NOTE: Some spoilers from throughout the eleventh and final season of, “The Walking Dead”, as well as for the finale of Image Comics’, “Walking Dead” comic books, are present in this review
It’s hard to believe that after twelve years and eleven seasons, AMC’s flagship series, The Walking Dead has finally come to an end. Perhaps the last genre series for the foreseeable future to achieve such a landmark run, The Walking Dead was once a television juggernaut, serving as the #1 most watched cable drama for many years, on any network, despite the fact that its audience has since heavily dwindled over the past several seasons. The series peaked around its midway point, around the time of Seasons 5-7, though for all its eventual faults and losses in viewership, it did also manage to achieve the feat of adapting the entirety of its original source comics, all 193 issues of them.
Also a noteworthy feat is the fact that the comics’ climactic storyline, the Commonwealth arc, was entirely adapted within just this final eleventh season, after Seasons 9 and 10 chronicled the penultimate ‘Whisperer War’ storyline. Due to the vast scope of the Commonwealth conflict, this necessitated a super-sized final season of 24 episodes, split into three portions that aired across Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and finally, Fall 2022. It’s not entirely unexpected for AMC to adopt such a unique airing schedule for The Walking Dead’s final bow either, considering that some of their equally celebrated cable dramas, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Mad Men, adopted a similar strategy of splitting their final seasons into different halves that aired far apart from one another.
The difference with The Walking Dead however is that it’s hard to feel a true sense of resolution when it comes to most of the series’ storylines. While AMC’s more direct adaptations of the Walking Dead comic book canon are officially coming to a close after the end of this mainline series, several of the series’ lead characters, specifically Daryl Dixon, Maggie Rhee, Negan Smith, Rick Grimes and Michonne, will now be split across a series of spin-off shows that will continue AMC’s Walking Dead TV universe with all-new storylines. That’s also before factoring in that another of The Walking Dead’s former personalities, Morgan Jones, continues to headline prequel series, Fear the Walking Dead, which will begin its eighth season early next year. Needless to say, AMC is not slowing down with Walking Dead content, for better or for worse, despite the fact that the franchise’s TV canon has now run out of comic book plots to mine for the live-action medium.
So, with this being the end of the line for adaptations of Image Comics’ Walking Dead library, how well does AMC’s The Walking Dead manage to both adapt the comics’ final Commonwealth arc, and provide a fitting farewell to such a long-running TV horror staple? Well, the short answer is, it does so acceptably enough. The series’ final season is undeniably hampered by pacing issues, due to its need for more episodes, and its eccentric three-portion airing schedule. Not only that, but it also happens to suffer from a disappointingly weak series finale, one that ultimately concludes the show on a whimper, an issue made worse by the glut of spin-offs that AMC probably shouldn’t have revealed in advance of this flagship show’s conclusion.
One can’t fault the commendable ambition behind The Walking Dead’s final season though, even if it sometimes feels pretty strained in execution. The show also makes a valiant effort to tap into some of the innate social commentary behind the Commonwealth, a mega-community built around different levels of privilege and political maneuvering, thus existing as a truly untouched bastion of the old pre-apocalypse world, albeit with a bit of a medieval spin. Unsurprisingly however, social commentary is no longer The Walking Dead’s strong suit, and this season does tend to suffer when it’s attempting to say something more meaningful than its usual brand of character drama and unflinching zombie horror. To be frank, The Walking Dead just isn’t a smart enough show to take on timely real-world commentary, least of all in its later reaches, especially when even the original comic books struggled to bring their own continuity to a consistently strong close through the Commonwealth storyline.
“One can’t fault the commendable ambition behind The Walking Dead’s final season though, even if it sometimes feels pretty strained in execution.”
