Throughout the years, many plot points on The Walking Dead have provoked fan ire. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham’s (Michael Cudlitz) gory ends in the lineup. Carl Grimes’ (Chandler Riggs) unexpected gut-punch death, which still stings. Andrea’s (Laurie Holden) demise at the conclusion of Season 3, which baffled comics fans. But surprisingly, one of the most controversial moves from a show known for its sudden and heartbreaking deaths has been…all but confirming who lives.
In The Walking Dead’s early seasons, the jig was much the same as on Game of Thrones: Almost anyone could go, at any time. Yes, certain main characters slipped through the Grim Reaper’s grasp, but “If Daryl Dies, We Riot” merch sold for a reason. In the early 2010s, it actually felt as though Daryl (Norman Reedus) could die.
In a hypothetical world where that level of suspense existed throughout the seasons—and main character deaths didn’t mostly slot into a pattern of one in the middle of the season, one at the end—the prospect of TWD’s series finale might serve as a gigantic television event on par with Thrones. After all, this was once the biggest show on TV. It broke multiple Nielsen records. Fan buzz might reach a roar regarding who would survive and who would become zombie chow. The general sentiment, in this hypothetical world? Anyone, regardless of how large or small a character, might fall victim to the walkers’ sharp teeth. Instead, since multiple spinoffs were announced ahead of time, critical storytelling tension has evaporated from the series’ final episodes.
Thanks to the announcement of Dead City, fans know Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) make it through whatever happens in 11C and head to the rotting scraps of the Big Apple. And thanks to the announcement of Daryl’s still-untitled spinoff, fans know they need not riot over Daryl Dixon’s death. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) stays alive, considering she originally joined Daryl; since the initial release which included both characters, she has departed the production. Regardless, interviews in the lead-up to 11C discussed Carol’s future and possible reunion with Daryl in no uncertain terms.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t the Walking Dead team’s decision to advertise the spinoffs before the series finale. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and showrunner Angela Kang have expressed disheartenment, saying it wasn’t their choice. With the outcry in response to McBride’s exit from the Daryl-Carol show, discussing her future both in the franchise and with Daryl served as a Band-Aid on fan disappointment. But it also became another blow to an injured series finale, another character removed from peril.
At this point, fans can assume Maggie, Negan, Daryl and Carol live. That deflates the finale’s sails. Yes, fans will have to wait and see how they end up where they end up (given that the Daryl show originally featured Carol, will she leave with him in the final minutes and disappear in the spinoff?), but it’s a pity that the major question in the final season boils down to “how and why did all of these characters split up?” and not “which of these main characters will live until the end?” Can you imagine if HBO announced a Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) or Jon Snow (Kit Harington) spinoff years before Season 8’s last episode? How about El Camino, in advance of Breaking Bad’s last episodes? That’s what’s happened to The Walking Dead, and it’s a shame.
Yes, plenty of beloved characters could still go; Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Rosita (Christian Serratos), just to name a few. But the ones who are front and center on promotional material—the ones who arguably drive the most fervent fan devotion—might as well have full health bars no matter what. They’re fine.
Those who have watched the show every Sunday since Halloween 2010 might not mind. For the truly devoted, there’s something unmissable and bittersweet about seeing The Walking Dead through to its end. But there’s tragic irony in the fact that a show that once inspired legions of fans to seek out spoilers wound up spoiling itself in the end. Even if Negan finds himself in the middle of a horde with nothing but his fists and razor-sharp tongue as weapons, his survival is guaranteed. Isn’t having that knowledge a bummer?
The Walking Dead, Season 11 Premiere, Sunday, October 2, 9/8c, AMC