I’ve had to accept that The Walking Dead isn’t going to tell the story I want it to tell. Whether it’s for budgetary reasons, or for a self-imposed need to stick closely to the events of the comics, or just a failure of imagination on the part of the show runners, I have no idea. The Walking Dead is going to tell the story of Rick and a few others finding what seems like a sanctuary, attempting to settle there, and then losing it to a hostile outside force, forcing a retreat into the woods. The details vary — sometimes the hostile outside force is a large herd of the undead, sometimes it’s David Morrissey — but the basic story beats tend to be the same.
That’s not to say The Walking Dead isn’t good at telling this story, like a band you enjoy performing different cover versions of a song you love: the slow, acoustic fourth season that split up and spread out the cast, obliging the writers to focus on character growth and dialogue rather than action, or the recent half-season, single-track concept album with its one epic event taking place over a single day.
But I’ve heard enough of this song now, no matter how inventively it’s played. The show’s refusal to let certain characters go means those whose stories have ended are still just hanging around. Rick went through his crazy hobo beard stage and came out the other side, much-hardened but fundamentally sane. Michonne came in hard, softened over time, and has since found her level. Carol grew out of her abusive marriage, Daryl settled down into an unstoppable, crossbow-wielding, motorbike-riding superhuman and Carl stopped taking up so much valuable screen time. They all survived the apocalypse with their sanity more or less intact; what else is there to tell about them?
The story I want to see would leap forward a decade or so. Given the cast’s tenacity, the undead stopped being a major threat some time ago. Humanity has survived: I want to see the society that grows out of this, something like Max Berry’s World War Z, which documented the fall of civilisation and the eventual rise of a functioning, post-zombie society, with the undead as something more like a seasonal flu. Other great examples of post-apocalyptic fiction include Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. There are interesting, original stories to be told about humanity’s survival.
But this isn’t what The Walking Dead wants to do. What The Walking Dead wants to do next is, again, have Rick’s sanctuary threatened by a hostile outside force — this time Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan instead of David Morrissey’s Governor. It doesn’t feel like it’s happening because the show’s narrative naturally tended in that direction; it’s happening because it happened in the comics, and the awkwardness of how this plot was shoe-horned in made recent episodes directionless. How thinly the show stretches this storyline remains to be seen; post-Negan, there isn’t much left to take from the comics. A spin-off sequel, with the show telling its own story instead of cribbing from the comic would be welcome. I don’t need to see any more of Rick’s gang hitting those same story beats though. Perhaps because, as I’ve grown older, I’m just more interested in seeing something built up than torn down.