Midway through its third season, Lost was in a bit of a crisis. Its bulky seasons were proving unsustainable, and the show spent too much time focusing on minor characters or stirring up pointless side plots. It felt like it was being drawn out for far too long.
Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse listened. They declared the sixth season would be the series’ last. They tightened the number of episodes in each season to around 15 and focused on providing answers to ongoing mysteries. Ratings stabilized, and now Lost is widely considered a pinnacle of modern story-telling in television.
The Walking Dead is currently experiencing its Lost season three moment. The good news is, though, there's still time to fix it. In its translation from a black and white comic book series to television sensation, The Walking Dead's biggest hurdle hasn't been violence, gore or characters. It's pacing.
The main group spent the entirety of the second season at Hershel's farm, which quickly wore out its welcome as our heroes mostly just argued with each other. The prison was a highly anticipated next stop, but once again the show failed to capitalize on its momentum with the Governor. The battle for the prison was drawn out over a season and a half — including that horrible two episode stint when the Governor had to find an entirely new group of people to attack the prison with.
In later seasons the show divided our heroes into multiple sub-groups, each with their own little adventures, much like Lost did. Sometimes this lead to some outstanding character moments, like Carol having to kill a psychotic kid-murderer out of mercy in the fourth season.
More often than not, however, it bored us with stupid side treks, like Abraham finding a bazooka or Daryl meeting Dwight on the road in the sixth season and Beth's entire ordeal at the hospital in the fifth. We're just spinning our wheels until the next finale, when the plot is allowed to move forward again.
This season has been the most egregious of all. The premiere debuted to record ratings based entirely on a bullshit, manipulative cliffhanger. And it milked that moment for the entire premiere. Since then we've been helplessly shuttled around as our group splintered off into new and old locations.
The comic rarely split our group up, and when it did, it almost exclusively kept us with Rick Grimes. He was our anchor in an increasingly volatile world where our favorite characters, years in the making, would suddenly be ripped away. Yet the show demanded we focus our gaze on minor characters in odd situations. This is fine for an episode or two, but when it becomes the majority of your season, you have a problem.
In its seventh season, The Walking Dead is making the awkward transition into a wider universe that includes multiple communities and a villain that commands a veritable army at his disposal. These one-off character-building episodes feel like a giant waste of time compared to the ongoing plot and action surrounding all our characters.
It’s through Game of Thrones that we can find the solution to our pacing issues. Game of Thrones includes one of the largest ensemble casts in television; a giant Tolkein-esque fantasy world with a hefty amount of lore and multiple plot arcs that have been around for years. Yet Game of Thrones remains one of the best shows on television in terms of pacing.
The big advantage is that Game of Thrones has only 10 episodes per season. You cannot waste any time with filler one-offs. The only time Game of Thrones forces us into a single area for an entire episode is when something big is happening, like a climactic battles. It's telling that The Walking Dead's best season is still its first, when it only had six episodes instead of the now standard 16.
Game of Thrones also has an official end point. Like The Walking Dead, its source material isn't finished. But writer George R.R. Martin has worked with the showrunners in providing material beyond his notoriously delayed final books.
The Walking Dead, meanwhile, seems to be taking the opposite approach. Writer Robert Kirkman doesn't see himself ending the series anytime soon, and said many times that he plans on doing at least 300 issues. In 2014, executive producer David Alpert said he was more than willing to go to season 10 and beyond.
Right now in the show's timeline we're around volume 18 of the comics, or issues #103-108. That's 100 issues in a little over six seasons. The comic is currently on issue 160. That's well beyond the war with Negan and after a two-year time jump with an expanding world with new allies and threats.
At its current pace, the show would need at least four more seasons to catch up to where the comic is now. The Walking Dead is treading in unknown waters here. A serialized action-drama lasting this long is unprecedented.
To make matters worse, the show's pacing is stubbornly fixated on its finales and mid-season finales, while the entire rest of the season is increasingly becoming filler. The show is desperate to keep the threat of Negan looming for as long as possible, while taking its sweet time setting up different communities and situations that will play a part in the war to come. Negan as an urgent threat has already dwindled from the formidable season six finale and season seven premiere.
If the show can't learn how to bring us multiple locations and character groupings each week, then it needs to shorten the number of episodes and tighten the pacing.
The comic has smartly evolved from a brutal tale of survival into a complex interweaving of politics, danger and death in a post-society world. The show, unfortunately, is failing terribly at this transition.
I'm a fan of The Walking Dead. I watch the show, read the comics, listen to podcasts and write weekly recaps here at Polygon. Despite its struggles, The Walking Dead remains one of the most popular shows on television, and eight seasons is certainly nothing to scoff at.
But I believe a solid end point is in order. Our actors aren't frozen in time and the show isn't going to last for 15 or 20 seasons. The war with Negan, which takes about 20 more issues, would provide a nice climactic stopping point. Until then the show needs to quit dragging its feet, tighten its focus and bring fans back in.