So, a few things are definitely working against this final season. Still, the season manages to deliver some interesting new personalities through the Commonwealth, on top of once again providing an effective new spin on what the series’ familiar survivors have to face, continuing their bid to endure against the endless appetites of the dead. What’s interesting here is that the Commonwealth isn’t just another enemy to Alexandria, Hilltop et al; It’s actually the communities’ saviour during their first introduction this season, following Eugene’s venturing party sending them back to their starving, ravaged homes for aid. This noble act however eventually gives way to a subtle form of sabotage, and eventual conquest, as forces within the Commonwealth conspire to expand the community’s influence, essentially aspiring to ‘gobble up’ smaller communities like Alexandria, Hilltop and Oceanside.
Spearheading this agenda is Lance Hornsby, a charismatic and devious deputy governor to the Commonwealth, who goes rogue in the name of deniability for the Commonwealth’s true leader, Pamela Milton. Hornsby is one of the key Commonwealth personalities in the comics’ canon, alongside Sebastian, Pamela’s spoiled, sociopathic son, who actually kills The Walking Dead’s original protagonist, Rick Grimes in the source comics. Weirdly though, the TV series takes a hard left turn with Hornsby and Sebastian, instead killing them both off well before the series finale, and preferring to install Pamela as The Walking Dead’s final TV antagonist, rather than Sebastian. This doesn’t work. Not only is Pamela much less interesting than Hornsby or Sebastian, she also completely lacks a villainous presence in the TV canon, or even a real reason to become such a spectacular force of destruction in the end. The changes to these key Commonwealth characters from their comic book counterparts is presumably meant to tie into this final season’s themes of political corruption and classism, but they ultimately just end up feeling like a pointless deviation from the comic book lore, one that further undermines The Walking Dead’s disappointing final episode.
Fortunately, this final season is much stronger when it integrates The Walking Dead’s familiar survivors into the Commonwealth, where they get split up into different roles. Daryl and Rosita for example get assigned to be ‘stormtroopers’ for the Commonwealth, while Connie and Kelly become journalists, Ezekiel and Carol become caretakers, and Yumiko resumes her old life of being a lawyer, among other examples. These characters are thus able to live comfortably in civilization within the Commonwealth’s walls, a major adjustment after over a decade in post-apocalyptic hell. Some of the show’s protagonists inevitably reject the promises of the Commonwealth however, most notably Maggie, who instead chooses to re-establish Hilltop under her leadership. Seeing The Walking Dead’s many characters find their values and goals challenged by the promise of comfort and luxury, even at the expense of their identities, is great, especially when it divides some potential battle lines between former allies, even if the show frustratingly wimps out of seeing the bulk of these conflicts through properly.
This final season also seemed to get a pretty generous budget from AMC, naturally, and that means that some of its action scenes are especially ambitious and impressive. Granted, a significant chunk of this season takes place within the refuge of the Commonwealth, so you don’t get quite as many walkers as you do in earlier seasons, even with the extended length. Still, the Commonwealth’s stormtroopers prove to be equally dangerous foes, with another of this season’s best new characters, the stormtrooper leader, Michael Mercer, functioning as an exceptional wild card among the cast, particularly after he forms a romantic relationship with the protagonists’ newest ally, Princess. This relationship is bolstered further by Eugene finding his own romance with Mercer’s sister, Max (an original character that doesn’t exist in the comics), another interesting storyline that takes on some thrilling new dimensions later in the season, after certain circumstances eventually label Eugene as an enemy of the state.
Sadly, you have to slog through a pretty dull opening to the season in order to get to the better Commonwealth storylines. The first third of The Walking Dead’s final season is easily its weakest, as the communities struggle through famine and desperation without much direction, all while Eugene’s splinter group goes through the tedious process of Commonwealth induction. The show does try to add some excitement in this first third by introducing yet another new villain group, the Reapers (this enemy group also didn’t originally exist in the comics), who serve as ex-military zealots that stand in opposition to Maggie’s former splinter group, the Wardens. Unfortunately, the Reapers are dull, non-sensical enemies that feel like a pale appetizer compared to the richer, more interesting Commonwealth. Even a connection between the Reapers’ lieutenant, Leah and series mainstay, Daryl can’t salvage these baddies in the end, since they feel retroactively added to create more excuses for action scenes during this final season’s slower early stretch.
