If you’re a Walking Dead fan who’s made it this far, you’ve gone through a lot. As someone who watched that first fateful episode on Halloween nearly eight years ago, it’s easy to feel, in a weird way, like you’re one of the survivors from the show. After all, you’ve stuck this thing out, experienced good stretches and bad stretches, while more and more of your friends and acquaintances drop out, many of them resigned to the fact that things can never go back to how they used to be.
And I’m ever the optimist, always the one who, even when the show has a bad run, appreciates what The Walking Dead is trying to do, even if it can’t always get there. Make no mistake, the fact that we have a prestige-aping, big budget zombie show, that endeavors to make statements about humanity and society as much as it tries to deliver the impressively gory scene of the week is no small thing. Even when the series stumbles, I’m apt to cut it some slack for the boldness of what it’s trying to accomplish.
But everyone has a limit. I’m not there just yet, but Season 8 has been a test. It’s been the first season of the show that’s made me almost dread flipping on the T.V., not because I can’t take the gore, or because I’m affronted by the show’s willingness to depict evil, but because I’m just tired. I’m tired of this show waxing and waning but not really moving.
In short, it’s time for the Negan arc to end. For a long time, the rap on The Walking Dead was that it hewed too closely to a “find a safe haven/haven gets destroyed/go out in search of a new one” progression. There’s a certain amount of truth in reducing the show to that formula. But the minute the Alexandria arc ended, and the Negan arc began in earnest, there was the promise that we were entering a new era of the show, one centered on ideas about community, about existential threats, and about international relations through the lens of a zombie television show. That felt like exciting new ground.
But now, it feels like the show, and by extension the audience, is just stuck in the mud. This season’s eight episode assault on The Sanctuary felt like the perfect prelude to the culmination of the Negan arc. It provided a good enough reason for our heroes to get into gear, but also forced them to wait a bit for the plan to unfold before they could confront The Saviors. I expected, perhaps naively, that we would see that confrontation this week.
And maybe, The Walking Dead will continue with its unorthodox season structure, and we’ll watch the climax of this arc in the first episode back from the mid-season break (a tack the show’s taken before). But “How It’s Gotta Be” doesn’t feel like the setup to a climax. The episode, true to its name, feels like an affirmation that this is what the show is now — a never ending fight against the same bat-wielding thug and his coterie of evil, oft-compelling henchman. And as much as I appreciate this show (though more for its continuing potential than its intermittent execution) I can’t help but wonder how long I’ll want to stay committed to watching that same setup week after week after week.
In the meantime, we’re left with a series that had the opportunity to put a big period at the end of this sentence, and instead turned it into a semicolon. The name of the game in “How It’s Gotta Be” is jumping around the map and checking in with the various good guy leaders and their bad guy counterparts, while the hits just keep on coming.
We have Maggie running into Simon on the road, where he shoots her “I only have two lines of dialogue, so don’t mourn me too hard” lieutenant, gives her the new marching orders, and sends her back to The Hilltop. We have Gavin going to The Kingdom and reluctantly reading the people there the riot act, while Ezekiel tries to give himself up to send his people to safety. We have Aaron and Enid getting into a brief but deadly firefight with the denizens of Oceanside. We have Daryl, Tara, Rosita, and others running into Dwight, who’s going full quisling at the end of the battle. And we have Rick returning to Alexandria to find it being blown to smithereens by Negan himself.
Stitching all of these plotlines together doesn’t make “How It’s Gotta Be” feel epic; it makes it feel overlong and overstuffed. The episode never builds any momentum or coherence, instead just jumping from place to place and rubbing the audience’s nose in how these grand plans have turned to crap.
I don’t always mind that sort of thing. The Walking Dead is a show that deals with harsh things, and sometimes that leads to harsh ends. But there’s a sense of wallowing here, of just trying to reset the clock so that we can do this same song and dance with Negan all over again, and the prospect of that is miserable.
So whether we’re watching Eugene take a half-step toward doing the much ballyhooed “right thing” despite allowing this whole backlash to happen, or watching Michonne lose her cool and hack and slash at one of her enemies, or watching the wall-smashing crowd debating whether or not it was their actions that led to this, or watching Rick and Negan get into a contrived slugfest, it all comes off like the ultimate bout running in place, with no end in sight.
And then there’s Carl. I’ve never had a particularly strong investment in Rick’s son. He has his moments now and then, often when he’s dealing with his countless, thorny parental issues. But for the most part he’s a prop, something for Rick or Michonne or someone else to worry about or fight for or have tender moments with, mainly to advance their character arcs rather than advancing his. It doesn’t help that the kid’s not really the best actor yet, so his attempts to seem steely or haunted or protective don’t land well.
But for some reason (presumably his impending demise) Carl is the closest thing to a focal point of “How It’s Gotta Be.” He makes a stand against Negan and offers to sacrifice himself. He wanders around Alexandria, generally with a blank expression, but nominally in awe of his explosion-filled surroundings. And for some inexplicable reason, he’s in charge.
Has Carl ever really shown good leadership skills? Has he ever seemed poised to take over as a decision-maker? Besides one failed attempt on Negan’s life, has he ever even seemed fully competent at much of anything? It strains credulity that hardened, battle-tested folks like Michonne or Daryl or Rosita would turn everything over to his uninspiring kid at such a fraught time. The show is giving Carl his final moment of glory, and it wants to try to make that meaningful, but it thrusts the character into the spotlight as though he’s always belonged there despite the show never really earning that, and it weakens an already sputtering episode considerably.
And yes, in the end, he has a walker bite on his torso.
I wish I could give a damn. I really do. Carl is one of those last remaining links to the beginning of the series. He is, while still something of a prop, a major part of that initial, animating impulse for Rick, the thing that helped him strive to get out and find his family despite the undead marauders and more human threats between him and them. Carl’s been a symbol of the future, the living representation of what tomorrow may hold if Rick can secure it. Carl meeting his end, in a nominally noble and brave way, while saving someone Rick refused to bother with, should feel momentous and tragic.
Instead, it’s just another brick in the wall. It’s just another character meeting their demise in a way that lacks any oomph beyond the momentary surprise that the show’s willing to pull the trigger. Carl’s death isn’t out of nowhere; it’s something that the show, or at least the episode, sets up and draws out. That removes the shock, despite the plot armor Carl’s amassed over the years, but it doesn’t imbue the event with any meaning. It’s another empty death for a mostly empty character that the show bends over backwards to try to inject some sentiment into, and it’s too little too late.
Maybe that’s where I am with this show as a whole. There’s still parts of it that move me, characters I’m invested in, ideas that I connect with. But more and more, The Walking Dead is whittling those down, until all that’s left is a few worthy souls, some amazing zombie effects, and a husk of what used to be.
I’m not done with this show. I’ve come too far to stop now. But the survival of my interest, like the survival of so many characters, is in an increasingly precarious, unpleasant, and dull position.