I don’t so much “watch” The Walking Dead anymore as I do pop back in occasionally when the show is clearly back on its bullshit. And I don’t think I’m alone, with ratings on Season 9 dipping dangerously, historically low for the zombie apocalypse drama. But if the Chris Hardwick situation taught us anything, it’s that a trash fire isn’t going to stop AMC from chugging right along. Case in point: The Walking Dead Universe, Scott M. Gimple‘s ambitious vision for a walker-filled slate of films, digital content, standalone series, and I don’t know, a fucking interactive podcast, probably. The Walking Dead is somehow going to be around long after the sun implodes and bathes us all in radioactive stardust, basically, which is strange considering the show is so clearly, 100% out of ideas.
Maybe that’s not the best way to put it. The creative team behind The Walking Dead is certainly still coming up with “ideas,” the same way a person who jumps out of a plane without a parachute is still going to find their way to the ground. Either way, the results are messy and unappealing: The Walkers are evolving and can maybe (or maybe not!) talk now! Judith Grimes is a little older now and a badass and wears a cowboy hat! This is Rick’s final farewell and goodbye forever because Andrew Lincoln misses his family episode, you must watch! These are all, technically, ideas. But it’s long been time to admit The Walking Dead hasn’t been able to tell a story or move an audience using anything even vaguely resembling genuine, human emotions in years; it’s entirely shock value and “twists” that are actually just lies.
Nothing is more emblematic of this issue than Rick Grimes’ final episode, “What Comes After,” probably the most soulless thing to happen on a show that is literally about people walking around without their souls. Since we broke the news that Lincoln would be leaving the series back in May, AMC has been in overdrive amping up the emotional ride off into the sunset for the show’s OG leading man. The marketing for Season 9 was built around Rick’s exit. A show that usually traffics in surprise deaths was straight up telling you—or more like warning you—to tune in so you can say goodbye to one of TV’s most enduring characters ever before the lovely, talented actor behind the role effs off to a much quieter life with his children, returning only to occasionally direct an episode or two. The entire episode itself was a drawn-out funeral march toward the character’s leap into nothingness, part clip show, part cast reunion featuring Jon Bernthal and the late Scott Wilson; an episode of TV structured and designed down to the script and directing style to say Rick Grimes is leaving forever. By the time Rick put a bullet into a pile of dynamite and blew himself right off the sinking ship, that explosion felt like a conclusion. Norman Reedus reacting to Rick’s choice as Daryl Dixon is a devastating 10 seconds, as the character goes through despair and acceptance within a single moment as he watches his longest-running pal in the apocalypse go up in flames, never to return. It was the closest The Walking Dead came to earning a reaction in years.
And then a mystery helicopter swooped in at nearly the same time as a press release from AMC lit up the entertainment journalism world’s collective inbox announcing that A) Fuck You, and B) Andrew Lincoln would return as Rick Grimes in a whole-ass trilogy of films, so hope you weren’t emotionally invested in the character’s exit or anything, L-O-L. The Walking Dead simply does not know how to elicit a legitimate reaction anymore. It’s become the cheap street magician of TV series, relying on shaky sleights of hand to pull rabbits out of its own ass, hoping you were distracted enough to clap once the moment comes.
The signs have been there for a while, like when the camera straight-up showed Glenn (Steven Yeun) getting chomped on before the “reveal” that he rolled under a dumpster unscathed. The show promised the skull-crushing arrival of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) only to have the character bash the cameraman’s brains in before cutting to season-ending credits. But this Rick Grimes thing is the most laughably transparent switcheroo in the show’s history, made ten times funnier because it came packaged with the announcement that there is going to be more of this, So. Much. More of this to come.
Where does the show go from here? Well, it’s getting ready to introduce The Whisperers, a kooky rival crew of survivors that are going to make life hard for Daryl, Michonne, and Co., so stop me if you’ve heard that before. Also Negan is on track for a redemption arc, which is one of the more jarring left-turn decisions in a show made up entirely of jarring left-turn decisions.
And if none of that sounds appealing, there are new movies, the new digital content, the endless Walking Dead outlets that are now multiplying eerily like the title monsters themselves, leaving anyone with a still-working brain looking much like any random crew of survivors, surrounded by a plague the world didn’t ask for.