A Fan Favorite's Death Exposes the Big Problem With 'The Walking Dead'

the walking dead
This post contains major spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 8 and everything before it.

The Walking Dead returned yet again to AMC this Sunday with what the network calls its "mid-season premiere" -- a big comeback after a short hiatus. The episode left us questioning the future of the series altogether.

When we last left Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and company in early December, their fond suburban sanctuary, Alexandria, was under siege by the nefarious supervillain Negan, whose deadly crew of Saviors drove our heroes underground with a barrage of heavy munitions. With the grenades falling and Alexandria going up in flames, Rick learned a last-minute revelation that sent viewers into pandemonium: his young son Carl was bitten by a walker in the abdomen. He was still breathing when the credits rolled. But Walking Dead fans know you don't come back from that.

Indeed, Carl doesn't. The Walking Dead's premiere opens with a tragic musical montage set to the bittersweet sounds of Bright Eyes' "At the Bottom of Everything", as the doomed Carl accepts his coming fate and prepares to send himself off with dignity. He writes farewell letters, changes into appropriate funeral attire, and sets himself up in the tunnels beneath Alexandria with a cot and some tea candles, the better to croak in style. Which of course sets the stage for a drawn-out, tearful scene in which Rick, Michonne, and the rest of his friends and well-wishers bid him a tough heart-wrenching goodbye -- a moment as emotional as much for the cast and crew that have spent eight years working side-by-side with actor Chandler Riggs as for the audience that has come to love the character. It's all a bit much, but you can hardly blame the writers for indulging this time around.

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The Walking Dead is a show about zombies that has always played very fast and loose with its own zombie rules, particularly how long it takes a person to turn into one once bitten. In some cases a character will get a bite on the finger and start snarling and hungering for brains in mere seconds; in other cases a fatal injury can be carried around and hidden from view for however long the show deems convenient to build suspense. Carl, needless to say, gets a whole lot done between his attack by walker and his final departure at the end of the premiere, including seeing the end of the Saviours' assault through to its bitter end, exchanging sentimental heart-to-hearts with his father, his infant sister, and his best friend, and imparting some words of prescient wisdom that are meant to imagine a way forward for the series as a whole. Maybe his bite was an especially mild one?

That wisdom basically amounts to "don't kill Negan." Now, fans of The Walking Dead comic books know that the Alexandria-Sanctuary war does in fact end with Rick's decisions to spare Negan's life and simply confine him to jail instead of putting a much-deserved bullet in the back of his head, and so far the show hasn't given much evidence to suggest it'll follow through with that source-material ideal. But now Carl's dying wish is for his father to retain some faith in the basic goodness of humanity and learn to do something other than just murdering anyone who opposes him. So we may see Negan spared at the end of this season after all. As if to drive the possibility home, the episode concludes with another of the season's beloved flash-forwards (or dream sequences, nobody knows for sure), this time with Negan himself gardening in Alexandria with a smile on his face, palling around with Rick and being cute with little Judith.

Meanwhile, back in the Kingdom, Morgan and Carol arrive to rescue Ezekiel from the Saviors who captured him at the end of the mid-season finale. And because for some reason Morgan and Carol have lately been designated The Walking Dead's resident unstoppable bad-asses, there's very little in the way of tension or drama as the pair whisk through town under cover of darkness with machine guns in hand, butchering one idiotic Savior after another in what amounts to an entirely predictable town-wide massacre. Nobody stands a chance. Gavin, the Savior commander once in charge of collecting Ezekiel's weekly payment to Negan, stands feeble guard of him while spouting off about how things could have been different if he had only accepted his fate and not dreamed up "big ideas" about change. Ezekiel just keeps telling him that it isn't too late to change his mind about this whole villainy thing.

This is a classic Walking Dead move: make a minor villain morally ambiguous and juice up the drama with a will-he-or-won't-he dilemma about seeing the light. Gavin does seem reluctant to send Ezekiel to his fate, and when Morgan and Carol finally reach their destination and wipe out the last of Gavin's crew in a ruthless hail of automatic bullets, it does seem like maybe he'll join the good guys. But it's not to be. Remember when Morgan was driven insane by the apocalypse and turned into a zombie-annihilating Dirty Harry? Well, he's slumping back into that routine again, now that he's abandoned his pacifism and returned to full-time butchery. After literally pulling a man's innards out of his stomach in a fist-fight midway through the episode, he marches after an injured Gavin like Michael Myers stalking helpless prey.

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There's a lot of hand-wringing when Morgan catches up to Gavin and holds him in his sights. It's the usual thing: Carol and Ezekiel exhort him not to give into his violent urges and to spare his life, reminding him that this isn't the only way to do things and that men are still basically good at heart. (We've heard this speech before: Morgan himself has delivered it several times over the last two seasons.) The man hems and haws, and the whole thing is meant to echo Carl's words about designing a better, less sadistically violent future. Whether Morgan can still hold back or has forever gone too far is a test case for whether Rick will be able to do the same when the time comes for Negan.

But given the incessant clatter of machine guns that have been firing off without mercy for the last 45 minutes, bodies falling over and over without the slightest moral pause, this crisis of conscience feels a little disingenuous. We're now eight seasons into The Walking Dead, long enough that these back-and-forth questions about what is right and what is wrong in all-out-war have gotten pretty tiresome. We know that the basic theme of the show has always been the difference between living life and just surviving: it's constantly reminding us that, no matter how hard things get, there's always such thing as going too far. We don't need another speech about the value of human life and the importance of mercy. We've heard it already.

But it's impossible to forget that this is the same show that drew out Glenn's graphic head-crushing death for way longer than necessary, and keeps getting crueler and crueler. The violence is increasingly sensational; the baseball bats to the head and the guts spewing out of stomachs are starting to seem like its main interest. It's hard to do that an still seem interested in the morally ambiguous. Carl talks to Rick about the need to find a way forward through all this madness. "There has to be something after," he insists. Well, that's equally true of the show. Negan and his parade of brutality has been The Walking Dead's fixation for two endlessly long seasons now. That arc is finally coming to an end. And with the franchise earning its first chief content officer in former showrunner Scott Gimple, there's clearly something after. Let's just hope it's something new.

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Calum Marsh is a freelance writer with a love of the undead and an eye toward the future.