The more things change, the more they stay the same. Since 2010, The Walking Dead has had a rotating cast of characters, settings, and survivors. The Whisperers came and went as, too, did the Saviors. All the while, internal conflicts and a desperate need to survive kept the show humming along. As its final season begins, there’s little sign of its impending endgame getting in the way of those tried-and-tested patterns. If the premiere is any indication, season 11 will have its moments but will invariably stumble towards its conclusion by refusing to mix things up.
There’s a long way to go until then. The two-part premiere (which airs on consecutive Sundays) is part of a batch of 24 episodes and begins in familiar territory. A slow set-piece devoid of tension sucks the energy out of the first 10 minutes as members of Alexandria head out to gather more things for the makeshift town – or what’s left of it, anyway.
It highlights the show’s two main sticking points: that the zombies haven’t been a threat in some time and there are not many genuinely big names left for viewers to care about. Zombie fatigue is very real – and The Walking Dead hasn’t found the cure just yet.
Then, more of the same. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: tensions are running high and supplies are running low. In response, community leaders gather to hash things out before a plan is hatched: Maggie leads a crew (containing Negan, of all people) through a storm and towards Washington D.C, all backed by the threat of something lurking just out of sight. It doesn’t help the mood that much of these sequences are incredibly poorly lit. There’s an undeniable atmosphere, but that comes at the cost of being unable to see very much. It’s not quite on the level of Game of Thrones’ infamous Battle of Winterfell – though you may want to adjust your sets.
On the way to D.C., Negan and Maggie’s history is granted a significant chunk of screen time – inevitable, considering how the pair’s ‘reunion’ has been largely untouched since Lauren Cohan returned at the backend of season 10. The tense relationship between the two threatens to bubble over in several instances as Negan pokes and prods at Maggie’s group. His attempts to divide and conquer, and the white-hot intensity coursing through the dialogue during some of these scenes, is in stark contrast to the dimly-lit backdrop surrounding the characters. It’s evidence that Negan and Maggie’s dynamic desperately needs to become the focal point moving forward.
Another of the episode’s infrequent high points is seeing the other members of Maggie’s group deal with some incredibly complex emotions. Unfortunately, though, seeing them traipse through some flooded tunnels feels like a plot point that could have been plucked from the show at any point in the past five years. Even the actors sound tired and waiting for something more interesting to happen as the inevitable appearance of the undead only adds mild peril.
Happily, things are markedly improved – and entertaining – elsewhere: Eugene, Princess, Ezekiel, and Yumiko crossing paths with some fresh faces adds some much-needed zip to proceedings. Seeing the quartet come up against an unknown force makes for some incredibly compelling viewing, and each of the survivors comes out the other side as a more fully-rounded and engaging character. By the episode’s end, we know more about their histories, desires, and motivations thanks to their revealing adventure.
It’s a smart evolution for the show. The bonus episodes tacked onto the end of season 10 were divisive, too experimental in places, but The Walking Dead team learned the right lessons and are pushing more introspective storytelling to build up the remaining cast. In a show that’s still desperately aching to fill a Rick Grimes-shaped hole, it’s a step in the right direction.
There are also some seriously visceral highlights dotted throughout the two episodes. The first part ends on a genuinely great cliffhanger which calls back to The Walking Dead’s golden era, while the second episode features one of the most darkly bewitching and uncomfortable moments in the series to date. The episodes end up feeling like chalk and cheese to one another, but when the premiere hits its mark, a flicker of what kept The Walking Dead burning so bright for so long remains – these moments are just too few and far between.
Is there still life in the series as we enter the home stretch? Just about. While the episodes play things safe the majority of the time, some narrative sparks remain. A whole batch of characters have been improved as we mark the beginning of the end. Maggie, meanwhile, acts as the shining light for what could have been a lifeless low point in the show’s history.
It may be too late for the show to break new ground but these two episodes prove The Walking Dead shouldn’t be content with endlessly retreading past steps – especially as many of the ingredients for what once made the show so brilliant soured long ago.
The Walking Dead season 11 starts on AMC from August 22 and Disney Plus Star on August 23. In the meantime, check out some of the best Walking Dead episodes.