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The Walking Dead Series Finale Review: An Era-Defining Show Gets a Sentimental Funeral

The Walking Dead is dead, long live The Walking Dead

Liam Mathews
Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead

Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead

Jace Downs/AMC

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Walking Dead series finale. Read at your on risk!]

For a lot of people, The Walking Dead ended a long time ago. Anecdotally, a large percentage of people who used to watch stopped after the infamous Season 7 premiere, when Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) brutally killed Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) with a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. The numbers back this up, too; that episode was watched by 17 million people, a number the show never even came close to reaching again, and ratings decayed both rapidly and steadily from there. By the final season, it was averaging under 2 million viewers an episode, a decline that can't only be attributed to changes in viewing habits as streaming ascended. 

Even in 2016, that Season 7 finale felt like the beginning of the end. That was the year I started covering The Walking Dead, and even then people would say, "That show is still on?" But that was only the halfway mark; it kept going for six years after that. It was a miserable slog for two seasons, and then it got really good again for two seasons when Angela Kang took over as showrunner in Season 9. Andrew Lincoln left, then Danai Gurira. Lauren Cohan left and came back. Josh McDermitt was the longest-tenured male cast member after Norman Reedus for four years. The supersized and underwhelming final season was on for over a year. It came to an end on Sunday night, with the series' 177th episode, "Rest in Peace." And it's still not really over, because three sequel series are in the works. What is dead may never die. 

There were a lot of things the finale needed to do. It had to serve as a satisfying end to a story that's been running since 2010 while also setting up the spin-offs. It had to deliver the action horror setpieces and emotionally resonant character drama the show is known for in especially spectacular fashion. And it had to have some gruesome deaths, because it's The Walking Dead, and The Walking Dead's whole thing is a willingness to kill off major characters in shocking ways. 

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Or at least that was its thing. As it approached the end, the show became uncharacteristically gun-shy. The fact that we knew half the cast would be continuing their stories after the main show ended sapped the final season of a lot of suspense. But characters who aren't getting spin-offs (as far as we know) were spared in the final season, too. The only major character to die in the finale was Rosita Espinosa (Christian Serratos), and she went peacefully, in a soft bed, surrounded by her loved ones, after hanging around for the longest anyone has ever survived a fatal walker bite. (Season 9 addition Luke [Dan Fogler] also died; once he returned in the antepenultimate episode after being MIA for all of Season 11, his days were clearly numbered.) The show that once popped its most likeable character's eye out of his skull went soft at the end. 

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. The Walking Dead always had a mix of sadism and sentimentality, and there were many times when the sadism was so overwhelming that it made the show hard to watch. It was to be endured rather than enjoyed, and that's why a lot of viewers checked out. But in the end, sentimentality won, and the show ended on a well-earned hopeful note. Most of the characters we had grown to love over the course of years survived, and they were finally ready to stop trying to rebuild the past and instead start building a future, a new form of civilization untethered to old, broken systems of domination and control like the one Commonwealth governor Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) perpetuated. Characters told each other they loved each other the way family members do, and there was a tribute montage of the dozens of characters who had died (miss u, Bob Stookey). 

And we saw Rick (Lincoln) and Michonne (Gurira) for the first time in years — Rick on a riverbank somewhere near Philadelphia, trying to avoid being recaptured by the nefarious Civic Republic Military, the shadowy organization that took him away in a helicopter back in Season 9 and has become the narrative connective tissue between the various spin-offs; and Michonne dressed in leather armor charging into an enormous horde of walkers as she continues on her quest to find Rick. 

Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead

Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead

Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

The Rick and Michonne coda was a mildly enticing tease of what's to come, but it might be too little, too late. Rather than make me think about the future, it made me think of how the original plan was for Rick Grimes to return in a trilogy of theatrically released movies. But that was four years ago, and whatever momentum there was for the movies fizzled out. The Walking Dead as a franchise has always been plagued by bad timing and perplexing decisions. (Why were the only spin-offs for a decade Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond?) 

The most successful part of the finale was Maggie (Cohan) and Negan finally coming to a resolution after years of animosity. The remorse in Negan's sincere apology to Maggie for killing Glenn, because he finally understood how he made her feel, felt earned, as did Maggie's statement that she would never be able to forgive him for what he did, but she sees that he has changed and she's trying to let go of her hatred of him, which is no longer serving her. It was an emotionally complex resolution years in the making, and the kind of thing only a show that's been on for as long as The Walking Dead could pull off. Glenn's death has reverberated throughout the show for six years. This would have been a perfect ending to their story, but it's not the end. Dead City is coming in 2023. 

Like the smarter, more physically capable variant walkers formally introduced in the final season, The Walking Dead is evolving. The spin-offs will have smaller casts and shorter episode orders. They won't feel as big as The Walking Dead, which itself hasn't felt as big as The Walking Dead in a while. (For me, The Walking Dead ended when the production switched from film to digital in Season 10 and lost the grainy look that gave it the feel of a vintage horror movie.) The end of The Walking Dead is the end of an era that was already over but continued on anyway, like a (don't call it a) zombie. 

The Walking Dead Season 11 is available to stream on AMC+.