Searching for Humanity in ‘The Walking Dead’

It’s a good time to recap The Walking Dead’s hits and misses ahead of the Season 8 midseason finale (9 p.m. Sunday, AMC).

Dec 5, 2017 at 10:47 am

click to enlarge Khary Payton’s King Ezekiel is an inspiring character. - Photo: Gene Page/AMC
Photo: Gene Page/AMC
Khary Payton’s King Ezekiel is an inspiring character.
It’s a good time to recap The Walking Dead’s hits and misses ahead of the Season 8 midseason finale (9 p.m. Sunday, AMC).

This season of the zombie drama had a lot to prove. The previous Season 7 packed a ton of material into its 16 episodes — the introduction of King Ezekiel’s Kingdom, junkyard Jadis’ Scavengers and the women-led Oceanside; the long-awaited emergence of Negan, the Saviors and the Sanctuary; and the pivotal deaths of Glenn, Abraham and Sasha — yet the plot barely advanced. With so many characters scattered across locations, several episodes would pass while the overall story stayed stuck in one place.

So it was promising when Season 8 opened with a bang as the three communities of good guys finally united on screen to attack the Sanctuary. But, as we’ve come to expect, a stellar episode of Dead is often followed by a few snoozers; the ups and downs of this current season have been real.

What makes or breaks an episode isn’t the battle scenes or the creative ways in which undead walkers are incorporated — both of which Dead does well. For me, it all comes down to the characters: how well they’re written and developed, their dialogue, that cast’s performance. Again, Dead is a mixed bag in that respect. There are way too many to call out, but a few characters represent the show’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s becoming clear that Negan is not the villain the show banked on. The notorious figure from the comics just isn’t translating to screen as fans hoped. Negan is intriguing, for sure (read: actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan is attractive), but telling one vague story about his background is far from the amount of humanizing that his character needs and deserves. The most successful antagonists in any narrative aren’t 100-percent flat-out evil. A season and a half into his storyline, I’m still left to wonder how Negan rose to power.

On the flipside is King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), who is everything Negan is not: kind, inspiring and fantastically developed. It’s evident why the Kingdom residents follow his lead — he’s adopted this role of a Shakespearean-speaking ruler. While he doesn’t always make the right call, he does always have the best of intentions. He’s helped cultivate one of the most prosperous communities in all the zombie-laden land. He has a goddamn tiger. It’s easy for him to be confident and encouraging playing this (rather silly) character because the Kingdom has faced, comparatively, very few setbacks. The shtick works. But when the Kingdom suffers its biggest loss yet, Ezekiel drops the regal act, stripping down to reveal the real guy underneath it all. It’s one of the finest moments of the season.

Over the course of the entire series, Lennie James’ Morgan stands out as one of the best and most complex characters. So it was a shock when James recently revealed on after-show Talking Dead that he would be leaving the series.

Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman had teased fans in October with the announcement that there would be a character crossover between the show and its spinoff series, Fear the Walking Dead, meaning someone from one series would appear in the other. It was later confirmed that a character from the original would “cross over” into prequel Fear.

Since Fear is set about three to four years earlier than Walking Dead, the move could appear as a flashback, providing insight into some character’s past. For that reason, it had been previously speculated that Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), who was killed off in Season 7’s bloody premiere, would cross shows. Not so, James confirmed.

Instead, it will be Morgan — a character we’ve known the longest, aside from Rick, and played by one of the most talented performers in the bunch. And sadly, that means Morgan will exit the original entirely. It’s a clear ratings-grab: Fear garners maybe a third of Walking Dead’s viewership. Surely they’re banking on more fans beginning to tune in to see Morgan’s whereabouts on Fear. Whether that will pan out is questionable. Regardless, Walking Dead will suffer a major loss with James’ departure.

Looking ahead to the second half of the season, likely picking back up in February 2018, I’m hoping for more plot-advancing action, inventive implementation of walkers and thoughtful character development to keep this roller coaster on the right track. 

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern