Like the ill-fated characters on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” loyal viewers of the hit show have also been known to suddenly depart the realm for any number of reasons — often having to do with the fatigue that comes with the zombie apocalypse show’s inexorably pessimistic, permanently violent story arc. More than one person has told me they just ran out of stamina and quit watching.
Six seasons in, “The Walking Dead” is still a ratings wonder. About 12 million viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic watch it live each week, although that number has been known to dip (as much as 15 percent recently) when the show drags. It’s one of the rare series in which you can still correlate the overnight ratings to the quality (and death toll) of an episode.
Still, most of us slog along with it, perhaps channeling the persistence of lead character Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the remaining few of Season 1’s original survivors (Norman Reedus’s Daryl; Melissa McBride’s Carol; Steven Yeun’s Glenn; Chandler Riggs’s Carl; Lennie James’s Morgan) to see things through to the end. But how far off is that? Two seasons? Five? More?
In last week’s episode (alert: spoilers galore), when kindly lesbian Dr. Denise (Merritt Wever) took an arrow to the head and keeled over, I wondered whether that’s how I, too, would one day leave “The Walking Dead,” as both a fan and as a critic — suddenly and in the middle of an important thought. The problem is we’ve come so far, and yet there is no end in sight.
The arrow that caught Denise in the back of the skull and emerged through her right eye held special meaning for me because I recently finished (at long last) the task of reading some 3,200 pages of Robert Kirkman’s “Walking Dead” graphic novel, the first 144 issues of which are collected in three heavy volumes reminiscent in size of old phone books. That’s how I recognized that a similar surprise arrow attack, in Issue 98 of the comic version, had killed Abraham, a temperamentally fierce addition to Rick’s clan of survivors (played by Michael Cudlitz on the series). It was a new feeling for me — the extra-informed knowledge of the superfan — because I generally avoid the novels and comics on which so many of our current shows are based, preferring to judge them as pure television and not adaptations.
For years I was happy to let “The Walking Dead” meander, although it often felt like a show that was stuck walking in circles. I felt some need to know where it was headed — especially when, in Season 5, last year, Rick and his gang left the rural perimeter of Atlanta (the show is filmed in Georgia, which coughs up excellent tax breaks for the production) and made its way north to Washington, where, according to a socially disordered, mullet-sporting man named Eugene (Josh McDermitt), there were scientists waiting for crucial information to reverse the virus (or whatever) that had turned most of the population into zombies.
Washington? Journeying there seemed like a throwback to old sci-fi films, pinning one’s hopes on the minds and might of the nation’s bureaucratic capital. Soon enough (remarkably soon, given their track record) Rick and his gang traveled 600 miles to the 703, at one point glimpsing a hokey (and nonexistent) CGI vista of the Capitol and Washington Monument from above the Potomac. Eugene’s promise turned out to be a lie, but nevertheless “The Walking Dead” had suddenly acquired what we in the news business call a local angle.
Rick’s weary band wound up in the “Alexandria Safe Zone,” a small suburban tract of survivalists who, under the leadership of a former Ohio congresswoman (Tovah Feldshuh), built a wall strong enough to keep out the zombies and dangerous humans, while also devising a means for electric power and the comforts of home.
By now, “The Walking Dead’s” main characters held a deep distrust of anything resembling a utopia or communal refuge, having warred with the “Governor” (David Morrissey) of a similar enclave called Woodbury and then survived a trap set by a cultish group of cannibals at a place called Terminus. These battles exacted a psychological toll — on the characters and the viewers, which is one reason why AMC came up with “The Talking Dead,” a post-show analysis and geek-out in which host Chris Hardwick promises to help viewers “work through it.” About half of “Walking Dead’s” audience sticks around for this free catharsis; the rest of us cope in our own way.
