Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Jim McDermottNovember 18, 2022
The cast of ‘The Walking Dead’ (IMDB)The cast of ‘The Walking Dead’ (IMDB)

When people look back on “The Walking Dead,” which ends its 12-year, 11-season, 177-episode run on AMC this month, they’re likely to remember it as “that zombie show.”

But rewatching the pilot recently, I was stunned to be reminded of just how much depth and heart the series brought to that idea. For most of that episode, we watch as Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), having awoken from a coma to discover society has mysteriously collapsed, wanders through a seemingly abandoned world. On his way home he comes upon the rotting upper body of a woman, and is paralyzed with fear when it suddenly turns over and begins to drag itself toward him. (One of the great initial ideas of the show and the comic book upon which it is based was to place at its center not the typical damsel in distress but a frightened man.)

“The Walking Dead” ends its 12-year, 11-season, 177-episode run on AMC this month.

Later in the story, having gotten himself together (and gathered a large cache of weapons, a “Walking Dead” staple), Rick returns unexpectedly to that woman. And instead of showing disgust or horror, he quietly grieves for her. “I’m sorry that this happened to you,” he says, after a long silent moment of simply watching her struggle to continue to pull herself along.

For years, “The Walking Dead”was a show that found within its horror-movie conceit a chance to explore questions of grief and loss in ways every bit as resonant and deep as more critically acclaimed shows like “The Leftovers” or “Six Feet Under.” It was also just a great roller coaster ride. You could see the writers pushing themselves to create dilemmas that had never been done in a zombie movie before—trapped in a dumpster, in a military tank, in a revolving door—or to think through the implications of the zombie mythology in new ways. One of the major conflicts of the show, one that never fully went away, was the reality of having to kill beings that still seemed alive. Could a loved one still be “in there” in some way? How could one truly know?

Near the series finale, a child zombie keeps following Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan), one of the show’s few remaining cast members from the early seasons. And it is every bit as upsetting to watch as in the early days of the show. In the end Maggie ends up taking the boy in her arms and simply holding it before putting it out of his misery.

One of the major conflicts of the show was the reality of having to kill beings that still seemed alive.

I originally stopped watching the show in Season 7, after Maggie’s husband, the show’s likable Glenn Rhee (Steven Yuen) was beaten to death with a barbed wire-wrapped bat by one of the series’ many insanely violent men. (While this, too, came right from the comic book, it proved to be a massive mistake for the series. The showlost almost three million viewers that year, and almost as many the year after that.) Going through the final set of episodes now, I feel like Rick in the pilot: I don’t know how these people came to this place, but I am very sorry that this happened to them.

One of the persistent storylines of the series is about Rick and his friends running into some other community of people that turns out to be hideous in some way—and having to destroy them to survive. In this final season, our heroes have been integrated into an actual walled society, complete with houses, lattes and pressed suits. In the midst of the nightmare world of “The Walking Dead” it’s a very weird thing to see. But having now once again discovered cruelty and viciousness at the community’s heart, they have spent their final episodes together lurching toward one of the show’s many inevitable blood baths. The villains will no doubt be slaughtered and our characters turned into saviors.

Even more than the comic book, the show has always fancied itself a commentary on society.

Even more than the comic book, the show has always fancied itself a commentary on society. It’s an instinct that makes sense for a zombie story—from its origins the genre has been used to talk about current social ills—and for a television show imagining humanity trying to rebuild itself after a plague.

But in practice that predilection has always been the most exhausting (and by this point exhausted) part of the series. In the end one fascist really does look like another, and the relentless bleakness of the show’s take on society becomes tedious. Returning to that well again and again also raises the question whether the series doesn’t revel in the human-on-human violence that these conflicts create. Or maybe that’s just a quality of its audience. At the show’s final panel presentation at New York Comic Con this October, a clip from an upcoming episode showed the fan-favorite Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) suddenly whipping out a knife and stabbing a bad guy through the hand. The crowd went crazy.

In truth, as the characters sneak back into town in the penultimate episode, trying to get to the community’s villainous leader—a power-hungry, deceptive white woman—they unexpectedly reminded me of the attackers upon the U.S. Capitol, another motley group of would-be resistance fighters drunk on conspiracy theories and with a longstanding paranoia about female politicians. In the past those sorts of parallels may have been intentional—one of the show’s great reveals was that the “walking dead” refers not to the zombies but to the living, who have lost touch with so much of their humanity. But in the final episodes these political parallels seem unintentional.

Having caught up on some astonishing moments that I had missed from the series’ recent past—the hopeful-to-the-end death of Rick’s teenage son Carl (Chandler Riggs), the departure of Rick himself and the subsequent final episode of his wife, Michonne (Danai Gurira)—I feel an unexpected sadness that the show is ending. There just aren’t many shows that have offered such profound meditations on sacrifice, grief and love.

In Rick’s final episode, as in his first, he is a confused, mortally wounded man, limping away from a mob of the undead and yet looking just like them. Death is coming for us all, the show reminds us over and over. Yet the stories of these characters facing that reality and still reaching for another day and one another has often been a testament not to horror, but the ineradicable beauty and nobility of existence.

More: TV

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

City and state/province, or if outside Canada or the U.S., city and country. 
When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

The latest from america

Two people hug reunited in front of a wall
We should focus on what today’s reading outlines as a uniter, that being a sanctuary under God.
Cristobal SpielmannMarch 31, 2023
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been coming out into the streets for the past three months in escalating pro-democracy protests against the most politically and religiously extreme right-wing government Israel has ever had.
Judith SudilovskyMarch 31, 2023
Pope Francis waving to the crowd in front of a depiction of Che Guevera in Havana, Cuba
Ahead of the U.S. theatrical release of “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis,” America spoke with Gianfranco Rosi about his ideas for the documentary and how the film is a modern-day Stations of the Cross.
Ryan Di CorpoMarch 31, 2023
pope francis greets medical workers in a hospital in 2021
I was pleasantly surprised to realize that amid all the polarization and turmoil found online among Catholics, we can still come together to pray for an old man who happens to be our pope.
Molly CahillMarch 31, 2023