Much like the beleaguered, heavy-lidded, gray-bearded Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), The Walking Dead has an enemy to defeat this season. For Rick, it’s been pretty obvious for the past year and a half who his nemesis is: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the baseball bat-wielding psychopath who has laid bloody waste to the show’s ensemble and halted its narrative drive in the process. But the series itself has to overcome viewer apathy, and the general ratings entropy that it dodged for so long while it was one of the most-watched programs on TV. Last season, as Negan smashed skulls and Rick mostly cowered in fear, The Walking Dead actually saw its ratings decline for the first time.
In the AMC show’s eighth-season premiere Sunday night, Rick finally launched into action, uniting three communities in his zombie-apocalypse world and beginning an open insurrection against Negan’s rule. But that may not be enough to get audiences back on board. For too long, this series has followed a formula of delayed gratification, fixating on little details as a way of dragging out larger, more meaningful plot changes. When those details are good, The Walking Dead thrives, and the show has seen many creative bright spots during its run. But overshadowing those impressive moments in the last couple years has been the onslaught of needlessly sadistic storytelling.
The first episode of Season 8, “Mercy,” is mostly build-up with a little bit of action. Rick, having united the many clans living under Negan’s subjugation, begins quietly taking out the tyrant’s lieutenants to weaken any chance of a counter-attack. Then Rick and his team storm Negan’s main fortress, driving armored cars and trucks, and give their adversary one chance to surrender (he declines) before opening fire. This first assault is largely successful, but there’s enough chaos on both sides to suggest there will be many more strikes to follow.
Since its third year, The Walking Dead has aired in half-seasons of eight episodes apiece, spaced out in two parts to maximize AMC’s ratings domination. It’s easy to guess how this season is going to go. Over the next several episodes, at the very least, Rick will wage his war, and its toll will reverberate throughout the show’s vast ensemble; Negan will only be toppled by the winter finale (at the absolute earliest). How do I know that? Over the past few years, The Walking Dead’s split-season structure has made its story arcs predictable and stretched-out; the current narrative feels more deliberative than ever.
The latter half of the sixth season was entirely devoted to building the mythos of Negan without revealing him, with sub-villains speaking of his reign of terror in hushed tones. At long last, he showed up in the finale, wielding his trusty bat (wrapped in barbed wire) and killing a beloved cast member whose identity wasn’t revealed for six more months. The first half of the seventh season laid out Negan’s tactics of leading through fear, breaking down Rick’s mental defenses, and killing his friends to quash any desire for rebellion. The second half of that season saw Rick and company regaining their courage and forming a plan to take Negan down. Only now, finally, have they set it into action.
As I’ve pointed out before, Negan isn’t interesting enough to justify so many hours of storytelling—the show portrays him as a simplistic brute, prone to barking inane lines like “I hope you got your shittin’ pants on, cause you are about to shit your pants” (which is a real line of dialogue from Sunday’s episode). But The Walking Dead has made the mistake of investing too much time in a narrative dead end before. There were the interminable moral quandaries of the farmhouse, which dragged on for the entirety of Season 2. There was the Negan-esque sadistic Governor (David Morrissey), another largely one-dimensional villain who dominated the third and fourth seasons.
In Season 5, The Walking Dead rebooted itself, and sparked a genuine creative resurgence, by swerving away from long-term plotting. It did things like split its ensemble apart and follow characters on their own smaller adventures, or explore fascinating post-apocalyptic ecosystems like the cannibalistic Terminus or a barricaded hospital that had become a police state. There was an entire story arc devoted to the logistical issue of a football field-sized pit full of zombies. But once Negan reared his head, everything ground to a halt, and the show’s biggest looming questions became who would die, when, and how gruesomely.
This new season of The Walking Dead should be more fun to watch almost by default. Open warfare is usually more exciting than hours of torture and mental anguish, and whenever and however Negan gets taken down, it’ll be satisfying simply to have that thread over with. But the damage done in terms of viewership (the show’s ratings dipped by about 40 percent last year) is clear, and might be tougher to recover from. Eight seasons is a long time for any show, and with a program this heavily serialized, it’s important for the writers to know when to start building toward a grander conclusion. But for the moment, The Walking Dead is still staggering on, more zombified than ever, with no end in sight.