The current biggest threat to Rick’s group isn’t Negan and the Saviors, it’s audience disinterest.
AMC’s plan worked initially, and The Walking Dead put up record numbers as 17 million tuned into the season 7 premiere to see who Negan had actually during after the season 6 cliffhanger. But afterward? The show’s ratings have fallen off a cliff in the weeks that followed. They dropped precipitously from 12.5 in episode 2 to now just 11 million viewers in episode 5.
While viewers always drop off to a certain extent after season premieres, this is simply unprecedented for The Walking Dead. Losing over six million viewers in just five episodes is not a fluke, and the downward trend may not be over yet. Having just 11 million viewers drops The Walking Dead to a viewership level not seen since season 3. The show was still popular then, but with seasons 4 and 6 averaging about 12-13 million viewers an episode, and season five averaging more like 13-15, this is obviously not the direction The Walking Dead wants to be moving. Season 6 may have indicated a slow decline, but now in season 7, viewer interest is dying off at a simply alarming rate.
So what the hell is going on?
It’s not just one thing, if we’re looking closely. I think it’s sort of a perfect storm of factors, some of which may be out of AMC and the showrunners’ control, while others they are directly responsible for. Here’s what it looks like to me (spoilers follow):
1. Fans Did Not Like How The Negan Premiere Played Out
This would seem to be the most obvious answer, given the enormous drop we saw from the premiere to the other episodes this season. If 17 million people tuned in to watch that premiere, and the show loses 6 million of those in a month, that probably says something about the content of that much-watched premiere.
Glenn and Abraham were fan favorite characters, and it was gut-wrenching to lose them. I’d argue that their deaths were less sad then they were disgusting, with the show not holding back any of the gore from the comic, which is obviously more graphic when acted out in real life.
There was a common thought that AMC wouldn’t’ be bold enough to sacrifice a beloved character like Daryl, for fear of a fan uprising, but there may have been an uprising after these deaths all the same, if not for Abraham, then certainly for Glenn, who has been with the show from the very start. His death seemed arbitrary, random and also the fanbase already had gone through one “Glenn is dead” scare earlier in the same year. Even if both Glenn and Abraham are dead in the comics at this same point in time, and Glenn’s death was almost identical, fans may be revolting all the same.
2. Fans Are Tired Of AMC And The Showrunners Jerking Them Around
I just mentioned this above, but fans are getting tired of AMC purposefully trying to mess with them, like what we saw with the entire “Glenn is dead but not really” plotline of season six, where there was some ridiculously convoluted arc where Glenn was supposed to have been eaten alive by zombies, only for us to find out later he survived by crawling under a dumpster. But rather than creating mystery in any traditional way, AMC used tricks to fool the audience directly, like pivoting camera angles so it looked exactly like Glenn’s entrails were being torn out of him as he screamed (when really they were from another corpse).
That whole arc didn’t sit well with fans (and was made worse by Glenn’s actual death not that many episodes later), but there was an even greater uproar when the show gave us an absolutely unforgivable cliffhanger that had Negan beating someone’s head in during the season 6 finale, but again, another camera angle change hid the truth from the audience, and it was seen as a deliberate ploy to blackmail viewers to tune into the next year’s premiere.
I can’t count the number of people who have told me one or both of these incidents made them quit the show altogether, and many worry that AMC will continue to pull things like this, given the ratings they’re rewarded with. But as we’ve seen with the premiere, such gains may be short lived, and AMC could be sacrificing the longer term health of the show in the process.
I mean, you’re not supposed to like Negan, given that he’s a villain, but there are good villains and poor villains, and over these last five episodes, I have not be surprised to learn many fans think Negan is more lame than menacing.
I’ve talked about this before, but even though Jeffrey Dean Morgan is doing a picture-perfect impression of Negan from the comics, I don’t think that a 1:1 translation of Negan from the comics is actually the best move for his character. His quippy lines, his plastered smiled, his eternal swagger. He comes off like a cartoon character. This is a show that has produced some truly harrowing villains, from the Governor to the Terminus cannibals to the Wolves, and Negan just seems too goofy by comparison.
Also, the show has done nothing but drive the exact same message home for five episodes now that Negan is in charge, Negan is boss, Negan is your world now. That’s great, and necessary for some measure of plot development, but it’s getting a bit tiresome, and the way this threat is probably going to be overcome, a betrayal from within, the uniting of oppressed colonies, seems a bit too telegraphed already.
Here’s the thing, when over the past seven years you have seen Rick’s group take on every single horrible foe on earth and emerge the group of collective badasses that they are, it’s going to be more than a little uncomfortable to see them being endlessly whipped like dogs by Negan and the Saviors.
Compare Rick’s reaction when facing off against overwhelming odds at Terminus (“They don’t know who they’re f***ing with”) to now, where he’s practically licking Negan’s boots, and telling everyone to like it and expect it to continue for years to come. Take away every single gun from camp. Take away Carol’s drive to fight. Take the show’s biggest badass, Daryl, and turn him into a maliciously tortured PTSD victim. These are all things people don’t want to see, given the arcs to this point.
In this case I don’t think this is necessarily the wrong move for the show, because this is all pretty necessary to set-up the coming conflict, and victory will be all that much sweeter when the beaten-down group finds their fire again and rises up to beat the Saviors, but I can understand why in the moment, it’s hard to watch, and makes for frustrating TV. To see characters like Rick, Daryl and Carol totally losing their edge is just demoralizing, and some may not be motivated enough to stick around and see them get their groove back.
5. Fans Hate How Fractured The Show Is
I spent a long time discussing this last week, but the show just hasn’t split the group this time around, they have shattered it. So far, every single episode this season has taken place in a different location with a mostly different group of people.
And now, episode six, tonight, is a Tara focused episode. No offense to Tara, but she’s not exactly breaking the streak here, and if ratings go up tonight, I will be amazed.
The show is spreading itself absurdly thin in ways it never has before. And unlike a show like Game of Thrones, it doesn’t know how to tell different stories simultaneously, so it spends weeks away from characters now in this new format, with more or less every episode dedicated to one location only. It’s wreaked havoc with storytelling in season 7, and could be one of the biggest contributing factors as to why people are leaving.
I mean look, we’re seven seasons into The Walking Dead at this point. No matter what AMC does, fan interest is probably going to fade at some point. I do believe that they are helping things along in a number of ways as listed above, but at some point, fans are just going to get tired of the show.
We are probably in cycle number five of Rick’s group coming up against a scary enemy, and then working to overcome them, and it’s both predictable, and a little bit exhausting, given how much filler tends to accompany these plotlines. And for those who have added Fear the Walking Dead to their show line-up, we are now over 30 weeks a year when AMC is showing zombie programs. Fatigue does have a part to play in this equation.
I don’t know what exactly AMC can do to stop the bleeding here. They should start moving things along faster so this Negan storyline doesn’t drag out for another two years (which it seems on pace for). They need to try and get the group together as much as possible rather than splitting them between 4-5 locations. They need to stop pulling cheap tricks for audience retention, and going back to creating truly emotional moments in the show, something they’ve been missing for a while now.
But again, it’s hard to know how possible all this is. The show is bound to the source material to a certain extent, and that dictates we are staying in the Kingdom/Alexandria/The Hilltop for eons, most likely. Negan isn’t going anywhere any time soon and it’s unlikely Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance will change. I suppose they have to work with what they’re given. But right now, not much is working at all, and the ratings have become increasingly reflective of that.
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