to break down here. I don’t believe the entire show is going to jump forward 10 years into the future. Knowing that AMC wants to keep this franchise going, however, I could see this scene as a testing ground for yet another spinoff that focused on Judith — one that jumps forward, rather than backward like Fear the Walking Dead. But outside of those aspirations, one can argue that this brief flash-forward also does real harm to the future of The Walking Dead.
What can we surmise, given this quick glimpse of Future Judith? We know that seven or more years out, there is still no resolution to the zombie crisis, and the group Rick once led is still traipsing around the same parts of the same forest. There is no elaborate society built, no infrastructure restored. This snapshot efficiently conveys that, years and years from now, almost nothing will have changed in the universe of The Walking Dead, other than Michonne’s implied death. (Why would Judith have Michonne’s sword if she was still alive?) It feels to me like the show deflates an enormous amount of potential future tension in this scene, which may ultimately just be a throwaway. On top of that, it seems like it will be extremely difficult to take any of the mourning or regret people feel about the loss of Rick seriously when the audience knows he’s alive and under Jadis’ care.
It’s almost like the show went out of its way to surgically remove any stakes or consequences from what should have been its most impactful moment — and all in the name of a stunt nobody will remember a week from now. What am I missing?
Nick: I have to agree with you. As heartwarming as it was to see an older Judith carrying on the legacy her father and Michonne left behind, it only worked as a possible series epilogue and a kind of tribute to the character’s departure. As an actual piece of storytelling, given that the show is going to continue without Rick, it makes no sense, and it really does feel like a confusing, misplaced bonus scene crammed into what should have been a powerful, emotional ending.
And, like you say, it either inadvertently or on purpose conveys a lot of information that doesn’t really click with everything the narrative is trying to express this season. I refuse to believe the show will jump in time again, and there’s no way the audience will either, unless the makeup artists on The Walking Dead are both experts at zombie flesh and artificially aging a 30-person cast by about eight years. Also, the notion that people are still running from zombies that many years later makes the point that Rick and his friends and family failed, that the peace they strove for is a myth. And yet, if it’s just a tribute to Rick, not a serious narrative tool, why put it in the episode at all? Why not release it as a clip online at some point later in the season?
My only hope is that older Judith is a single-use snapshot of a future we’re not supposed to take seriously, a tribute to the way Rick’s spirit lives on in his daughter. I can’t see how The Walking Dead could continue to incorporate that storyline any further, and jumping between two timelines would make the already-shoddy pacing of the show — which has improved this season, but not by much — almost unbearable.
Was it amazing or terrible?
Nick: Perhaps I’m taking a contrarian position here, but I think this surprise twist worked: it mostly gives fans what they wanted. I’m long past expecting gritty realism or well-earned twists in the cartoony world of The Walking Dead, not after everything the show has pulled in the past. While I totally understand how this gimmick could backfire and the ways it undermines viewers who care about these characters, I increasingly look at the show as the silly piece of fiction AMC and the writers seem to consider it as: a comic book come to life, if you will. And part of that fiction is believing Rick will never die.
I understand that wasn’t always the case and that the show built its early reputation alongside big names like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, with a dark tone and anyone-can-die approach to storytelling that made it a behemoth entertainment property, with ratings no one could ignore. But over the years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that The Walking Dead will never again be better than a cartoon. It has too much baggage and there’s too much money on the line for AMC to take the risks that would result in longtime characters leaving without warning or plotlines from the comics completely subverted instead of just subtly altered. (Of course, now that ratings have cratered, I wonder if AMC’s strategy could change.)
So, I say this with a pang of guilt because I know I’m part of the problem: I was one of the people who would rather not have seen Rick leave for good. I like his character, despite all the faults and bad leadership principles the writers have forced upon him. As much as I now acknowledge that The Walking Dead is trapped by its B-movie tendencies, Rick still felt like the one believable, inspiring part of the whole ensemble. He was a good guy, even when he seemed like a bad guy, and it was impossible not to root for him every step of the way. Knowing he’ll be out there in the world and that the writers could pull some reunion or drop some clever Easter egg hinting at his survival (even when they probably won’t), has me feeling at least a little upbeat about the future, even if that future looks a lot bleaker without Rick at the center.
