In the opening credits of the closing chapter of the eleventh and last season of The Walking Dead, one of the final names that appears is that of writer-director Frank Darabont. Each time it appears over the top of that still chilling score, it is hard not to think back to that stunning first season that premiered more than a decade ago. The moment in the first episode where an unsuspecting Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) rode in on horseback to a deadly silent Atlanta in the opposite direction of stalled cars remains an iconic image that Darabont and his team brought to life before he was fired. Looking back on it now, it feels like part of an entirely different show that was full of potential. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
With a long-running show like this, there is a necessity as a critic to delve into all its many flaws that have accumulated up until now. After all, so close to the end, one starts to get reflective and wonder what could have been. The story itself invites this very type of reflection. The first two episodes of this final part that were shared with critics each open with narrated flashbacks of familiar faces that have almost all long since departed. Rather than instilling everything with a real sense of closure or narrative fulfillment, it just makes one wish to go back and revisit The Walking Dead when it was in its prime which has too long since passed. It is hard to think of one iconic moment, visually or narratively, from the last several seasons. Obviously, if you’ve made it this far and are reading this review in preparation for the final episodes, none of this is new information. Still, it is worth setting expectations about how getting into the homestretch only brings into further clarity how much the show continues to struggle to capture what made it such an early standout. Everything feels tired and worn out with the few familiar characters only barely keeping afloat in what is now just empty chaos. It isn’t completely terrible and is more just sad as it starts to wind down with a sense of resignation.
Picking up where the last episodes left us, the Commonwealth has continued to gain control after Lance (Josh Hamilton) successfully took Alexandria, Hilltop, and Oceanside. Maggie (Lauren Cohan) barely survived a fight with Leah (Lynn Collins) and was only just saved by Daryl (Norman Reedus) who had to shoot his one-time companion. They reconnected with Aaron (Ross Marquand), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to get ready for a war against the Commonwealth. The opening scene sees Daryl in a building using his knives to precisely take down a handful of zombies, who are now largely background noise, before looking outside to see the more threatening enemy. There is a great deal of sneaking, some explosive shootouts, and even a bit of a car chase in what is clearly meant to be an exciting way to kick off the final episodes. Too much more about the plot is not worth getting into as it would both tip off how some storylines get (seemingly) wrapped up and require a mountain of background info. Suffice it to say, things are still tense and the characters once more find themselves at an inflection point about what they will do next.
Threaded throughout all of this is the looming knowledge that most of the main characters are likely going to be just fine. It isn’t a spoiler to say that not only is Daryl getting his own solo spin-off, now without Melissa McBride’s Carol, but Maggie and Negan are somehow getting one as well. While spin-offs are not necessarily a bad thing and can even give this universe some potential new life, it does undercut much of what is playing out when some endings are rather fixed. There also is the broader storytelling issue that both Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) are long gone to get a — you guessed it — spin-off of their own. Without Lincoln and Gurira, the show has been lacking their strong performances and intriguing characters for quite a while now.
On top of that, fans of the comics will know that Rick was still quite important in terms of the Commonwealth storyline that the show often struggles to find a way to work around. With that central conflict put front and center, their absence is tough to overlook, especially when their daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming) is still around and reflecting on the legacy her parents left behind. Maybe there will be an appearance by them at the end that will connect everything, but there is still a steep road to climb to get there. The series has been trying to grapple with the political complications of the Commonwealth for a while now, yet it still is never well-realized. There is a prevailing element of corruption that has created a class divide, but it rarely gets explored beyond the broad strokes. However, there is a wrestling match that ends up functioning as propaganda for the community’s leaders so win some, lose some.
If you hadn’t already picked up on this, none of this sounds like much of a post-apocalyptic show filled with zombies. This has been a persistent problem with The Walking Dead’s trajectory for a while now, as it has turned its shambling corpses into what is essentially set dressing for the broader conflicts. Moments will arrive when they need to cause a crisis or kill off a couple of characters, though that is about it. They still all look quite good whenever they appear with the makeup and effects getting effectively gruesome as they tear people apart. Even when the rest of the production and direction isn’t all that impressive, the series has never skimped on these elements. The problem is that they just aren’t novel to either the characters or to us as an audience anymore. This could open up interesting new narrative territory as people begin to grow to accept what has happened and try to build a life in the desolate world that is left. What keeps holding it back from doing this is how plot-driven everything feels.
Rarely are there compelling character moments in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. There will be significant deaths here and there to provide some occasional shocks to the story, though this just isn’t enough to get invested in. It has been a while since a character had a real transformative moment that wasn’t stripped to the bare minimum. The closest person who has had something resembling growth is Maggie. She’s trying to raise her and Glenn’s son after he was brutally killed several seasons ago, though this keeps getting swept to the side as there are a lot of other characters to sort through. Much of the show still ends up serving as filler and, even when there are sparks of intrigue to it, feels far too busy. There is still room in the road ahead to try to focus everything on its stronger elements, but this would ultimately require a lot of trimming down on what has dominated this last season. One hopes that The Walking Dead will manage to go out in a fashion that at least feels fitting for how brilliant it started all those years ago, but there is little to demonstrate that it’s capable of doing so. Maybe this is just one show that should have been allowed to die a long time ago.