Beware of spoilers for the following: The Walking Dead series.
When The Walking Dead television series premiered in 2010, I was totally on board with the show. I loved the concept of humans fighting walkers (zombies), and I was a big fan of our hero Rick Grimes. When we met Rick in season one, he was on a mission to reunite with his family. Along the way, he met people both good and bad, and he fought walkers in order to get to his wife and young son. As viewers, we wanted him to reach that goal. It was that hope, that mission, that faith that drove Rick — and drove many viewers to tune in each week. Would Rick ever find his family again? And when he finally laid eyes on Lori and Carl for the first time since the zombie apocalypse, we were smiling and crying with him. Despite the darkness and violence, we had moment with happiness and we cheered for our characters.
Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about the show.
This year, The Walking Dead swung (pun intended) into its seventh season, thanks to a new villain named Negan and his weapon of choice — a baseball bat wrapped in barbed-wire named Lucille. It’s supposed to be the darkest season yet, but they say that every year. Yet, this time, I believe them. The season premiere revealed that Negan killed off two characters: Abraham Ford and Glenn Rhee. Abraham, the former military sergeant, went out in character, telling Negan to “suck his nuts” before getting his head bashed in. But it was Glenn’s death — “Maggie, I’ll find you.” — that concluded for me that this season will certainly be the darkest one. Glenn was one of the original survivors we met when the show made its debut. Without Glenn, there might not even be a Rick Grimes (Glenn was the one who helped Rick out of the tank when he was surrounded by a horde of walkers, seconds away from killing himself). Glenn was the guy who saw the world “with a glass half-full” mentality. Now he’s gone. It leaves the other characters and the viewers with the message that there is no more hope left in this world.
Characters like Glenn, Beth Greene, Dale Horvath, Tyreese Williams, and Hershel Greene were seen as compassionate and moral people in this world. No matter how hard or tough things got, these characters were always trying to see the good and keep the faith. All of them are now dead. After Beth’s death in season five, showrunner Scott Gimple alluded to the fact that the show was going to a dark place and characters like Beth weren’t meant for that world. Instead of keeping characters around that symbolized a moral compass and hope, they were killed off one by one. Many people said their deaths were done as shock value, that they were unnecessary. I agree because no matter how dark and messed up things get (even in the world of The Walking Dead), you still need hope.
Unfortunately, with these deaths (and many others) this show has turned into misery porn. How much pain, violence, and death can the writers inflict on these characters? We’re no longer watching Rick try to reunite with his family or find a cure or start a new life. We’re now watching a show where Rick’s goal is keep his group alive, away from the grips of a psychopath like Negan. I worry for the group, especially for Rick. Each season Rick struggles to cling to his humanity. Villains like Shane, the Governor, Gareth, and now Negan, serve as a kind of mirror for Rick to show him what he could become if he chooses a dark path. As we watch him defeat each villain, we watch him beat back that darker side of himself. He’s still the hero, but he’s a hero stuck in the show’s dark moment. In novel writing or Joseph Campbell’s “hero journey,” there is a certain order/structure your protagonist undergoes. The ordeal/dark moment is when all hope is lost for the protagonist, and for our protagonist, Rick, it has been seven long years of darkness. Rick and many of other characters have not developed because the writers continue to keep them in this mode.
I’m not saying the show should turn into sunshine and rainbows, but there needs to be victories for our group (even small ones). We need to move the “hero’s journey” to the next stage: the reward. Think about Rick finding his wife and his son in season one, or when Glenn and Maggie reunited after the prison was attacked, or Rick and Michonne finding solace in each other in Alexandria. At the end of the season seven premiere, Rick imagines a world where Abraham and Glenn are still alive and they’re all eating around a table together. They’re happy, content, safe. But it’s just a vision. This happy world Rick imagines doesn’t exist, and for all we know, it never will now that that we’ve entered the Age of Negan. We’re only going to see the worst of humanity take center stage, and that’s why I’m tuning out.