This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead, both the comic book and the TV show before it heads into season 11.
The Walking Dead’s eleventh and final season is nearly upon us. Kicking off on August 22, the zombie show that spawned a thousand memes is coming to an end, and as is the case with most show finales, fans will be hoping for a suitably memorable send-off. However, The Walking Dead season 11 is likely to have a big problem.
The problem is the comic arc they’ve chosen to adapt is, from the halfway point onwards, centered on Michonne and especially Rick — both characters who’ve exited the series. In the comics, the storyline has Rick and his fellow survivors encountering a brand new community, the Commonwealth, ruled by an apparently benevolent governor.
Sound familiar? Thankfully, it’s not a repeat of the earlier Woodbury arc, but it becomes apparent that there’s trouble in paradise. Other characters factor into the tale, but ultimately it’s the conclusion of Rick’s journey, a tale that ends with… well, I won’t absolutely spoil it for you. But, over the course of 190+ issues, Rick goes from a beat cop — sorry, sheriff — to a near-legendary leader.
Robert Kirkman, creator of the comic book, liked to pretend that protagonist Rick Grimes could meet a gruesome end at any moment. It’s true that the appeal of the series for many was that no one was safe — characters you’d known for 55 issues could be snuffed out in moments. But the longer it went on in its 193-issue run, the more apparent it became that Rick had special survival privileges.
Sure, he was put through hell; he lost a hand, watched his son lose an eye, saw his wife and newborn baby get gunned down, and ended up a mental wreck more than once. Yet, while he wavered on several occasions, he always bounced back to his role as the comic’s moral compass. He was a natural, if reluctant, leader; people rallied around him and looked to him for the “right” thing to do.
But with Rick gone, the AMC series with its ensemble cast lacks a “hero” — or even a clear leader to hold the arc together. In part, this is due to the difficulty of tying an actor to a series. One luxury of comic books, particularly creator-owned ones like The Walking Dead, is that characters will always be around as long as their creators see fit. But short of making them sign a multi, multi-year contract, there’s no guarantee an actor will be available to see a series through.
However, the show has coped with this situation relatively well, even if Rick’s exit did feel particularly clunky. It’s allowed the writers to tell stories that wouldn’t be possible if the spotlight were always on a specific individual. At times, it felt like an anthology series, with individual characters drawing others into their respective orbits, and in a world with so many stories to tell, that’s no bad thing.
You could argue that the Commonwealth represents another step towards restoring normalcy, but we’ve seen plenty of that with Alexandria and the other “Safe Zone” settlements the series has explored. In the comic, Rick is such a beacon that the Commonwealth’s disgruntled residents flock to him, seeing him as proof there’s a better way, and when it’s clear he has to step up, he’s there. And when matters come to a head, it’s his words that defuse a potentially lethal situation.
But if this new region’s hierarchy is as suspect in season 11 of The Walking Dead as it is in the comics, who are they going to turn to? Negan? Carol? Daryl? The latter two might be getting their own spinoff, but they’ve hardly got the moral high ground. Maggie’s one possibility, but factoring in the character’s temporary absence and thirst for vengeance, the show will have to work hard to position her as the leader the Commonwealth needs.
The series has changed things up on several occasions. Michonne, for example, has no daughter, so the comic’s heart-warming reunion wouldn’t take place, though if she were around she’d still be instrumental in seeing the rot. And sometimes that’s worked in its favor, the show channeling the spirit of The Walking Dead without copying Kirkman’s run beat for beat.
So it’s conceivable that the Commonwealth is nothing more than a backdrop for an entirely different story. And with 26 episodes to go before AMC turns off the lights, The Walking Dead has the opportunity to explore other avenues and tie up a lot of loose ends with season 11. Certainly, going by the recently released trailer, there’s hope for the first half of season 10.
But given how variable the show’s quality has been of late, there’s a real risk we’ll get a retread of the comic’s Commonwealth storyline, minus its heart. It was Rick that let the comic go out with a bang, but unless the show’s writers have found a way to fill that void, AMC’s The Walking Dead is in danger of ending with a whimper.