In 2009, AMC debuted a brand new slogan: “Story issues right here.” Kicked off throughout the season 2 finale of Breaking Unhealthy, simply one of many status TV reveals that had lately made a splash on the channel, it recalled an identical tagline introduced by HBO in 1996: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Each harkened a way of essential self-importance, dictating that whereas the remainder of TV was a combined bag, these networks had narratives you would depend on. Inside a couple of years of the creation of the landmark mantra, HBO can be the house of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. And some years after that, AMC would air Mad Males, Breaking Unhealthy, and The Strolling Useless.
That final present is vital as a result of zombie movies (and the horror style at giant) sometimes aren’t praised for his or her storytelling. After all, this angle is fairly inconsiderate — horror is simply as wealthy a vein for good tales and characters as every other style, and one want look no additional than George Romero’s Daybreak of the Useless or Yeon Sang-ho’s Prepare to Busan for very efficient zombie movies. However this was a serialized zombie story on TV, a comparatively new idea. Though it was based mostly on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s wildly fashionable comedian ebook collection, there was an opportunity The Strolling Useless may put AMC’s new slogan to the take a look at.
And it did… over and over. As a result of what began as an immediately acclaimed collection that appeared to rewrite the foundations for what individuals have been accustomed to on TV advanced right into a rote instance of a narrative overstaying its welcome. The finale of The Strolling Useless has been a very long time coming (even because it aired alongside three spinoff collection, with three extra within the pipeline), and the truth that it’s continued its resurrected march lengthy after its contemporaries have wrapped up calls into query its complete thematic spine: How lengthy ought to a narrative about survival proceed to outlive?
From the outset, the hype round The Strolling Useless wasn’t simply restricted to its excessive manufacturing values and top-notch particular results make-up. Its showrunner was Frank Darabont, the director behind movies like The Shawshank Redemption, The Inexperienced Mile, and The Mist, lending his mastery of the difference to a zombie comedian ebook. And by the top of season 1, there have been even talks of Stephen King (to whom Darabont owed a serious chunk of his filmography) writing an episode within the second season. Kirkman was additionally closely concerned with the collection, government producing and writing episodes within the first few seasons as an final show of his blessing (although he’d ultimately be concerned in a mega lawsuit in opposition to the community, one thing that at this level is form of a behavior).
As The Strolling Useless wraps up its eleventh season, it’s form of arduous to actually seize what made the present so alluring at first. Clearly, it tapped into a component of wannabe survivalist want achievement. For a lot of, it’s their most popular type of apocalypse: A killer virus is simply too uncontrollable. Atomic destruction makes one really feel too helpless. However zombies? You simply stab ’em within the mind. Anybody with the barest stage of intuition and a few bullets may do it, proper?
Nevertheless, no matter fist-pumping delight that may be taken when watching Rick Grimes eradicate a horde of zombies is countered by what would change into The Strolling Useless’s MO: Anybody can die at any time. To start with, that is heart-wrenching: Andrea being pressured to stab her zombified sister, Morgan being unable to shoot his spouse as she shuffles towards the house they as soon as shared collectively, Rick stabbing his former finest pal Shane to dying as a result of the desperation of this new actuality has introduced his buddy previous the brink of sanity, and many others. These have been all milked for optimum drama, with lengthy, lingering, tense standoffs and copious crying. At its finest, it makes for thrilling tv, particularly if you happen to’re new to “status” TV, which, judging by The Strolling Useless’s skyrocketing scores, many have been.
For those who’d seen The Sopranos or Deadwood or different reveals of their ilk, you’d know that main supporting characters abruptly consuming it’s extra function than bug. It makes for gripping stakes and subsequent watercooler dialog. Identify within the opening credit be damned: One of many marks of “status TV” was its allowance for dangerous narrative selections that main networks would’ve shied away from. The Strolling Useless took this to its furthest attainable restrict, usually being nudged alongside Recreation of Thrones (which premiered a 12 months after) for his or her penchant for taking out characters abruptly and shockingly.
