Walking Dead is very well alive

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays current bad guy Negan in The Walking Dead.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays current bad guy Negan in The Walking Dead.PHOTO: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS

AMC's horror series has reached 100 episodes, but the zombies have taken a backseat

LOS ANGELES • AMC's horror series The Walking Dead has legs to reach a new Season 8 milestone, but the zombies seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Still, the show reaches a significant television achievement on Sunday.

Its Season 8 premiere is also its 100th episode - a traditional benchmark of enduring success and the ability to unlock even greater profits through syndication sales.

Some viewers may be surprised that the journey has logged only 99 episodes so far as its characters sneak through the woods and motor down the abandoned highways of the zombie-plagued rural South.

And the road stretches endlessly into the future.

While other successful shows of the same vintage are gracefully pulling down the curtain - The Americans and Game Of Thrones have both announced that their next seasons will be their last - the producers of The Walking Dead, with plenty of comic books remaining to adapt, talk cheerily of another 100 episodes.

It is silly to argue with success when a show has dominated the ratings for most of its run - and when it and its offshoots support hundreds, probably thousands, of workers.

But Sunday's premiere, the only new episode available in advance, finds The Walking Dead circling in the same storytelling stasis that has marked its last few seasons.

It moves along in a lurching shuffle it seems to have picked up from the walkers, its decomposing zombie hordes.

What is most striking about the episode, titled Mercy, is how little you see of those walkers.

Once the show's primary source of existential dread, they are now mostly props, staggering past in the background or being herded like deadly farm animals.

A column of them figures in the plot in a way that is derivative of Season 6's quarry episodes while lacking any real sense of freaky menace.

A long shift from walkers to humans as primary antagonists now feels complete though the show could shift back at any time.

The band of survivors centred on the former deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has faced human nemeses all along, from the loose cannon Merle Dixon to the maniacal Governor.

But the definitive turn happened with the introduction of the current nemesis - the theatrical, truly comic book-style Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose performance has been the main reason to watch lately).

The urge to expand the story beyond the constant flight from mindless flesh-munchers is understandable.

But much of the dread, as well as emotional urgency, has gone out of the show in the process.

What is left, in the current plot in which Rick tries to unite various survivor communities against Negan's predatory Saviours, are platitudes about community building and the ethics of self-preservation, swathed in the show's always evocative cinematography and high production values.

The Walking Dead, with its two-part, 16-episode seasons, is in a no-man's land between shorter cable and streaming shows and longer but episodic broadcast shows. It is TV's prime example of the strains of telling a tightly serialised story across many years with no natural end in sight.

What made the show terrifying in its early seasons was not its gore, but the seemingly certain extinction faced weekly by its small, thrown together band of wanderers.

You can defend what has happened since as a natural, even realistic, progression, but the political-philosophical-religious allegory the show has become is a wan replacement for the nail-biting survival tale that it was.

The season premiere contains what could be a nod to a possible end game for the show - a few short, fragmentary scenes in which an older, biblically bearded Rick is still alive.

It is unclear whether they are actual flash forwards or some kind of vision or dream. But if they are the future, the realities of balance sheets and franchise building mean that there will be a lot of circling around before it arrives.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Walking Dead is very well alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe