The Walking Dead first premiered on AMC on Halloween night in 2010, and has since become one of the network’s (and television’s) biggest hits. Now in its eleventh and final season, it has also spawned two spinoffs—Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond—with two more on the way, as well as three films focusing on original franchise protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). While Fear the Walking Dead has also boasted strong ratings and largely positive reviews, World Beyond, which premiered last year, has floundered, with episode ratings among the lowest in the entire franchise, resulting in its cancellation after only two seasons. But was it really given a fair chance?
The Walking Dead: World Beyond is the young-adult novel in the franchise—set 10 years after the zombie apocalypse began in The Walking Dead, it follows a ragtag group of teenagers who become heroes in the midst of very big, dangerous problems. They’re the masterminds, the only ones who piece together what’s really going on, and the only ones who can stop the bad guys. The adults around them are either villains or otherwise minor players who help the group navigate the realities of a post-apocalyptic world they’ve largely been sheltered from until this point. And just about everyone, teens and adults alike, has a secret they’re shielding from the others, whether that’s a dark piece of their past or the truth about their identity.
Because the franchise up to this point has centered on adults fighting for survival, this setup can sometimes fall flat in a way it wouldn’t if it were, in fact, a YA novel, but it does make some sense within the show’s framework. In this piece of the Walking Dead universe, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse aren’t wandering from community to community battling bad guys along the way. They’re carrying on almost as if life is normal, with a team of their most brilliant scientists working to find a way to stop the zombification process entirely—and one of our teens, the brilliant but rebellious Hope, has been recruited for that project.
Despite the low ratings, cancellation, and very valid criticisms, this fresh premise makes World Beyond the most fascinating of the three Walking Dead shows, and it’s worth sticking with—or revisiting, for those who have abandoned it.
For all the Walking Dead’s flaws—like the never-ending parade of increasingly psychotic villains—it understands how people would behave when faced with the dead walking the Earth. Of course some of them indulge their power-hungry desires and resort to extreme violence or set off atomic bombs. Of course some of them reinvent themselves, taking on over-the-top royal personas and keeping pet tigers, or become the cold gatekeepers of their carefully vetted communities. And on the other end of the spectrum, some find a way to continue nearly uninterrupted, maintaining social structures, schools, government, and a military in an insular community where residents are largely shielded from the horrors their compatriots face every week in the other shows. In World Beyond, they haven’t accepted walkers as the new normal; they’re actively trying to end the blight—and they’ve got some pretty horrifying ways of going about it.
The first season of World Beyond focused on polar opposite teenage sisters Hope (Alexa Mansour) and Iris’ (Aliyah Royale) quest to track down their father, Leo (Joe Holt). They were joined by a few others who tagged along—peers Elton (Nicolas Cantu) and Silas (Hal Cumpston) and later, Percy (Ted Sutherland), with adults Felix (Nico Tortorella) and Huck (Annet Mahendru) following—until it was revealed the whole thing was a setup, a plan to manipulate Hope into joining Leo to do research for the mysterious CRM, the specter of which has now begun to hover over all three Walking Dead shows. Meanwhile, the satellite sites of Omaha and Campus Colony were destroyed by what the CRM claims was a massive horde of walkers (or empties, as they’re called in World Beyond). Season 2 then brings the group to the CRM headquarters, where father and daughters are reunited. But as the group becomes increasingly suspicious of the CRM and uncovers more and more of the truth, it moves the show from a coming-of-age apocalypse story to something more sinister.
(Note: Light spoilers in the following paragraph if you aren’t caught up and don’t want to know anything):
We first got a glimpse of what the CRM is up to in the first season of World Beyond during the post-credits scene in Episode 4, “The Wrong End of a Telescope.” An empty is muzzled and strapped to a gurney in a test facility, with more restrained empties visible behind him. Not only do we see them again this season, but we also get more information about who they are and how they got there. In the fifth episode of Season 2, “Quatervois”—now streaming on AMC+ and airing on Halloween—Huck reveals to Leo that she’s discovered documents using the coding system for the scientists’ test subjects, suggesting Campus Colony and Omaha were actually wiped out by the CRM. “Some of the people killed back home were being used for research,” she tells him. Another post-credits scene takes this further, showing a test subject again strapped to a gurney, only this time, he seems to be alive and sedated, suggesting the CRM is killing people so they turn in a controlled environment to be studied. And then there’s the big reveal that The Walking Dead’s Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), real name Anne, is now in charge.
While our heroes see the CRM’s actions as unforgivable and set out to stop them, the organization claims this is all in the best interests of what’s left of the human race. “It’s okay to hate us,” villain Elizabeth (Julia Ormond) tells Hope in the premiere. “You should. The bad things we do must be done. We carry that burden so that others don’t have to, so there can still be good in the world.”
World Beyond certainly has its flaws; it’s plagued by pacing issues, clichés, and plot points which don’t serve much purpose beyond unnecessary drama. The teenage-driven narrative combined with the franchise’s token violence and gore also makes the target audience unclear. Scenes like Season 2, Episode 3’s Jenga face-off between Hope and new friend Mason feel silly, even though the point is to juxtapose Hope being safe, having fun, and flirting with boys alongside the dangers outside of the community she only recently experienced firsthand. It’s also hard to believe that a group who spent their lives away from those apocalyptic dangers would be so adept at surviving when confronted with them, and that they’d so easily uncover the CRM’s secrets.
But with the CRM, World Beyond presents a vastly different look at the Walking Dead universe by functioning both as a normal society and a villain. Survival has a different meaning here. It’s not about scavenging for shelter and resources and fighting anyone who might try to take that away; it’s about living in relative safety and trying to achieve a zombie-free future, using people as a sacrifice to get there. If they were to succeed, it could have major implications for the rest of the franchise, and no matter whether they do or not, we’re likely to see it play out elsewhere. World Beyond may be coming to an end, but with more to come from the franchise, particularly those Rick-focused movies, it’s doubtful that this is the last we’ll see of the CRM and their experiments.
While World Beyond may not rise to the caliber of the rest of the franchise—at least when it was at its best—it gives us an entirely different perspective of the zombie apocalypse, one likely to inform the direction of the forthcoming spinoffs and movies. But as ratings have declined across the franchise, that’s a perspective audiences may not want to see. While they offer the possibility of fresh stories, they also run the risk of presenting too much. Or as with World Beyond, flaws working in tandem to bury strengths, preventing it from reaching its full potential.
The Walking Dead: World Beyond is currently airing its second and final season on AMC and AMC+
Janelle Sheetz is a graduate of Pitt-Greensburg’s English Writing program. Her work has recently appeared in The Daily Drunk, Ms. magazine, and Atta Girl. She lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, son, and two cats.
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