The TV version of “The Walking Dead” portrays and processes grief far better than the comics have, which has helped lift the show past the realm of horror flick. In between the Woodbury showdown and the cannibal encounter, the main characters were scattered in different directions for most of Season 4, eliciting some of the cast’s finest performances to date, particularly from McBride and Reedus, who deserved Emmy nominations. (The television academy has routinely ignored “The Walking Dead,” except in categories such as makeup, sound and visual effects.)
Reunited and reaffirmed in their loyalties to one another, Rick’s gang debated whether or not to trust the residents of Alexandria, whom they viewed as weak and overly reliant on a corrugated metal wall. Alexandrians regarded the new arrivals as dangerous, possibly lunatic from so many years of fighting zombies in the Southern wild. In a particularly bloody moment, Rick came to the realization that it’s the humans who’ve become the true walking dead. They are by now shells of their former selves, trading their moral clarity for an amoral lunge at whatever’s left of the world.
Anyone who has ever braved the treachery of Leesburg Pike on a Saturday afternoon can tell you that living in Northern Virginia can be its own kind of armageddon. Having barely settled here, our heroes (or antiheroes, if you prefer) have faced a rapacious gang of marauders as well as one of the biggest zombie hordes they’ve ever encountered, which, if nothing else, did us the favor of devouring Alexandria’s wimpiest child.
Season 6 has been building toward the looming threat of a man named Negan, a ruthless overlord whose group intimidates and taxes different survivalist communities all across Northern Virginia. His name is meant to strike fear into all who hear it, and viewers are expecting Negan to appear by the season finale on April 3. (He’s played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is currently wrapping things up as “The Good Wife’s” handsome private detective.)
It promises to be a gory showdown and, if the comic books can still be trusted as an overall guide, it may take a season or more of the show to resolve. Particularly savvy fans of the show have already proffered theories that Daryl or Abraham will soon meet their end at Negan’s hand — or perhaps it will be Glenn, as the comic book clearly foretold when Negan beat him to a bloody pulp.
Frankly, the idea of more human-on-human warfare is exhausting — and it might be the point where I let “The Walking Dead” walk on without me, sort of the way Carol bailed on Alexandria last week and set off once more on her own. Having read so far ahead, it’s clear that the show has no abiding interest in its Washington-area location; it’s still filmed in Georgia, and except for the occasional stray references to Interstate 66 and Route 29, I feel I’m never going to get the (probably expensive) wide shot of zombies on Capitol Hill or chases through the Rosslyn tunnel for which I’d hoped.
That’s probably just as well, for “The Walking Dead” is one of TV’s few series that resolutely believes in rural, exurban, small-town settings and everyday Americans, when nearly all our dramas are about rich and powerful people in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and sometimes D.C.
When the show premiered in 2010, apocalypse of any kind (zombie, viral, comet, climatological, power-grid, etc.) was all the rage, making it easy to draw connections between the show and the failing economy, the sense of doom, the tea party, the terrorists. It even made sense somehow that “The Walking Dead” was set in the Bible Belt.
Now we are faced with a bombastic presidential front-runner whose appeal to the hordes in flyover country feels to some observers like yet another end-of-the-world scenario — inexplicable and unstoppable and ripe for allusions to “The Walking Dead.” I promise you, someone will write a Donald Trump/“Walking Dead” think piece, if they haven’t already. Zombies have a way of becoming whatever you need them to be, metaphorically.
Six seasons in, it’s sometimes easy to forget that “The Walking Dead” is still mainly about zombies — the genuine yuck faces who in fact stand for nothing, mean nothing, represent nothing except the horror of mortality. They have become so desiccated and are so easily dispatched with a blow to the head that they no longer provoke nightmares.
Just the other night, in fact, some zombies made a cameo appearance in a dream I was having and I barely noticed them. That’s probably a good way to know that you’ve had too much of “The Walking Dead.”
The Walking Dead (one hour) continues Sunday at 9 p.m. Season 6 concludes with a 90-minute episode on April 3.