The Walking Dead has no end-game, and that’s a problem

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Second in the shock department only to a certain sitcom cancellation this week, the news that Andrew Lincoln would be moving on from The Walking Dead has set the internet abuzz with speculation as to how (and why) the departure might play out.

But some fans were hit (again) with an overwhelming feeling – what’s even the point of The Walking Dead anymore? Dystopian stories thrive on that little spark of hope and, with more and more original characters being dispatched and less and less of an idea of any conclusion the characters are trudging towards, that hope has long since burned out.

Certain television shows can pull off a big star departure with ease, but Walking Dead is in a rather unique position. It isn’t a soap opera like Grey’s Anatomy or even something like One Tree Hill, which waved goodbye to Chad Michael Murray and Hilarie Burton two-thirds of the way through its run, and hasn’t set the anthology-esque precedent that Doctor Who enjoys.

Coming of age in a TV landscape where ‘anyone can die’, one it helped create, The Walking Dead can’t even use Rick’s death for shock value. It tried that this season with Carl’s demise, which may go down in the show’s history as being its biggest misstep.

No, there have been too many deaths on the show for this to be its Ned Stark moment – that ship has sailed. Like the reduced role of Lauren Cohan next season, this feels clinical and contractual, and it’s almost impossible for a series to recover when behind the scenes issues are visible on screen.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, the deaths there have almost always felt like story beats. Early deaths on The Walking Dead felt the same. There was enough urgency for the audience to worry about their favourites meeting a fatal zombie bite or disembowelment, but when characters died there was the sense that this was supposed to happen on the way to a better post-apocalyptic world.

The turning point for many was the Glenn zombie hoard fake out, but I’d argue it was Glenn’s actual death that killed the show – or at least a combination of the two. It felt like a decision made entirely to piss the audience off, or else backtrack on an unpopular ‘resurrection’ a season earlier.

Carl was the final nail in the coffin, killing off the series’ biggest in-world hope for a better world. Had he survived, it feels like Andrew Lincoln’s exit would feel a lot less irritating. It would have been a passing of the torch moment and the signal for a new stage in the story’s evolution. As it is, Judith is the last remaining vestige of joy and possibility in the group.

It’s understandable why AMC has kept Walking Dead around for so long – it’s a big ratings hit even now – but some stories work better with finite endings and, should those natural endpoints be surpassed, the viewing experience can start to feel futile. Misery porn can only entertain for so long.