Simon (Steven Ogg), Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in the season finale of "The Walking Dead."
Another “Walking Dead” season is in the books. A few key characters moved on to, let’s say, a better place during the show’s seventh year. Some new ones were introduced. Many a zombie snarled its last snarl.
And the show could use some fresh ideas. Ratings for AMC’s look at the dystopia that follows a zombie-causing plague have fallen for two years in a row. On the other hand, “The Walking Dead” remains one of the most popular series on TV, pulling more than 10 million viewers even in a slow week.
But in watching closely this year, I also heard many notes of exasperation from former fans, and I felt some of that exasperation myself. Season 7 was a very long walk toward a so-so sunset.
Here are five things “The Walking Dead” needs to do to keep us watching (spoilers ahead):
1. Make the zombies scary again. Remember when this show started, and we were terrified of all those flesh-hungry teeth-gnashers? But we learned soon enough that they move slowly and predictably, and the only threat they pose is a bite that would infect the recipient. Not even their blood is a menace to living people.
By now the walkers, as Rick’s core group calls them, accurately, have basically become wallpaper, a minor environmental hazard that requires a few quick stabs to the head to eliminate. Bug spray for mosquitoes, cranial blows for zombies. There were some grand zombie murder set pieces this season — remember the sand zombies? The highway median zombies? — but it was more for show than necessity.
So let the sub-humans mutate so they can once again strike fear into the hearts of viewers and of the world’s survivors. Give some of them speed, or the dawning of collective thought, or a leader, or, I don’t know, the power to rally wild animals to their side. Anything to make walkers great again.
2. Reintroduce science fiction into the series. As it stands, the zombie plague is a given: no talk of a cause or a cure. This hellscape with snarling beasties is just the way life is. Imagine how much more meaningful the struggles of Rick, Maggie and crew would be if they were fighting for something bigger than their own territory, their own survival.
Season 1 ended, you’ll recall, at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and it looked as if the reason for and resolution of the disease that transmogrified much of humanity would be part of the series going forward. But that possibility has been receding with each successive season. For a time, Abraham, Rosita and Eugene were said to be headed to Washington, D.C., for a solution, but that turned out to have been a fiction spun by Eugene to ensure his own survival. Since then: bupkus.
Whenever I think about what “The Walking Dead” could be, I think of the best two zombie fictions I’ve seen, “28 Days” and “28 Days Later.” Those films put their characters inside a bigger narrative. What they were doing mattered not just for themselves but for all of humanity. “The Walking Dead” needs to pan out and reintroduce the big story.
3. Shed predictability. Yes, the Scavengers turning on Rick’s group at Alexandria was a surprise that injected life into Sunday’s finale. But it was one of the few this year, which saw yet another storyline about one post-apocalyptic tribe warring with another over meager resources.
The beginning of next season has to deal with the war against Negan’s Saviors. But let’s dispatch with that quickly and find a story to tell other than turf wars. Can they work to reestablish manufacturing? Get a nuclear plant up and running? Engineer a mass zombie elimination to make the world a little safer?
Or perhaps they’ll figure out that the birth rate isn’t what it needs to be? Seek a cure?
4. Kill Negan. My lord, this bad guy who dominated Season 7 and will live into next is a tedious human being. He’s a dictator-thug with the mentality of a 12 year old, and a love of speechifying not seen since Huey Long.
Virtually every onscreen moment with this guy — after he started the season by bludgeoning Glenn and Abraham to death — was a downer. Chewing scenery as he prattled on about his strategies, such as they were. Toying with his prey not by batting it around, like a big cat, but by filling its eardrums with the taunts and insults of a dullard. The show wants him to be this great villain, but he’s not smart or interesting enough to be great. He needs to go.
5. Go your own way, writers. I know that “The Walking Dead” is working with Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series as its story template, but as “Game of Thrones” showed last season, sometimes a show can improve when it veers away from, or gets ahead of, its source material.
I’ve peeked ahead at the comic-book plot outline and, well, eh. There’s one big storyline that shows promise, but I wouldn’t want to hang another 16-episode season on it alone. Stop thinking about how to make the comic-book story work on TV, and start thinking about telling an effective TV story, whatever that needs to be.
What will help is to have in mind how all of this will end. If you’re writing toward a satisfying resolution, you’ll have a much better chance of telling compelling stories along the way. Right now, it feels like we’re meandering. Episodes feel padded. Emotions are asserted in voiceover rather than dramatized in real time.
And, as I said, that endpoint needs to aim big. Don’t just have Rick and company as a crucible for humanity in trying new circumstances; have their struggle also tie in with the survival of humanity itself. And then you can set us free to get wrapped up in some other TV series.