Will The Walking Dead Suffer From the Wrath of 2016?

By  · Published on October 20th, 2016

How this year’s ugly landscape might have an impact on season seven’s success.

When The Walking Dead first premiered in 2010, there was palpable excitement about the series. The show, based on Robert Kirkman’s wildly successful and still ongoing comic series, was adapted for AMC, who already had seen huge success with Mad Men. Over the past six years, we’ve invested ourselves in the lives of Rick and his motley crew of survivors, as they navigate an increasingly treacherous landscape full of walkers, as well as other survivors who aren’t afraid to kill to keep themselves safe. But with the premiere of Season Seven looming this coming Sunday, October 23 and with the inevitable reveal of who caught the brunt of Negan’s baseball bat, I wonder: why do we still care about The Walking Dead?

It’s a question that wasn’t lost on Kirkman going into the new season, particularly following the backlash stirred up by Season Six’s cliffhanger ending. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kirkman insisted that the cliffhanger was a necessary break and that the new season would be in fact feel like the beginning of a whole new show. He continued to say that Season Seven would broaden the show’s scope, bringing in four new locations and four groups of characters to follow. It’s a much needed injection into a show that, while still a fan favorite, has suffered from recycled storylines and villains.

Initially, The Walking Dead’s appeal was simple: how would you survive if you woke up one day and everything you knew was turned upside-down? The show was grounded in the same realism we, perhaps unrealistically, seek out in superhero films. Rick Grimes, prototypical good guy, father and everyman, was our avatar in this terrifying new world, making difficult choices that forever scarred him, smearing his hands with the blood of the ambiguously guilty, which broke his inherent trust in humanity and forever colored his judgment in the eyes of his companions. The Walking Dead didn’t just ask us if we could survive a zombie apocalypse, it forced us to question who we might become if we did.

Six years later, we suddenly find ourselves as weary and battleworn as Rick. 2016 has been a rough year, with gut-wrenching goodbyes to cultural icons (how could we lose Prince and David Bowie within months of each other?) and an ugly Presidential election, in which Republican nominee Donald Trump quickly pivoted from ridiculous reality television star to a viable candidate that has stirred up the kind of ugly, racial and misogynistic vitriol that we have long pretended only fictional villains could be capable of.

The impact of 2016 hasn’t been lost on television either. The second season of USA Network’s Mr. Robot fell into a slight sophomore slump, which was partially attributed to the show’s 2015 context. While the show’s assaulting commentary on America’s income inequality felt like ripe commentary during its first brilliant season, fSociety’s quest to destroy Evil Corp and Elliot’s mind games felt surprisingly tone deaf as we watched Trump’s innocuously teflon Presidential campaign shrug off boldface lies, proudly spout hideous racism and gaslight the women who have brought numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against him. While we often turn to television and film to bring us much needed distraction from the weariness of the world, instead this election has been a time to sit up and pay close attention, despite the horror.

And so, as we finally see the aftermath of Negan’s barbed-wire and blood soaked swing, will watching the bad guys win hit a little too close to home? It’s worth noting that one of The Walking Dead’s greatest strengths has always rested in its ability to humanize even the most sinister characters. While we may not have liked or sided with The Governor, especially when Rick’s suspicions turned out to have merit, we were still able to ground some of that ruthlessness after it was revealed that his beloved daughter had been turned. If grief can complicate us beyond recognition under the most mundane circumstances, how much more so in a world full of chaos and danger?

Jeffrey Dean Morgan has already confirmed in interviews that Negan’s infamous baseball bat, Lucille, is named after the character’s wife. Could the revelation of this backstory be his saving grace? Is it so hard for us to transpose Rick into Negan’s shoes, the same Rick who killed his best friend Shane and then watched his own wife Lori die shortly thereafter? Maybe not. In the end, it will all depend on which way Lucille swings this Sunday.

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.