Nevertheless, the disparate attitudes between these two reveals would change into clear with time. Recreation of Thrones would reveal itself to be working with somewhat extra thematic heft than The Strolling Useless, a present that stored coming again to the properly of “Life is merciless and it’ll in all probability make you merciless.” It’s a nihilistic method, with any victories, ethical or bodily, usually marked by a swift pulling of the rug. The little woman, Sophia, who the forged spends a literal half season searching for, is found to only be a zombie in a barn proper subsequent to the place they’ve been staying. Rick’s spouse provides delivery to his new daughter, however dies after a brutal C-section and is shot by her son to stop her from resurrecting. The record goes on, however one factor is made clear: Any excessive factors within the present, irrespective of how lengthy the buildup has been, are destined to be temporary. Dissatisfaction is the core.
On one hand, it’s fairly true to life. It doesn’t matter what visions one sees of their very own conquer the undead, probably the most assured actuality is a depressing one. Nevertheless, from a story standpoint, it means enjoying tug of warfare with the character of fiction itself. A typical story arc permits for progress and for realization and for change. The world you’re in after it’s achieved is completely different than the one you began in. However by focusing so closely on “Guess what? It nonetheless sucks!” moments of brutality in opposition to the one characters an viewers can discover any relatable kinship with, you enter a bizarre Pavlov’s canine experiment. The bell dings and also you anticipate to be upset by what you’re left with. And in a couple of seasons, it will come again to hurt the present in an enormous approach.
Crucial slaying, although, didn’t happen on digicam. The second season would kick off with Darabont being fired from the collection, pissed off with each the funds and the artistic path AMC desired. His plans clearly concerned one thing somewhat extra free vary (his thought for the primary episode of the brand new season concerned principally abandoning the primary forged for a bit, as a substitute specializing in a doomed group of troopers waging a futile warfare in opposition to a zombie onslaught in Atlanta). What adopted can be a particularly pricey authorized battle between Darabont and AMC, resolved in 2021 to the tune of $200 million.
In a little bit of telling timing, the episode that noticed Darabont’s exit additionally noticed the arrival of Speaking Useless, an aftershow devoted to praising and discussing the night time’s episode with forged and crew members and step one of the TV present’s eventual empire.
Darabont’s departure didn’t appear to shake up any core ethos of The Strolling Useless, particularly because it adopted most of the main beats of the comics, which additionally had its ft firmly planted in “Oh, holy shit! Wait, what?” bloodlust. However because the collection went on, these beats and the stunning deaths turned all of the present may really matter on. It adopted a system for the primary few years: The surviving forged finds a brand new location to bunker down in and some extra survivors to hang around with. Then, the situation turns into poisonous, a bunch of individuals die both by the zombie mouth or deranged human hand, and the forged (or no matter is left of them) is pressured to maneuver on. From the camp to the farm, from the farm to the jail, from the jail to Alexandria — within the fifth season, protagonist Rick tells others, “We’re the strolling useless,” and as foolish as that sounds for one individual to say to a different, it rang true. They aren’t too dissimilar from the military of corpses they’re attempting to resist. All they’ll do is trudge from place to position and hope to not get unceremoniously murdered.
Within the grand scheme of issues, the primary half of the present appears to be like simply as marked by the identical narrative exhaustion because the final half. However one factor was completely different: an increase in scores that performed out like an arms race for recognition in opposition to itself. The primary season finale turned probably the most watched episode in fundamental cable historical past for the grownup 18-49 demographic. The season 2 finale gave AMC its highest scores ever, solely to be handily crushed by the third-season premiere. You get the concept — the primary episode of the seventh season noticed the second-highest scores within the present’s historical past, driving excessive off the final season’s cliffhanger ending.
By the top of the seventh season, these can be almost lower in half.
