The Walking Dead is among the most popular television shows out there. For cable TV, it’s the most popular show of all time. It pulls in ratings that make network shows envious. That said, the most recent season is not as popular as the previous three. Why?
This is not to say that it’s in a bad place. The Walking Dead is nowhere near getting cancelled. You could cut the ratings in half and it would still be outperforming the cable average by a wide margin. But consider this: The average ratings between season 6 and 7 dropped by nearly 2 million viewers, from 13.15 million to 11.35 million. That’s nearly 15% of viewership, 3 of every 20 viewers bailed. Take out the first episode and the average ratings per episode is less than 11 million. They’ve lost 20% of viewers since season 5.
As I said before, this is still a popular show. Breaking Bad, widely considered the greatest show ever, fell just short of 11 million viewers for its series finale and most watched episode. But Breaking Bad grew in popularity throughout its run while Walking Dead has started the other way. A 15% drop is what statisticians call statistically significant.
The steepest drop is during a season 7 which opened with over 17 million viewers. It was set up for a return to form, introducing a great new villain. Then, nearly 5 million people decided not to show up again for the next episode. Why?
Let’s first debunk a couple of theories. The decline is not because The Walking Dead is “boring” or a “soap opera.” This is a common refrain among critics of the show. Nothing happens. Everyone has to talk about their feelies. Of course, your subjective opinions are perfectly legitimate if you’re making them about how you feel about show, however they ring false when diagnosing the ratings ills.
The show has always been slow. They spent an entire season on a farm. And yet The Walking Dead is the most popular zombie based entertainment ever.
The boring parts are the character development. Those are the parts that make Hershal’s death so devastating, because we spent all that boring time on his farm seeing that he’s a family man and a good guy, he’s old fashioned but he’s open minded and cares about strangers. He’s not just old guy who gets head chopped off. Sick decapitation bro!
George Romero famously called it a “soap opera with a zombie occasionally.” Yet, the man on the street would recognize a still photo from the Walking Dead much more easily than they would one from anything George Romero has made. As great as he is, as much as he invented the monsters themselves, the characters in his movies might as well be zombies because they’re often pointless meatbags. The show is “slow” because it’s developing characters.
Anecdotally, the zombie genre was not popular when I was young. Zombies were lame. Nobody wanted to be a zombie for Halloween. Nobody was interested in seeing a zombie movie. Zombie fandom was the exclusive realm of hardcore horror fans, the type of horror fans who specifically seek out bargain bin DVD 10 packs of low budget fake blood camp because gore in and of itself is thrilling to them. Which is fine if that’s your thing. But that’s not the case for most people.
In fact, Robert Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead comic books, in his original pitch to get it published, lied and said he would eventually reveal the zombies were created by aliens. This is because at the time nobody would publish zombie material, because nobody was reading zombie material.
“When I pitched The Walking Dead originally, it was turned down, simply because there had never been a successful zombie book in the history of comics. [But] I wasn’t willing to accept no for an answer. So I said, ‘Oh, well, I forgot to tell you that this is actually a big setup for an alien invasion. So yeah, I kind of tricked them into accepting The Walking Dead.”
The golden age of zombies began with Shaun of the Dead. A movie which lovingly pointed out all the ways zombie movies are silly. It was The Walking Dead that made it scary and thrilling for a wider audience. It did so because it wasn’t about the zombies, it was about the characters.
While nearly every zombie movie featured nameless characters who existed only to hang around until their guts were ripped out for the sheer awesomeness of it or, at best, served only as some prop in an abstract ham-fisted analogy for society, The Walking Dead gave us human beings with thoughts and feelings and personal experiences we could relate too, and then put them in a scenario where they might have their guts ripped out.
The Walking Dead made us fear for the safety of these characters, not because of jump scares or the cringe we feel when someone is getting eaten, but because we like these people and we’d miss them. They’re a family. We missed Hank when he was shot in Breaking Bad. We missed Burt when he passed in Mad Men. We didn’t even see it. One of the most painful deaths ever put on screen was Buffy’s mom, who died of natural causes.