Bryan: We agree on more points than we disagree on here, but as with most things on The Walking Dead, I think this whole affair ends up being a double-edged sword. “What Comes Next,” like the episode before it, provides a moment of instant, potent surprise. Watching it for the first time, I marveled at the way the show’s marketing team showed audiences one path, then led them down another. It’s stunty but effective.
The problem is that stunts don’t last. They don’t resonate. Years from now when people look back at this show or come to it for the first time via Netflix or DVDs, they won’t have the context of the marketing misdirects, which won’t be remembered. What truly matters is the show itself. And looking at it from that perspective, the whole thing is incredibly frustrating. When The Walking Dead debuted on TV, it felt earnest. It took this world and its dramatic stakes seriously. That’s a big reason why audiences cared so much about Rick, Daryl, Carol, Carl, and all the other characters the show introduced in its earlier days. (The most effective visions Rick has in “What Comes Next” are with characters like Shane and Hershel, who originated in the show’s less cartoonish era.) But moments like Rick’s death switcheroo are pure P. T. Barnum — manufactured almost entirely out of hype.
What is an audience supposed to think when they’re put through the emotional wringer of expecting a beloved character to die and experiencing their supposed death scene, only to have the whole thing effectively turn into a giant troll? The Walking Dead seems to find it hilarious that its fans care about these characters. And much like it did with the Glenn death fake-outs, the show ends up pointing its finger and laughing at viewers like Nelson from The Simpsons.
The only logical takeaway is that nobody should emotionally invest in The Walking Dead because the show itself doesn’t. There’s something mischievous about all this runaround, and it’s absolutely given the show its own unique identity. But for me personally, these fake-out shenanigans aren’t compatible with a serialized drama that asks viewers to care what happens. You’re right: this series doesn’t need to be an earnest, serialized drama just because it started out as one. But it will eventually need to reckon with the tonal confusion these gambits cause because the rapidly shrinking viewership over the past few seasons doesn’t seem on board with them either.
Where do things go from here?
Nick: I’ll admit, as much I think the Rick twist was a bold move that was executed well, I don’t really see a straightforward, clean path out of the mess “What Comes Next” creates. Putting aside the unlikely situation in which the Judith Grimes subplot sticks around, the show is going to have to do a lot of narrative somersaulting to get around Jadis’ disappearance and Rick’s missing body. And I’m not looking forward to arguments about whether Rick really died, or when Daryl and Michonne inevitably go out looking for him in a bottle episode or two to kill time until the midseason finale.
Thankfully, the show does have a lot to work with here, so long as it doesn’t bog itself down with too many subplots and it gets back to business with the straightforward storytelling we saw in episodes 1 and 2. While Maggie will also be departing soon, she has to grapple with the fact that her Negan shenanigans inadvertently got Rick killed as far as Michonne and the rest of the characters are concerned. Daryl will similarly have to reckon with the fact that his diversion tactic, which dumped the two in a giant hole, resulted in Rick blowing up the bridge. How they deal with that revelation, how the group handles it at large, and how it plays into Maggie’s departure will be interesting to watch, regardless of Rick’s true fate.
Like you’ve mentioned, there’s a real concern that the Rick twist could torch all of the goodwill this season has earned and cause even more of an unprecedented ratings drop-off. Regardless of how Rick’s death was handled, it was always impossible to stop at least some viewers from treating this episode as a series finale and walking away. But AMC has made it clear that the Whisperer plotline from the comics is up next, and Daryl Dixon is likely to be the show’s Rick replacement going forward. So not all hope is lost. But after the events of “What Comes Next,” I don’t trust the show to give any of these characters a proper character arc or a proper send-off that isn’t based in gimmicks.
