Tonight is the season 7 midseason finale of The Walking Dead, and it’s more than a little likely we’re about to see some blood spilled, because that’s just how finales usually go. The show will be back for eight more episodes next year, and we already know season 8 is coming.
But I wanted to stop from guessing about who’s going to die in a given night to talk about the longer term picture of The Walking Dead and its future. Last year at this time, I wrote an article about how The Walking Dead was on pace to run for 20+ seasons, given how slowly it was progressing through the comics. While that always seemed unlikely, recent ratings dips have called the show’s popularity into question, which could be a compounding factor.
I don’t actually think The Walking Dead is going to get canceled due to falling numbers. Yes, its 10.5 million viewers are what the show was doing in season 3, but that’s still about 5 times as popular as a show like Better Call Saul on AMC, and others like Turn and Halt and Catch Fire are below 1 million viewers a week, and they keep getting picked up.
Worst case scenario, I think The Walking Dead sees some budget cuts, but locations like Alexandria, the Hilltop and Kingdom are going to be around for a very, very long time to come, so that saves some cash. And with an ensemble cast, I think the only people with any serious salary leverage would be Daryl, Rick and maybe Michonne and now Negan, and AMC will probably pay what it takes to keep this group together.
However, the show might run out of rope on its own as it races toward surpassing the comics. Unlike the last few seasons, we have now been sticking very closely to the comics in season 7 with the Negan storyline, almost word for word in many episodes. As such, while about a year ago we were at around issue 80 in the comics, tonight we are at issue 111.
With Negan in town, it seems incredibly likely that we’re about to see him gut Spencer for trying to weasel his way into Rick’s role as leader, which should be tonight’s “big kill.” I also imagine that act of aggression will be followed up by Michonne and/or Rosita taking shots at Negan and his men, as the show has also been building to that. In the comic, this is the first time Rick and his group really start to push back against Negan’s rule, and the war breaks out from there. We’ve skipped a few parts, like Rick meeting Ezekiel and Dwight saying he’s turning against Negan, but we’re pretty close.
The point is that if we are at issue 111, and Negan’s war runs until issue 126, that is really not all that far away. But issue 161, where the comics are about to wrap up the war with the Whisperers, is still a ways off.
Math would indicate that if we are at issue 111 tonight, and there have been 91 episodes so far, that’s about 1.22 issues per episode. So when we get to issue 161, that should theoretically be 131 episodes. With 16 episode seasons, that’s finishing out season 7 with 8 more, season 8 with another 16, season 9 with 16. So that is almost exactly two and a half more seasons until the show catches the comic. That’s a hell of a lot longer than it took Game of Thrones to pass up Martin’s books.
The fact that Robert Kirkland said that he has ideas to make the comics run for 300 issues is how you get 20 seasons of out this equation, but he’s also said that he absolutely wants the comic and the show to have different endings, to the point where he wouldn’t even tell the showrunners his ending so they have to make up something else.
Now, after season 9, The Walking Dead could continue on with either unwritten Kirkland material, or the showrunners simply inventing new, uncharted plotlines of their own. But I’m also interested in how the show will split up the next two plotlines over the next three seasons.
If they really rushed, I bet they could fit the entire 12 part Negan war into eight episodes next year. After the Negan war ends, there’s a big time jump of several years in the comics, and Rick has Alexandria and the surrounding communities really built up. Then a few new groups enter, then the Whisperers reveal themselves as the new enemies, and here in issue 161, the long war with that grotesque group is about to end.
As weird as it would be, if the show is sticking to the comic without any significant detours, what would make the most sense is for the Negan war to pull a Governor and end midway through season 8 instead of at the end of season 7, which might be a bit too rushed. Then you’d have a time jump in the middle of the season, and a season and a half to develop and wrap the Whisperer storyline. Now obviously the show has stretched things out in the past, adding new plotlines like Terminus and the Wolves which can be entire half-seasons by themselves. But the show has taken to sticking very close to the comic lately, so one more 16 episode batch of Negan (in addition to 8-10 episodes already) then 24 for the new era with the Whisperers seems on point.
That brings us to the mystery of season ten. Obviously more comics will be written by the time that rolls around, and it’s likely a new storyline will be started, but how long the show continues from there is anyone’s guess. The Walking Dead’s problem is that it’s not really…building toward anything. There’s always a new group to fight, always more walkers to kill, but that’s it, really. A show like Game of Thrones, meanwhile, places its pieces and structures itself very purposefully, so now in that show when we’re on the verge of Dany’s great invasion of Westeros, it feels logical that the show is coming to an end after building to this point for years. The Walking Dead is building toward…what, exactly? After seven seasons and 160 issues of the comic, neither really seems to have a master plan.
No, I don’t think The Walking Dead will run for 20 seasons, but I absolutely believe it will at least finish out the current comic material, which would mean completing season nine. And then I can imagine another season or two after that with the showrunners having more free reign to do what they want and end, perhaps, on their own terms. Producers have already talked about potential seasons 10-12, so this does not seem outside the realm of possibility in the least. I’m not sure 12 or so seasons of The Walking Dead is healthy, and it’s anyone’s guess what the audience will be like when it gets to that point, but this show, even if ratings are falling, is still AMC’s lifeblood, and it’s hard to see that changing any time soon.
See you after the finale tonight. Goodbye Spencer, you were always the worst.
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