It’s a tall task to try and end a series that isn’t actually ending, per se, just breaking off into a handful of spinoff shows that aim to keep the core stars and fan favorites around on AMC’s airwaves for years to come.
It’s seemingly within that framework that The Walking Dead creative team found themselves when piecing together the long-teased, long-awaited and just plain long series finale to a show that is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Peak TV era. The final season has found our heroes facing their biggest challenge yet, grappling with a much larger community and tearing at the fabric of big questions about what makes a society work, and how we should remake the world when given the opportunity. Plus, of course, there are also zombies.
The final episode of the series paid off the bubbling tension within this larger community, the Commonwealth, with a political uprising that plays out with a full-on zombie horde crashing through the backdrop. It’s the type of story that could have been told across a season in the old days of The Walking Dead (remember that half-season focused simply on Hershel’s barn and the search for Sophia?), but with the show in its 11th season and plenty of buzzy spinoffs waiting in the wings, we instead got to see the key moments followed by a tidy “One Year Later” tag to show us everything would be fine in the end after the clean-up.
No matter how the current writers tried to end this series, it would always bump up against the thesis original creator Robert Kirkman wrote around back when The Walking Dead was just a black and white indie comic trying to make it to its first trade paperback: it’s the story of what happens after the traditional zombie movie credits roll, and yeah, it never really ends. It’s life. There are always more challenges, always more places to explore, people to meet and problems to solve. Oh yeah, and always more walkers.
AMC has more Walking Dead than ever in the works thanks to upcoming sequel spinoffs focused on Rick and Michonne, Negan and Maggie, and Daryl (not to mention long-running spinoff Fear the Walking Dead and new-ish anthology series Tales of The Walking Dead), which puts any proper “series finale” in a weird place to try and wrap up a series while simultaneously teeing up more stories than ever.
Which makes it all the harder to try and manufacture an “event” moment to end a show that’s only getting bigger. It’s just changing names and breaking out into more-focused silos. Which honestly makes sense, considering how much the ensemble and scope has ballooned over the years. The series that ended on Sunday is hardly recognizable from the saga of a lone deputy waking up alone in an abandoned Atlanta hospital, trying to find his family and simply stay alive.
Even bringing Andrew Lincoln’s long-missing Rick back for a convoluted epilogue-style cameo did little to bridge those realities, as it was essentially The Walking Dead Television Universe equivalent of a Marvel post-credit scene. This part might be ending, but don’t worry, there are plenty more phases of undead mysteries yet to unravel. It’s hard to get heartbroken and nostalgic about the end when nothing is actually over.
If anything, the ballyhooed series finale felt more like an ambitious season finale, bringing closure to the lingering Commonwealth arc but leaving plenty of threads yet to be explored. For the sake of comparison, it’s a far cry from the comic book’s final issue, which jumped decades into the future to give us a glimpse of how things ended up once the dust had settled — all told through the lens of Rick’s now-adult son Carl, recounting the family adventures to his daughter. Considering the show killed off Carl a few seasons ago, that obviously wasn’t an option here.
It’s a testament to The Walking Dead’s longevity that it’s made it 12 years and 11 seasons, and it’s done it via constant reinvention and an ensemble star churn that would make Grey’s Anatomy or E.R. blush along the way. But it also means that any fans tuning in out of curiosity on Sunday to see how it ends would have little connection or context to the characters now at the heart of the story. Yes, Daryl and Carol are still there—but those are pretty much the only characters fans who tuned out after the first few ratings-busting glory years might still recognize. Longtime and newer viewers care about those new survivors, too, but it admittedly gets harder to get attached when you’re on your 50th fan favorite.
Put simply, the show that ended this week isn’t really the show that started all those years ago. But that’s okay, the show it became over all these years was actually pretty great at times, but the saga of Rick & Co. as we knew it ended a while back. This version of The Walking Dead is bigger, more ambitious and aiming to take over the world (or at least explore it to see how everywhere from France to Manhattan have fared in the post-apocalypse).
The end of The Walking Dead is effectively just the closing of this chapter, while AMC makes it clear the apocalypse is still open for business. Keeping this open-ended was the only way to ever do it, with the promise of a chance to create a better world. It’s just we’ll actually get to still see it all play out over the next few years, long after the series has technically ended.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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