Despite promises of a game-changing Season 8 finish for “The Walking Dead” last night, the big episode was unable to shake the “been here, seen this” sensation of it all.
Back in February 2015, during the fifth season of “The Walking Dead,” the website Cracked ran an article titled “5 Plotlines The Walking Dead Needs to Stop Repeating.” In the #2 and #1 spots were the following: #2) There Is Always an Ultimate Goal That Never Pays Off and #1) Rick Struggles With His Humanity the Exact Same Way Each Season.
I bring this article up because here we are, over three years after it was published, and the same two storylines are still being beaten into the ground by “The Walking Dead.” In last night’s finale, which promised to wrap up the all-out war storyline, an ultimate goal didn’t really pay off and, wouldn’t ya know it, Rick struggled with his humanity again!
Two years after Negan arrived at the end of Season 6, brutally murdering both Glenn and Abraham and kicking off the all-out war storyline between heroes and Saviors, the battle ended with a whimper last night, with Rick deciding to honor Carl’s wishes and keep Negan alive. Our heroes got the upper hand on the Saviors when Eugene’s handmade bullets proved to be manufactured for the purpose of harming the shooters rather than their targets, allowing for Rick to flex his wrath while also exhibiting his mercy.
Rick slashed Negan’s throat, making sure it was only a flesh wound and instructing his people to keep Negan alive. His plan? Build a prison and house Negan in it for the rest of his days, using him as a shining example of a society being reborn the way it once was; rather than killing the bad seeds, they will be locked up in prisons just like the old days.
Last night, two years worth of storytelling came to a head in an incredibly anti-climatic (and nearly bloodless) fight on a makeshift battlefield, with no major characters losing their lives in the process. In other words, the show provided no real payoff to the Negan vs. Rick battle it spent two entire seasons building towards, setting up a ninth season that is looking mighty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the show since the beginning. We’ve once again found the good guys in a position where they’re going to be mingling side by side with the no-longer-bad-guys (with Negan beaten, they turned insta-pleasant), and we’ve yet again found Rick Grimes in a position where he’s promised himself that killing the bad guys isn’t the best way of dealing with the bad guys.
Shh, don’t tell him that it actually probably is. He’ll have to learn that for himself. Again.
Meanwhile, Daryl showed mercy on Dwight, banishing him from the group, while Morgan walked off into the world of “Fear the Walking Dead.” In the Season 8 finale’s most interesting tease for Season 9, we saw Maggie, Jesus and Daryl plotting to kill Negan themselves, scheming behind Rick’s back to undo his terrible, Carl-inspired decision; of course, even that thread feels immediately familiar, echoing the Shane vs. Rick storyline.
Scott Gimple, who steps down as show-runner beginning with Season 9, has promised that the next season will essentially hit the reboot button, presenting new storylines and overall injecting the long-running series with a bit of freshness. The Season 8 finale didn’t exactly seem to echo that promise, but one thing is certain in the wake of it: “The Walking Dead” *needs* to start doing things differently. As the dwindling ratings of late have suggested, many viewers have grown tired of the same-old, same-old storytelling, and I can’t even imagine myself sticking around for another season of Rick struggling with the very same internal strife he has been since the beginning. Nor can I imagine another season with Negan, who has worn out his welcome, as his foil.
We need new stories. We need new settings. We can’t keep beating the same horse.