The dying of Glenn, the fan-favorite character and by far probably the most personable one amidst a sea of more and more grim macho poses, wasn’t essentially a shock when it befell within the season 7 premiere. It had already occurred within the comics in the very same trend a couple of years earlier, proper all the way down to Glenn pathetically calling out the title of his spouse between baseball bat blows to the cranium. However what ought to’ve been the energized emergence of Negan, a beloved unhealthy man that had been constructed up for a complete season and one performed by the effortlessly charismatic Jeffrey Dean Morgan, was met with vast distaste. The present that had declared open season by itself forged had lastly gone too far.
Had the wool lastly been pulled away from the viewers’s eyes? The distinction between Glenn’s dying and the deaths of Hickok and Bonpensiero is the latter two had meant one thing for the opposite characters, and one thing for the story at giant. It reverberated throughout the present in a approach that was felt extra deeply than guts on the bottom. Other than some indignant characters, The Strolling Useless would discover no overhaul within the wake of its supreme second of barbarism. By killing off a mainstay because the finish of the primary episode, it had come full circle and wound up empty-handed.
The character of comedian ebook storytelling, even one as finite as Kirkman’s (it ended on problem 193 in 2019), is cyclical. As components of longer story arcs or long-running collection, returns to the established order are crucial each occasionally to permit for brand spanking new readers to leap in. However what in case your established order, like The Strolling Useless’s, is constructed on the concept that there actually isn’t one? That even a return to normalcy means layers of intense grief and drudgery and little hope that something will get higher?
Within the dying of Glenn, no matter magic trick the collection had been pulling off was laid naked to the viewers. It had all the time been that approach and would all the time be this manner; there isn’t any actual shock or payoff. The characters you want are doomed by what looks like a dice-roll method to their fates. The Strolling Useless season 8 poster promised “ALL OUT WAR” between Rick’s and Negan’s teams, a dramatic endgame to the climax of the collection to date. However viewers have been properly accustomed to its endings. Even a titanic battle between the avenging stalwart protagonist and its most heinous villain held little promise that the story’s nature would change.
After Glenn’s dying, what ought to’ve been a story victory lap turned a time killer between bushwhacks. The largest distinction between these later parts and its earlier seasons is that extra human factions are launched. This builds the pretense the present has managed to evolve from small teams scrambling for a foothold in a “walker”-infested East Coast to one thing resembling the return of group in a chaotic world. It could be a succesful change if the present hadn’t beforehand relied a lot on sweeping the legs out from below itself.
In the meantime, a by-product collection, Worry the Strolling Useless, chugged alongside. In a couple of years, it will be joined by The Strolling Useless: World Past and Tales of the Strolling Useless, neither of which supplied something all too completely different from the unique collection. They’d even commerce off varied forged members in a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque try to offer a watchable part for these hesitant to commit extra time to yet one more aimless zombie collection. The tough elements that had made The Strolling Useless appear so gritty and nasty had devolved. In season 9, Rick was carried off in a mysterious helicopter to components unknown, a artistic selection that mystified audiences till they learn that he was to star in yet one more spinoff.
It was the final word shortchange, stopping the ultimate few seasons from ever attaining a comeback. For those who couldn’t have a correct send-off of Rick, the one character round because the first episode and the spine of the collection, then what was the purpose? Why was it nonetheless going if forged members survived on the idea of who was getting a tie-in present developed? That’s not an exaggeration: Surviving into the ultimate episode are Daryl (getting a by-product,) Michonne (equally disappeared from the present and now becoming a member of Rick in his spinoff,) Negan (getting a by-product,) and Maggie (accompanying Negan, the person who violently clubbed her husband to dying, in his spinoff. What an odd couple!). If The Strolling Useless is doing nothing however priming its stars for expanded-universe hijinks, then why does its ending matter in any respect? Even when one may nonetheless discover solace in its shock deaths, characters being protected by sheer franchising is, at finest, a betrayal of what was as soon as its most potent approach.
Its existence now feels as archaic because the rotting undead that tempo round in it, a reminder of a collection that in its nascent years, whereas removed from hopeful, remained vibrantly grotesque. Ultimately, the one factor The Strolling Useless couldn’t survive was its personal success.