I don’t know if you’ve heard, but The Walking Dead is in trouble. Ratings are down, the show’s storytelling has seen better days, and the Negan arc has drawn no shortage of critical jeers (including from me).
And yet ... the show is still one of the biggest scripted series on television. Even with ratings slumping as much as they have, there are lots and lots and lots of people who watch The Walking Dead week to week, so there’s no real incentive to right the ship.
But even if there were, The Walking Dead is seven years old. It’s ridiculously hard to change course with a series that old, because audiences have largely seen everything it has in its bag of tricks (not to mention that this show in particular is rather faithful to a preexisting series of comics).
So the folks behind The Walking Dead have done what you’re supposed to do in this situation: They’ve teased that this latest batch of episodes (the second half of season seven) will return to what made the show so beloved in the first place. The storytelling will be tighter and less grim. The characters will move forward. We’ll get back to the “Rick against the world” tone of the early seasons.
All of the above is true in the midseason premiere, so far as it goes. But at the same time, “Rock in the Road” is further evidence that The Walking Dead might have permanently strayed from its most productive path.
The story might be moving forward, but it’s still sluggishly paced
The biggest problem with the first half of The Walking Dead’s seventh season was how mired it became in nothingness. It was a slog, with no momentum, where the characters simply lived underneath Negan’s iron fist. It wasn’t just boring; it was actively unsatisfying.
The end of the first half-season featured Rick and company deciding it was time to take the fight to Negan, having finally had enough. In and of itself, this move gives The Walking Dead a touch of the momentum it’s lacked for quite a while now. The characters have a quest, and with that quest comes a feeling of urgency.
Consider the sequence that unexpectedly turns out to be the episode’s most compelling one. Rick and his Alexandria-bound pals discover a blocked-off highway on-ramp, which they surmise must lead to one of the Saviors’ facilities. While exploring, they discover a trap laid by the Saviors and laced with explosives. They want the explosives, so they carefully dismantle it, even as a gigantic herd of zombies bears down on them.
At first, the sequence feels bogged down by many of the show’s worst tendencies — especially when it seems to involve little more than the crew moving a bunch of parked cars like post-apocalyptic valets. But the steady accumulation of plot points gives it a slow-building tension that resolves in gleeful zombie carnage: Rick and Michonne driving two cars in tandem, with a cable strung between the vehicles decapitating and bisecting every zombie it bloodily roars through.
If nothing else, it proves The Walking Dead still knows how to kill zombies with style. But how many times have we seen Rick and the gang take on a seemingly unstoppable foe? The show’s larger problems are macro problems, problems with the very way the show is constructed and just how repetitive it’s become. The audience isn’t turned off by Negan because he’s a horrible character (though he is that); the audience is turned off because we’ve seen characters like him before.
Season seven’s other big story — in which Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom form a fitful alliance to take down Negan (King Ezekiel isn’t in yet, but you know he will be) — is slightly better, if only because we haven’t seen a million other versions of it in past seasons. But functionally, it’s played out as an endless series of variations on “the gang is separated, then finds each other again” storyline that already we’ve seen too many times. The same applies to the army of folks who surround Rick and his friends at episode’s end, who are presumably the heavily armed, all-woman colony introduced earlier in the season.
Rather than really delving into, say, the Kingdom’s reluctance to take on Negan, or its relative affluence compared with the other communities, The Walking Dead is mostly interested in the Kingdom as a series of weirdo medieval affectations and a place for assorted supporting characters to hang out until the story needs them again.
The Walking Dead is struggling on an episodic level too
While The Walking Dead’s problems are more noticeable on the macro level, they’re not limited to it.
It used to be that you could explain, more or less, what any given episode of The Walking Dead was about, what smaller goal the characters were trying to accomplish, even if it was something stupid like trying to get a zombie out of a well. But the more the series has fallen under Negan’s sway, the less true that’s become.
What, precisely, are the characters trying to accomplish in “Rock in the Road” beyond what the show is trying to accomplish? The show needs Rick to meet King Ezekiel, but it also needs King Ezekiel to be reticent to take on the Saviors. So the closest thing Rick has to a goal — convince King Ezekiel to join his cause — is quickly thwarted by the show itself, simply because it needs to extend this story for a few more weeks.
This is why the highway sequence is the most successful part of the episode. The characters have an easily understandable goal, and they work to achieve it against mounting odds. These are the most basic tenets of storytelling, but The Walking Dead often seems to have forgotten all about them, in favor of world building. (In “Rock in the Road,” for instance, Gabriel pretty much just drives off — seemingly having stolen most of Alexandria’s food — because the show needs the characters to follow him and meet a new group of characters.)
World building, of course, is well and good, and TV shows need to indulge in some of it. But it can be hard to resist the call of simply exploring new corners of a show’s world at the expense of actually telling a story. This is especially true of older shows, which struggle to find new stories to tell, and, well, that sounds like The Walking Dead, right?
When The Walking Dead was at its best — back in the second half of season four and the first half of season one — it largely eschewed a larger, macro story in favor of a bunch of more compelling micro stories. It was ruthless with its characters and its plot momentum, and it didn’t much worry about overall build. Instead, it concentrated on producing satisfying standalone tales that slowly added up to something more.
That’s hard to do with a Big Bad like Negan getting in the way, and even in its stronger hours, season seven is a constant reminder of why that’s the case.