All it took was one brutal scene.
Fans of The Walking Dead had been gearing up for it for months, but when a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire brutally ended the story of one of the show’s most beloved characters in October 2016, it became a turning point for both the post-apocalyptic drama’s cast of characters and its longtime audience — forcing many to consider whether the deeper issues explored by the series were worth the show’s infamously gory violence.
Nearly five years later, The Walking Dead — a series about a virus that causes humans to reanimate as flesh-eating zombies — is set to begin its final season against the backdrop of a real-world global pandemic. Fans who have stuck with the series through its brutal moments, dipping ratings, and more than a few stale and repetitive story arcs across 10 seasons have been rewarded with themes that far transcend its visual effects and prosthetic make-up prowess.
Maybe more importantly, however, is that the show’s apocalyptic premise has allowed the series to explore some questions about society and survival that have become particularly relevant in the last 18 months, while giving fans like myself an escape from tough times.
Ask any longtime fan of The Walking Dead and they will insist that the series is about the people, not the zombies.
Indeed, in season after season, the most formidable foes its group of survivors face are often humans, not the herds of “walkers” (the show’s term for the shambling undead) that lurk around every corner. And central to every episode is not necessarily survival in its rawest sense, but rather the difficult yet relatable choices characters are forced to make under extreme circumstances.
These ever-difficult decisions come across like a game of “Would You Rather” with life-or-death stakes, forcing both the characters and the show’s audience to confront the aftermath of their choices.
Would you cut off your own arm to stop an enemy from killing your child? Would you cut open a pregnant woman to save her baby knowing it will kill her in the process? Would you allow a dangerously sick — physically or psychologically — individual to remain in your home, or take them out to pasture for the good of the community?
Along with posing serious questions about life, love, survival, and the lengths you might go to survive, The Walking Dead also offers a surprisingly deep exploration of how we could all lose — or perhaps, find — ourselves in circumstance.
How people might act, and react, in the most difficult situations is a thematic undercurrent that runs through every season of the series, particularly as the titles and social constructs we’re accustomed to are stripped away in the world the characters inhabit.
Can a lawbreaking redneck find common ground with a small-town police chief? Would an aspiring actor’s talents be enough to convince others that he’s a worthy leader? Could those we least expect to be strong — from a young man who delivers pizzas to an abused housewife — emerge as pinnacles of resilience?
These broader cultural questions are just some of the lessons hiding behind scenes of guts spilling from a zombified man or a bloated walker in a well.
Much like in real life, many of the choices characters make in The Walking Dead are heavily influenced by the group each individual joins.
The communities portrayed in The Walking Dead demonstrate different ways people might adapt to survive apocalyptic conditions and what they’ll sacrifice in exchange for a sense of safety and security.
In the show’s Grady Memorial Hospital, for example, community leaders effectively brought back a form of slavery. Injured people were lured inside, nursed back to health, and then forced into a life of manual labor and servitude.
The community of Alexandria offered a progressive, eco-friendly sanctuary that lived in blissful ignorance of the dangers outside their walls, while the mafia-like Saviors functioned more like a cult, surviving through threats, intimidation, and taking what they need from others.
And at the most extreme, the residents of Terminus resorted to cannibalism, fattening up and slaughtering humans, then cooking and eating their flesh.
Watching each group in action and how characters change (or don’t change) as a result of their time with one group or another makes it easy to question whether our own personal views and morals are a matter of choice or simply based on circumstance.
Suffering through the low points of The Walking Dead has also become its own reward, because the show has managed to do the unthinkable in TV land: Return to what made it great in the first place.
After earning consistently positive reviews across the first five seasons, critical consensus on the series plummeted in the next few seasons — hitting a mere 64% positive reviews for seasons 7 and 8. However, the most recent two seasons have been warmly received by critics, with some indicating that recent story arcs feel “more alive than ever, with heightened tension and a refreshed pace that rejuvenates this long-running franchise.”
At its heart, the series is a deeply emotional saga of survival, friendship, revenge, and difficult decisions — and the series’ own ability to survive what would have ended lesser shows has rewarded longtime fans with some of the best stories of the show so far.
Sure, some of the longer arcs are repetitive — group finds safe-haven, group faces new, seemingly invincible enemy, group rises above — but isn’t that what life is about: Dealing with ups and downs and rising above each time? The enemy might be a bat-wielding cult leader one day, and a cannibal the next, or it might be the loss of a job, and then a global pandemic.
What began as an entertaining comic book series created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard now seems poised to end up one of the most exciting post-apocalyptic sagas to ever grace the small screen.
To its credit, The Walking Dead never jumped the proverbial shark, even if it did tread water for a few seasons. Fans who stuck with it were gifted with a return to brilliance in recent seasons. In one of its most memorable arcs, the series was even able to humanize and redeem the character responsible for one of its most polarizing moments in a testament to the power of unfettered forgiveness.
Although several spin-off projects will extend the franchise’s run, it’s the original show that introduced many of the life lessons with importance that extends beyond the screen.
Don’t be too judgmental, for example, because you never know the difficult decisions someone is facing behind the scenes. Be thankful for what you have, because it could be gone in the blink of an eye, and be confident, because it can get you far.
Time and time again, the series has taught its audience not to make assumptions about the people around them, because every person can surprise you — and you might even surprise yourself.
I will be watching every episode of the series’ final season, and like so many other fans who stuck with it over the last ten seasons, I’ll carry its life lessons with me long after it’s over.
Season 11 of The Walking Dead will premiere this Sunday, August 22, on AMC.