The Walking Dead has had a pretty rough season, and I'm being polite. A lot of fans understandably left after the ridiculous season six finale, which turned a huge character death into a cheap summer-long dangling carrot.
Things have only gotten worse from there, as the show continues to suffer from major pacing and writing issues. As we saw from the admittedly great finale there's some hope for the future, but The Walking Dead as a show may be entering its twilight years.
The primary problem in season seven is that the show is unequipped to deal with a wider post-apocalyptic world that includes multiple hostile and non-hostile communities.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the seven season finale of The Walking Dead.]
In previous seasons, the act of simply surviving a ruined world full of zombies was enough. Episodes where characters had to scavenge a dangerous area often made great one-offs. We had the Governor, who provided an obvious villain for our group to overcome. The resulting diaspora after the prison lead to fun mini-stories and adventures for different group members, and we were treated to villains who didn't wear our their welcome, like the Claim Gang and the Terminus Cannibals.
Alexandria's internal conflicts and drama provided some more interesting scenarios. For the first time our group had to settle in with a more civilized and larger group, while continuing to deal with hordes of zombies and the occasional human attackers.
The Saviors should've been another memorable villainous group, a natural escalation of organized evil and oppression that began with the Governor. While I have enjoyed our deeper dive into Savior society, this season has crawled along at a walker's pace. The looming threat becomes as distant as the main quest in an open-world RPG.
The first half of the seventh season was designed to tear our heroes down, painting Negan and the Saviors as the most powerful foes they've ever encountered. By now most of our cast have become hardened badasses, and they proved it last season when they assaulted one of Negan's outposts, murdering everyone inside in a preemptive strike.
Humbling our heroes, beginning with the brutal murder of Glenn and Abraham, wasn't a bad idea, and it's the main tone the comics undertake during the initial Negan issues as well. The problem is that it has lasted too damn long. Even during the “Rise Up” second half of the season, the show took forever to reach what is basically the next major plot point from the comics as shown in the finale — Dwight's defection and the first skirmish between our united communities and the Saviors.
We've had an entire season of checking in on our three communities; four if you also count the Saviors. Worse, the show devotes entire episodes to a single location with only one or two characters.
We had a 70-minute episode devoted to Tara, a minor character people barely care about, in a location that only mattered as a footnote 10 episodes later. We had an entire episode introducing Carol and Morgan (and us) to Ezekiel and the Kingdom in episode two, only to reintroduce them when Rick and gang arrived later in episode nine.
Likewise, revealing Savior HQ with Daryl stuck in a cell became pointless when we visited them again with Carl and yet again with Eugene and Sasha. And while I enjoy Maggie, Morgan and Carol, I'm less enthused with spending several episodes repeating the same “Gregory is a jerk at the Hilltop” and “Ezekiel doesn't want to fight the Saviors in the Kingdom” plot points over and over again.
Rick, still the main star of the show despite the ballooning cast, has only been in nine of the 16 episodes, and that's a problem.
The entire plot of season seven can be boiled down to this: Our Alexandrians are unhappy being subjugated by the Saviors. They try to unite the communities around them, mostly failing. Negan and the Saviors are jerks. Our group finds some guns. A fight between Rick and the gang with the Saviors finally breaks out. That's about it, yet it took 16 episodes, and many of those longer than 60 minutes to tell.
After the ruckus in the finale (which should have been the mid-season finale), season eight will finally orchestrate the actual war between the Saviors and everyone else. The war is an exceptionally awesome arc in the comics, with a satisfying ending. In fact, there's actually a large time jump afterwards which would make for the perfect end point for the show. As a fan of the comic and the show, I would like nothing more than for the showrunners to announce season eight as the final season.
The war with Negan can make for a vastly improved season. The war is full of action, drama, and death. It represents the culmination of everything our heroes have learned and fought for. No more myopic episodes where we drag on with the same repeated story beats. Everyone needs to pick up the pace and deal with the immediate threat. If we don't see the end of the war (and hopefully the show) by the end of another 16 episode season, they've screwed up.
While The Walking Dead has been hemorrhaging fans all season, it's still among the upper echelons of popular shows, with tens of millions of viewers. But ratings have begun to dip compared to the last few seasons, and that includes the huge spike for the very gimmicky “who died?” season premiere.
To transform a zombie apocalypse story based on a black and white comic series into one of the most watched shows on cable for several years running is an amazing accomplishment. Eight seasons and well over 100 episodes is nothing to sneeze at. The Walking Dead has suffered an agonizingly slow, frustrating season, but these are very fixable problems that next season could turn around.
Hopefully there will be enough fans left to see it.