Content warning: Character death, violence, spoilers for “The Walking Dead”
The global phenomenon AMC television series “The Walking Dead” (Robert Kirkman) was once one of the most highly rated television series on air. “The Walking Dead” follows zombie apocalypse survivors Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, “Penguin Bloom”), Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan, “Invincible”), Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun, “Minari”) and an ensemble of a few dozen other characters as they clash with the brain-eating monsters and other survivors alike.
Despite its acclaim, the show has somewhat faded from the public eye in recent years. The adventures of protagonist Rick Grimes and company inevitably become dull as similar plot threads are repeated and a large portion of its original cast is killed off. Still, “The Walking Dead” remains a guilty pleasure of mine, regardless of this decline in quality. Watching the world end for Rick Grimes, though often a complicated viewing relationship, has taught me how to prevent my own from ending.
It all started one blistering summer afternoon some four or five years ago. In search of an escape and a quick thrill, my mother and I embarked on our first episode of the acclaimed series, not knowing what lay ahead of us. One episode was enough to have us wrapped around Grimes’s finger. A weekly routine became a nightly binge which became an insatiable obsession.
We turned into Walkers ourselves, desperate to feast on any Walking Dead content we could get our hands on. Thanks to my mother’s Netflix subscription and the DVD section of my hometown’s public library, this hunger engulfed our summer with an intensity akin to infatuation. Now, years later, I am both proud and embarrassed to say that I have watched 10 seasons of “The Walking Dead,” six seasons of the spinoff-prequel series, “Fear the Walking Dead” and (unfortunately) one season of “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.”
As time went on, the magic of the first five or six seasons wore off, and watching “The Walking Dead” became increasingly daunting. I was continually force-fed unnecessary character deaths and contrived storylines. There have been marginal improvements in recent seasons, but too many aspects of the show are twisted unrecognizably from their origins; all but two original cast members have been killed off or left the show. “The Walking Dead” became the television embodiment of the Ship of Theseus. I was no longer watching the same show I fell in love with.
As “The Walking Dead” has experienced somewhat of an apocalypse of its own, the COVID-19 pandemic raged on and created a world that was hauntingly similar to the desolate landscape depicted in the show. At its best, “The Walking Dead” underlined the importance of found family and connection through adversity. Like Rick Grimes and his group of survivors, the only way I could weather this apocalypse was with the aid of family.
My mother and I watched every single episode of the nearly 200-episode series together; we cried together, we screamed in terror together, we expressed our disappointment together. When a gut-punching cliffhanger left us in awe, we would revel in it. When a string of bad episodes left a sour taste we could always turn to each other to complain. Sharing the strenuous viewing experience made it more than bearable, even when “The Walking Dead” was at its worst. Watching the show with my family during the pandemic was one of the only things that kept me sane; the escapism of a fictional apocalypse helped me cope with the reality of the global pandemic.
As the years went on, my fling with Rick Grimes came to a grinding halt, and my interest in the series waned. Although not the same show it once was, it has still played an important role in shaping my familial bonds. It is now with the benefit of hindsight that I can appreciate “The Walking Dead” as a lens to view the complexities of my interpersonal relationships and the raging apocalypse around me.
With no shortage of brutal, sudden character deaths, an involved viewing experience with “The Walking Dead” helped to teach me the importance of letting go — of anger, of loss, of the past. The death of each beloved character left me saddened; a Glenn-sized hole was left in my heart. The intense emotions of the show translated to less melodramatic lessons learned for my own life about valuing past relationships: friends I am no longer close with, estranged family members or old coworkers that I haven’t seen in years. Some people are not meant to stay in your life forever, but you can still value the time you spent together.
“The Walking Dead” is, at its core, a show about people. The zombie apocalypse becomes a lens through which to view people in the most gruesome and extreme environments. Watching how these characters handle their struggles prompts reflection on my own interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.
“The Walking Dead” shows that there is more than one kind of apocalypse. A zombie invasion or COVID-19 infection could be just around the corner; even on a smaller scale, the end of a friendship or even a simple bad day can often feel like the end of the world. At times, even watching “The Walking Dead” could feel like being eaten alive by a Walker. Despite this, I have remained a fan through 10 long seasons. What Rick Grimes has taught me is that, regardless of scale, the ways in which we handle these world-ending events can remain constant. A quarantine of global proportions was necessary for preventing COVID-19, but the necessity of this time indoors still took its toll. Through a lockdown and a string of personal defeats, I have only made it through by valuing the people around me, past and present.
With “The Walking Dead” coming to an end with its 11th season later this year, I will indulge in one last hurrah of spilling zombie brains. It doesn’t matter whether “The Walking Dead” is “good” anymore because it is still an integral comfort medium to me. The cheesy zombie melodrama may not be the ideal family-friendly viewing, but it made all the difference in mine.
Daily Arts Contributor Connor Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.