Bryan: It’s going to be muddy for sure. Will Judith prompt a dueling storyline? Could be, though I imagine we’ll simply dive back to everyone dealing with the consequences of Rick’s absence, as you suggested. (Perhaps with the periodic Judith flash-forward — the show’s certainly done that before.) But will that be satisfying? I honestly don’t know because the show is facing issues on multiple fronts at this point. With no Maggie in the mix, it’s unclear which characters or conflicts are still worth actively engaging in. The emotional core of the series has always come from characters who were set up in the show’s early days, and while Daryl and Carol will still be around, it’s unclear whether they can fuel an entire series.
Daryl is fun to watch, but he’s still an emotional cipher, and the internal conflict that fueled Carol over the years has been watered down significantly at this point. I have zero interest in watching more Negan — his turn from Hannibal Lecter to whimpering man-child in “What Comes Next” was so quick and unmotivated that I nearly got whiplash — so I guess that leaves it to new characters and new complications.
Everybody involved with the show seems incredibly excited about Kang’s larger vision, and I am fascinated by the idea of a show like this trying to remake itself mid-run. It’s seemed at several times that it has been on the path to doing just that. But “What Comes Next” demonstrates that some of the weaknesses are systemic. The show has also never faced the kind of urgency it will in the coming months, however. Ratings have been steadily declining for years, and while the Rick departure has temporarily stopped the bleeding, another huge ratings drop is no doubt waiting in the wings now that he’s gone. For The Walking Dead, reinvention is a matter of survival.
Note: Last night, after the above conversation had already been written, The New York Times revealed that Andrew Lincoln will actually star in three The Walking Dead movies for AMC. A Twitter post from the network also seemed to confirm that the show would, in fact, be moving forward with a time jump six years into the future. Our reaction is as follows.
Bryan: So, let me get this straight: after all of this, it appears that AMC and The Walking Dead are actually doing the most gimmicky, nonsensical, misdirected move in the history of the entire franchise. Am I getting that right?
Nick: I must say that a lot of the goodwill I had toward Kang and the writers for pulling out the unexpected twist with Rick’s fate pretty much evaporated when I learned it was yet another elaborate stunt to set up a spinoff. I understand that AMC felt like it had to keep its cards close to the vest, and these movies might legitimately excite some viewers, but this all now feels like one step too far. If we can’t trust the show to not exploit its main character’s final farewell to this extent, I don’t think it’s possible to trust it at all — ever again.
Bryan: Honestly, I have serious doubts about the ability of any TWD movie to excite any sort of meaningful fan base at this point. Three movies starring Andrew Lincoln and likely none of the other regulars? What are the stakes when you know he won’t die? Where is the conflict when you know none of it matters because the only thing this show does is troll?
The entire idea makes no sense to me. And what’s absurd is that it’s the show’s own game playing that has framed things this way. If The Walking Dead had played any part of the last few seasons sincerely — if it hadn’t resorted to gimmicks and stunts time and time and time again — then I would be interested. But this show just continues to sneer at its fans. And now I’m also supposed to care about a time-jumped TV show where the state of the world hasn’t changed at all and we know everyone has aged because they suddenly have different hair and beard styles? I don’t even understand what the show is trying to do at this point. The Walking Dead has become a never-ending purgatory — both for its characters and its fans.
Nick: I agree that it’s hard to care about where Rick goes from here or to really care at all about the existing cast, especially an older Judith who’s now carrying the torch for her not-really-dead father. The writers have skipped over time twice in the same season, and the show is now conveniently glossing over any kind of meaningful character development that might have occurred on-screen after Rick’s “death.” And now we’re supposed to believe that everything has remained largely static over the course of six years? Why we’re still following these characters and what story AMC is trying to tell — beyond that of the never-ending variety — is not really clear anymore. That’s doubly true now that Rick has left the picture.
Bryan: I hate to say this, but The Walking Dead has been skating by for years. Perhaps Kang will use this time jump as a reset, and I will keep watching these next few weeks to see what the “new” series truly looks like. But enough is enough. At this point, this show needs to justify its continued existence — and it needs to do it fast.