Why AMC Should Prepare to End The Walking Dead, but Probably Won’t

The still entertaining show needs an endgame

Headshot of Jason Lynch

A strange thing happened while I was watching the Season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead—I started identifying with the zombies.

That's not to say the newest episode of AMC's hit zombie drama—which runs 92 minutes and debuts Sunday at 9 p.m.—made me feel brain dead. The show continues to be compelling, and at its best, it delivers an intoxicating (and often nauseating) blend of suspense, gore and occasionally marvelous character scenes.

Yet, the plot of Sunday's episode—which involves Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group of survivors attempting to geographically relocate a sea of walkers for reasons I won't reveal—seems to parallel how the show has been treating its own viewers: keeping them distracted with loud noises so they don't stop and take notice of their surroundings.

As The Walking Dead begins its sixth season—Sunday's episode is the show's 67th—it's time to take a look at where the show has taken us, and ask where it's going and how much longer it should go on.

The answer: Ratings aside, it's time for the show, or at least this part of the franchise, to plot its conclusion and start working toward that. 

For decades, TV shows ran until audiences stopped showing up. And The Walking Dead's ratings are, impressively, still on the rise. Last season was up 9 percent among adults ages 18 to 49, while its Season 5 finale was the highest-rated in history, drawing 15.8 million viewers (10.4 million of them adults 18-49). It's the No. 1 scripted show on television, especially now that its closest competitor, Empire, has been losing viewers. (Two weeks ago, Empire premiered to a 6.7 rating in the 18-49 demo, or roughly 8.4 million viewers, but Episode 3 was down to a 5.0, or about 6.3 million.)

AMC has let its shows' creative needs take precedence over ratings, however. It allowed the creators of its two signature shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to dictate when they should naturally come to a close, even as Breaking Bad's ratings continued to rise each season. AMC would have loved that show to run indefinitely, but Vince Gilligan knew the story needed an end point. (That's the opposite approach of Showtime, which lets shows like Dexter and Weeds run far beyond their expiration dates.)

The same goes for The Walking Dead, which has hit that same meandering phase that Lost was in during Season 3: Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse in essence had their characters treading water until they finally reached an agreement with ABC to wrap the show after three more seasons. 

A similar decision needs to be reached for The Walking Dead in order to shock the story line out of its familiar, circular path: Rick (Andrew Lincoln) vacillates between feral and commanding; the group meets up with a new, seemingly genial band of survivors but quickly learns that all is not what it seems; a beloved character is shockingly killed off; initially timid characters become hardened by their circumstances; some people splinter off from the group and eventually return. Oh, and something really disgusting happens with a zombie.

The first words spoken in Sunday's episode, "I know this sounds insane. This is an insane world. We have to come for them before they come for us. It's that simple," could have been uttered at almost any point in the show and by any character.

It's a testament to the work of showrunner Scott M. Gimple—who brought a steady hand to the production after a tumultuous first few years—that the series seems as fresh as it does despite all the plot recycling. The production keeps topping itself with stunning set pieces: The scope of Sunday's biggest scenes rival Game of Thrones. Lennie Jones, who plays Morgan, is a welcome addition to the cast this season. His scenes with Lincoln crackle. He also brings some welcome levity to a show that has provided little to laugh about during the past five seasons. Executive producer/special effects makeup supervisor Greg Nicotero, who also directs the premiere, keeps devising innovative, stomach-churning new ways to  dispatch zombies.

But the show's creative inertia has been exacerbated by the arrival of spinoff prequel Fear the Walking Dead. Fear's first season had just six episodes, but AMC renewed it for a 15-episode Season 2, meaning that between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, we'll soon be exposed to 31 episodes of post-apocalyptic happenings each year. That's a lot of zombie killing.

Yes, the comic the show is based on—it was launched in 2003—is still going strong, and some shows go on forever. On CBS, NCIS is still thriving after 13 seasons and almost 300 episodes with no deviation from its formula. 

As long as the show continues to draw audiences that any other show on television would kill for, AMC isn't going to shake things up—even though it should. The network's slogan, "something more," adequately sums up what The Walking Dead is lacking. It needs propulsion and an endgame. The franchise can continue, but the best way to revive The Walking Dead is to let it say farewell.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.