As we inch closer to The Walking Dead season 8’s premiere on October 22, there are a lot of clips and photos being released. While all this new content excites me, it also has me asking once again, “What are they going to do with this season?”
I will admit that I came into The Walking Dead a little late, but I can say that I still fell hard and fast for it. I didn’t think I would ever be into a zombie apocalypse drama, but I watched the first season and fell in love with it instantly. I binged 5 seasons easily and was as impressed with the thematic messages as I was the acting and visuals — which is to say, very. But as of season 6 (with the exception of the season 7 opener), I’ve been generally unmoved by the plot. It’s not to say that nothing interesting has happened since season 6; Rick and the gang has certainly run into many troubles, and some of our favorites didn’t make it out. But what’s ultimately missing in these later seasons has been the Dramatic Question.
The Dramatic Question (or lack thereof) is my primary reason for not enjoying the current Walking Dead seasons as well as most of Fear the Walking Dead. When Rick first woke from his coma in a zombie infested world, the Dramatic Question was pretty simple: How do you survive in a world overrun with horrific undead creatures trying to eat you? It became really interesting in season 2 when the Dramatic Question shifted from Can they survive? to Why should they? What I enjoyed so much about the middle seasons of The Walking Dead was that it forced me to ask myself what I would do in those scenarios and, even more critically, whether it would even be worth it to survive in that kind of world. Of course the thrill comes from wanting those characters to survive, and the heart of the show rested in their will to live despite the odds, and despite the fact that dying was the much easier option. The question became whether or not the characters would find something worth living for.
I also loved how visual the message became about true monsters. In seasons 3 – 5 it was no longer the walkers that Rick had to worry about. The Dramatic Question shifted again to fit this and morphed into something more philosophical about the prevalence of good and evil in society.
But we’ve now come to a point in the show where the Dramatic Question cannot sustain a plot. Season 8 will be about the war between Rick and Negan, but that in itself presents no tension for the audience. There’s only 2 ways this can go — either Rick will win, kill Negan, and then be shoved into another villain, or Negan will win. But we know it can’t be the last option. So now we as an audience are asking ourselves why should we care about this season? Besides visual gore for shock value, what emotional pull will the show have?
And this is The Walking Dead’s biggest problem right now. We’ve been dealing with human villains for a while now (since The Governor in season 3), each more gruesome and terrible than the last. But how can there be a villain more gruesome and terrible than Negan? Once he’s gone, what trouble will the group face? Perhaps it’s just a fact that, for these characters, the Dramatic Questions have been answered. They certainly have been for the audience.
I don’t where The Walking Dead should go from here, and I anticipate season 8 being structurally similar to season 7, with a season full of build up for one final battle. The fun for me now will seeing how they bring this monster of a series to a close.