We don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. We watch it for the characters. We love the characters more than the walking dead. So it’s ironic that The Walking Dead would betray these characters.
Spoiler Alert. I’m talking about Glenn. The way his death was handled was a cynical betrayal of everything the show had made us feel for his character up to that point. I’ve never seen or heard of a character that loved given that poorly executed a death.
No, I’m not talking about the mere fact that he died. I’m not talking about the brutality of it either. You’re talking to a big Robb Stark fan here. Never forget. OG King in the North. I remember when the Red Wedding happened people saying they were done with Game of Thrones. But they weren’t. They came back. The ratings for GoT have gone up every season, through all the brutal deaths of beloved characters.
That was not the case after Glenn’s death.
Here’s what happened: We meet Glenn as a teenager. A scrappy young kid who shows no fear. He’s among the most capable in the group even as a kid. He’s Rick’s right hand man. We watch him grow and become the moral center of the group after Dale, his quasi-mentor, before him. We watch him fall in love and scavenge for condoms. We watched Maggie and Glenn get married and conceive a child. While Daryl would grimace in the woods and Rick would talk to ghosts on the phone, it was Glenn who held it all together, effortlessly, because that’s who he was.
It should have been devastating when Glenn died. It should have been heartbreaking. There should have been tears. But scan some reaction videos on youtube. There are plenty of “Oh no”s and “Oh shit”s. But very few contain tears or the level of sadness we might expect. We’re not watching our friend get taken from us, we’re finding out the answer to a trivia question.
Glenn’s death was treated as a cliff hanger. His death was used to force us to tune into the first episode of season 7. We did. Congrats. But a lot of us had enough at that point. Why would I get invested in these characters if you’re just going to use their death as a hostage for ratings?
Let’s also not forget, we mourned Glenn already during the dumpster incident. Mere episodes before, the show made us think Glenn died. As hard as that was, they should have left him dead. You felt that hole in the heart you want to feel when a character you love is gone. To bring him back in some convoluted idiocy, only to kill him again in some convoluted idiocy, is to ask us to mourn the same character twice.
When I tuned in and found out Glenn was the one who got the bat, I didn’t feel hate for Negan, not as much as I should have, and I didn’t feel sad for Glenn, not as much as I should have, I felt like I found out the results to a test or the score to a game 6 months after the fact. It was just factual. It wasn’t emotional. Oh, now I know.
They turned what could have been one of the most devastating things ever put on TV, up there with Robb Stark and poor Jesse’s girlfriend, into a pathetic and transparent ploy to use your love of these characters to force you to come back next season.
What makes it even worse is they didn’t need to do that. They don’t need to make it a cliffhanger. Nobody wasn’t going to come back. Negan is a very popular character. His introduction could have taken the show up a notch. But the show got in its own way.
If you want to know why ratings are dipping for The Walking Dead, look no further than why they grew so high in the first place. It was a show that put the characters first and made you care about the characters. Then it took the most likable character, perhaps the most developed too along with Rick, and used his death in a cynical stunt more gross than the death itself.
What loyalty or respect do we owe a show that shows none to the audience or the characters in the show? What’s the point? Why am I caring about these characters and this show? Years of set up squandered.
The first episode of season 7 was supposed to provide a big answer. Instead, it left me with a big question. Why should I bother caring so much about these characters when the show clearly does not?
The takeaway here is you need to have great, deep characters and you have to treat them right, even if the world you’ve created for them to live in does not, because if you have great, deep characters the audience relates to, mistreating the characters is mistreating the audience. You can have brutal, unjust scenarios play out but treat those scenarios with the respect they deserve.
And if there’s a second takeaway, it’s for the love of God enough with cliffhangers. It’s the 21st century. We know shows aren’t episodic. We know we have to “tune in next week.” That’s how shows work now. We get it.
by Zack Goncz
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