When The Walking Dead premiered in 2010, it was an immediate hit. Indeed, the zombie drama brought in viewers for AMC the likes of which the network had never seen before. But eight years on, critical consensus seems to be that the show is nowhere near as good as it used to be; many people have even stopped watching altogether. So, what in the world happened to the once-beloved slaughterfest?
The Walking Dead itself is centered around the life of Rick Grimes, portrayed by Andrew Lincoln. In the series’ first ever episode, Rick is seen emerging from a coma – only to discover that a zombie apocalypse has taken place. From there, he fights to protect his friends and family from both the zombies and some of the more antagonistic survivors.
And The Walking Dead has never been afraid to be dark, brutal and horrific. Main characters have frequently been killed off – sometimes in ways seemingly designed to make audiences queasy. In fact, the level of violence during the series’ run has even led one critic to deride the show as having descended into “torture porn.”
What’s more, the seventh season premiere, broadcast in 2016, was considered to have pushed the envelope much too far. The episode saw Glenn, a fan-favorite character, horrifically and slowly murdered by the villain Negan – much to the dismay of many viewers. TV watchdog Parents Television Council also condemned the episode as “graphically violent” and “brutally explicit.”
However, Steven Yeun, the actor who played Glenn, defended his character’s death in a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair. He said, “That wasn’t any more gory than what we’ve done before, per se. No one got their face ripped in half! People got their guts smashed out and their heads caved in.” Yeun did nevertheless add, “But this one felt gratuitous because, one, it kept going, and, two, I think they took away someone that I didn’t realize I had made such a connection with until they took him away.”
But the violence and gore haven’t been the only issues that viewers have had with The Walking Dead. It’s been argued that the show’s characters have often made nonsensical decisions, for instance, and that any love stories that have emerged have ended up being unrealistically milked for maximum effect. Even the zombies are becoming more and more badly written, it’s said.
And there’s been some drama behind the scenes too. Back in 2011, The Walking Dead lost its original showrunner mere months before the second season aired. Initially, Frank Darabont, the director behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, had overseen the series. Then he was suddenly gone – and, at first, no-one provided the reason for his departure.
In 2013 Darabont subsequently sued AMC, claiming that the network had denied him and his agents a cut of The Walking Dead’s takings. But four years later, while the legal wranglings continued, some details finally came out about Darabont’s unexpected withdrawal from the zombie drama. He had been fired, it seemed, for a torrent of abusive emails sent to the people alongside whom he was supposed to have been working.
The profanity-laden messages, written in 2011, gave several insights into the chaos taking place behind the cameras. Darabont reportedly wrote in one email to an producer, “Please let’s stop invoking ‘the writers’ room.’ There is no writers’ room, which you know as well as I do. I am the writers’ room. The f**king lazy a**holes who were supposedly going to be my showrunners threw that responsibility on me after wasting five months of my time.”
And while Glen Mazzara would take over from Darabont, in 2012 he too left under what appeared to be strained circumstances. “Both parties acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about where the show should go moving forward and conclude that it is best to part ways,” AMC said in a statement. Scott Gimple then became the new showrunner for The Walking Dead’s fourth season.
But throughout all of the turmoil both on and off screen, the show survived. In 2018, however, another behind-the-scenes crisis hit – and it was one that would prove almost catastrophic. It involved a character who’d been in the show since the beginning: Rick’s young son, Carl Grimes, who was played by 17-year-old Chandler Riggs.
In the season eight midseason finale, it was revealed that Carl had been bitten by a zombie, meaning his death would inevitably come soon. And fans were livid about the teenager being killed off. Worse still, however, it was alleged that the young actor behind Carl had been treated unfairly. Riggs’ father took to Facebook after the episode aired to share his anger at what he saw as a callous move from the showrunners.
In a Facebook post he later deleted, William Riggs wrote a very pointed message. “Watching Gimple fire my son two weeks before his 18th birthday after telling him they wanted him for the next three years was disappointing,” he wrote. “I never trusted Gimple or AMC, but Chandler did. I know how much it hurt him.”
Riggs himself was more diplomatic about his character’s death, although he did confirm to The Hollywood Reporter that departing the show wasn’t something that he had wanted. “Leaving Walking Dead wasn’t my decision. It was all story-related,” he told the publication in December 2017. “I was planning on going to college until I found out. I found out when I was doing rehearsals for episode six back in June. It was quite the shocker for me, Andy [Lincoln] and everyone because I don’t think anyone saw it coming.”
And some viewers speculated that Carl’s death had happened for only one reason: money. As soon as Riggs turned 18, he would likely have been eligible to receive a larger salary for his work on the show. What’s more, a petition was subsequently set up calling for Gimple to be sacked. “Fire The Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple for his actions and unfair treatment of actor Chandler Riggs,” read details of the appeal, which would gain more than 87,000 signatures of support.
But while Gimple wasn’t fired, and Carl wasn’t reinstated, The Walking Dead’s ratings did begin slowly sliding down. The season eight midseason premiere was the least-watched one of its kind for the show; after that, the series pulled in its lowest amount of viewers since season one. Perhaps in reaction to Carl’s untimely death, many people had simply turned off.
Online reaction to Carl’s passing was sometimes scathing too. Forbes published a piece with the damning headline “The Walking Dead Just Made A Huge, Unforgivable Mistake All Over Again,” for example. The article also argued, “Carl is just the latest in a long line of character deaths that serve little purpose and ultimately weaken The Walking Dead’s story… as a narrative device, ‘shocking’ deaths are, well, just plain lazy.”
And then, just as the furor from the whole Carl affair was dying down, there came a massive blow to the show. News hit that Andrew Lincoln, who had been The Walking Dead’s protagonist since the start, would be leaving after season nine; Daryl Dixon, another leading character, would be taking his place.
Lincoln would appear in around six episodes of season nine, it was reported, and then make his exit – most likely by dying. Apparently, Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie Greene, would likely only show up in six episodes of the new season as well. And on Twitter, fans announced that they weren’t interested in a Walking Dead without Rick. “After Andrew Lincoln leaves The Walking Dead, I’ll stop watching it,” one person wrote.
It seems, then, that dark times may be ahead for the once-beloved show – and there’s already been a lot of controversy and behind-the-scenes difficulty for the series’ makers to deal with. Indeed, only time will tell whether The Walking Dead can claw itself out of the grave it seems to have landed itself in – or whether it will soon be dispatched for good.