The Walking Dead has lost its soul

I know I’m far from the only person to be disappointed by the season 7 finale of The Walking Dead. But I’ve felt the need to pinpoint exactly where the show went off the rails for me, and to articulate what, precisely, it has lost.

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In the beginning, I was surprised to find myself enjoying a horror show so much. “It’s not about zombies,” was how I explained it to everyone who hadn’t seen it. “It’s about the people.” Not only was it about people… it was about hope. I’m sorry to say good-bye to beloved characters, but such good-byes are par for the course. What I can’t forgive is the loss of hope.

Zombie movies usually end when there’s no hope left. What made The Walking Dead amazing was it kept the hope alive. It asked what people would do after the apocalypse. How would people go on, rebuild society, procreate, ensure the survival of the human species?

Secondly, but just as important, it examined the hope for overcoming trauma. We watched characters grow beyond abusive marriages, loss of family members, tests of faith, and even suicidal tendencies. We witnessed the way that terror can galvanize, can forge unbreakable bonds of friendship, and can lead people to outgrow old stereotypes. This was complex, interesting stuff.

Conflict is required for storytelling. Obviously, life is going to be hard in TWD Land, or we wouldn’t have reason to watch. Conflict, however, doesn’t have to come in the form of super villains.  The show just keeps reaching for increasingly barbaric and smug dictators,, who do everything short of twirling their mustaches, and accelerating the pace at which it introduces them. The only hope we ever get anymore is the hope that the latest asshole will die a satisfyingly horrible death.

carol-and-daryl-the-walking-dead-no-sanctuaryThe last time the show rewarded us with anything resembling strong storytelling and character development was the season 5 premiere, “No Sanctuary.” That episode pushed the gore and suspense, probably as far as the show ever had. Yet, it also depicted Carol’s devotion to the group, the strength in their numbers, and the power of forgiveness. The moment (see photo above) when Carol becomes reunited with the group was, for me, the pinnacle of The Walking Dead.

After that, we dispatched with the Terminites within a handful episodes, then visited briefly with the hospital crazies, were teased with the Wolves, who came and went in half a season. And, just because something happened in the comics doesn’t mean it has to happen on the show. They’re two different entities. If fans wanted something completely faithful to the comics, that would mean, at the least, dispensing with Daryl.

While the show has been busy parading angry white men with unusual weapons in front of us, the surviving characters haven’t had a moment to mourn their losses. We need to know — just to name one example — how Beth’s death affected Maggie.

***SPOILERS FOR SEASON SEVEN PREMIERE AHEAD***

“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” was nothing short of ridiculous. The Walking Dead has built its reputation on the Anyone Can Die trope. We already know that anyone can die, to the extent that that’s even true. So, there was no reason to string it out so long, unless you consider two deaths for the price of one a twist. We weren’t worried that Rick would die, nor probably Daryl or Michonne so, unless one of them was going to wind up with their brains on a bat, the show didn’t actually do anything new.

Dragging out Neegan’s torture-fest and showing us broken, bloody bodies with eyeballs hanging out doesn’t prove the show “isn’t afraid to go there.” It just proves it has no place to go.

One sliver of hope remains: Maggie and Glenn’s baby. We got a couple of sad, yet ultimately forward-looking moments when Maggie declared her intention to go on. Yet, why even bother at this point? If the show continues at this pace, and there’s no reason to anticipate a u-turn, our characters are going to get pounded on, literally as much as psychologically, for many episodes to come.

The Walking Dead features some amazing actors who can portray emotions beyond “terrified” and “devastated.” They’ve used writers who can give us much more as well. Instead, its producers seem to believe that all audiences want to is to learn how much gore basic cable can tolerate.

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