It turns out an expiration date is exactly what The Walking Dead needed to get the blood pumping, after shambling along the past few years with no end seemingly in sight.
But after 12 years, incalculable walkers, dozens of main characters and more than a few creatives resets along the way, The Walking Dead is coming to an end. It’s a slow end, with AMC taking its sweet time getting there by breaking the super-sized final season into three parts, but it really is happening.
More surprising than anything, however, is that the show is… kinda pretty great right now.
Like 5 million or so other horror fans, I was there 12 years ago watching live when The Walking Dead aired its ambitious, genre-redefining pilot episode just after Halloween in 2010. I was there when they found Sophia. I was there when they faced off against The Governor and Negan, when the show was regularly pulling in 15 million viewers every Sunday night and driving pretty much all the watercooler conversation the following Monday.
I was still there when the big time jump pushed the story six years into the future, and Rick disappeared, and they fought the Whisperers, and made contact with the Commonwealth, as the ratings slowly slipped back to the harsh reality of linear TV and only a million or so hardcore fans seemed to stick around. I had thought about falling off the zombie-wagon myself years ago, but after investing so much time into this corner of the post-apocalypse, I still cared just enough—even if the past few seasons were mostly seen in the background while scrolling Twitter, or doing the laundry.
From the early days, the format and DNA of The Walking Dead was built to go the long haul, with an “anyone can die” attitude that wasn’t afraid to take out fan favorites and original stars with sometimes reckless abandon. There were near-limitless challenges out there to face, from new factions, to scarcity of resources, attempts to restart civilization, and the ever-present undead roaming the world. Not to mention, the comic that inspired it all ran for 16 years and 193 issues itself, all jam-packed with story ideas to mine.
But after a while, a show that kills off its main characters regularly runs out of characters that fans actually care about. If you were to ever take a season or two off and try to jump back in, The Walking Dead would look like a different show, with an almost entirely new cast and just a few familiar faces still left standing. But even then, the cast was always so expansive you could sometimes go several episodes without seeing the folks you actually cared about.
Despite those challenges, the show seems to have finally discovered how to make the formula work for itself in this final season push. Instead of sprawling, meandering storylines centered on new-ish characters (most of whom would end up killed off anyway), the narrative has refocused around the handful of core cast members still hanging around—and they’ve set those OG stars on opposite sides of an epic clash that’s nuanced and compelling, with clear stakes for all.
In a move that loosely mirrors the final arc of the comic, the survivors have connected with the massive Commonwealth community, which is home to tens of thousands of survivors and has largely restored much of the “old” world, with everything from a military, to movie theaters, to shops on Main Street. But like most civilizations, it’s far from perfect, with corruption coursing through the core of its rigid government.
The drama at the heart of the final season is fairly simple one: can the Commonwealth be trusted? Daryl (Norman Reedus) and some key survivors joined up with the Commonwealth, while Maggie (Lauren Cohan) leads a contingent that wants nothing to do with the larger group. Fan favorite Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is also in the middle of it all, trying his best to atone for his darker, Glenn-murdering days.
It’s clear the show is telling one of its most important stories, and the sense that it’s all leading toward a final shuffling of the deck is palpable. Instead of chasing B and C stories to keep the wheels spinning, the season’s narrative thrust remains centered on the Commonwealth and how it represents the most earth-shattering change to the status quo the show has ever seen.
However it all ends, this will be a different world than the one we’ve spent a decade following Rick, Daryl, Maggie and the rest of the gang through. Every episode in this final season has kept the story moving forward, and you can feel the pressure and anticipation build week-to-week. It’s made for some of the best stories this show has put together in years, finally paying off on the potential of those early seasons, but with the benefit of a decade’s worth of world-building and storytelling as a foundation.
You can feel the end coming, and after 12 years in this world, it’s almost a relief to feel like it might actually go out on a high note.
Of course, even the looming finale isn’t actually the end, as AMC has myriad spinoffs in the works to fill the void once the flagship series calls it quits with a final batch of episodes later this year. Spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead is still going strong, after limited series The World Beyond wrapped last year after two seasons. There’s also a long-gestating series of movies set to star Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes still in the works, as well as an anthology spinoff dubbed Tales of The Walking Dead. There’s also another untitled spinoff centered around the characters of Daryl and Carol, with stars Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride reprising their roles. Most recently, news broke about the Isle of the Dead miniseries, yet another spinoff set to move the undead action to New York City with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) taking center stage.
So The Walking Dead might be dying, but don’t worry—the franchise is far from dead. And if the final season is to be trusted, there could still be plenty of good shambling drama yet to come. For now, The Walking Dead is good again, and just in time.
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.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.