The plotting’s refocus around social commentary also means that usual Walking Dead hallmarks, specifically shocking character deaths, are all but completely eliminated during these final 24 episodes, something else that sadly undermines The Walking Dead’s final bow. Throughout almost this entire season in fact, the protagonists suffer no fatalities. This only changes during the series finale, when Luke is thanklessly killed during an escape, and Rosita essentially becomes the surrogate to the comics’ Rick, being bitten and dying after trying to save her baby from a horde of walkers. A character like Daryl being killed during the finale probably would have made more impact here, but we obviously can’t kill off Daryl at this point, since he needs to headline his upcoming spin-off show. I guess Rosita drew the short straw then, because it seems like AMC still wants to find plenty of excuses to pull on fan-favourite survivors in future Walking Dead projects, leaving the network sadly as scared as usual about killing off beloved survivors this late in the game. At least Rosita’s death in the TV series is appropriately emotional though, particularly considering her more unceremonious fate as one of Alpha’s border heads within the Walking Dead comics’ canon.
“Sadly, you have to slog through a pretty dull opening to the season in order to get to the better Commonwealth storylines.”
Speaking of Rick, Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira do briefly reprise their roles as Rick and Michonne, respectively for The Walking Dead’s final episode, predictably to set up their own upcoming spin-off series. Rick is shown to be on the run from the Civic Republic, the even-bigger mega-community from The Walking Dead: World Beyond that’s exclusive to the TV canon, while Michonne continues to pursue leads on Rick’s whereabouts. It’s nice that Lincoln and Gurira were able to make an appearance at some point during this final season, though like I said, this does diminish the sense of finality in what’s supposed to be a big TV ending, considering that the end of The Walking Dead merely serves as the first chapter in a new glut of spin-offs. This is something that even AMC’s own marketing proudly admits to as well; The franchise’s biggest series is ending, but it also kind of isn’t. That makes it tough to feel a real sense of closure.
I suppose however that The Walking Dead never really had an exit strategy in the first place. It is, after all, a series about people surviving a zombie apocalypse, one that seems to go on forever, with no cure or ultimate defense in sight. So, I guess it somewhat makes sense that AMC would take the opportunity to keep their former ‘biggest show ever’ going indefinitely in some form, because it’s not like the threat of walkers will ever truly disappear at this rate. Even so, it’s tough not to feel at least a little disappointed with The Walking Dead’s otherwise decent final season. The Commonwealth is a very interesting, shady and memorable new community, but the ultimate conflict against them ends on a whimper, as does the earlier conflict against all-new enemy faction, the Reapers. Much of this final season is strongest within its buildup, but it too rarely takes that buildup to a truly worthwhile payoff. This feels especially apparent through the fresh batch of Walking Dead successor shows that are refusing to let the franchise’s TV canon slow down at all, with their new episodes premiering as soon as early 2023.
Overall, enduring fans will probably be pleased well enough by The Walking Dead’s super-sized final season, which does a mostly solid job of bringing the comics’ climactic Commonwealth arc to live-action, even if it also struggles in several other places. The show’s usual flaws continue to remain very noticeable right up to its end as well, especially since AMC’s Walking Dead TV universe has gone well past its ‘Best Before’ date at this point, upcoming spin-offs and Fear the Walking Dead be damned. As far as the Herculean task of concluding such a massive flagship series is concerned however, The Walking Dead did alright, even if the franchise’s refusal to take a breather on the small screen eliminates some of the ceremony behind this supposed ‘ending’.
- The Commonwealth is an interesting, complex obstacle
- Some sweet character resolutions, especially for Eugene and Rosita
- Mercer, Sebastian and Hornsby particularly excel as new personalities
- Social commentary behind the Commonwealth is weak
- Too many dull villains, especially in the first third
- The show's ending is undermined by the glut of upcoming spin-offs