The Walking Dead season 11B starts off with a literal bang when a group of survivors send fireworks into a hoard of oncoming walkers. The conflict between a hardened Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and the Reapers happening in the midst of the explosive blasts is bloody, grim, and advanced as far as hand-to-hand combat goes. After 11 seasons, the characters on The Walking Dead are seasoned fighters. But the challenge our weary survivors will face in the final season has revealed itself to be much more insidious: living in a society.
Fans of the series, and the graphic novels it’s based on, have known for a while that there will never be a “cure” for the zombie virus in the fictional world of The Walking Dead. But an apocalypse can end in other ways, and the way the final season is inching towards that conclusion is unexpectedly unsettling. History repeats itself, and anarchy gets replaced with dead-end jobs.
More and more of the long-running AMC series’ survivors have moved and gotten acclimated to The Commonwealth, and it becomes clear in the midpoint of the last season that the show’s Final Boss is a return to normalcy. This feels like a natural endgame for The Walking Dead to strive for as it winds down. Is the end of the end of the world not … the start of the world? And given everything they’ve been through, should it be?
After COVID-19 precautions left a handful of episodes in season 10 and the first chunk of season 11 stuck with intimate two-handers while shying away from big battles, the show is back to its full ensemble glory. Those episodes did not feel out of place or invaluable at all. Interpersonal relationships and quiet moments are what have kept The Walking Dead ticking after all these years. It’s always been more about the living than the dead. The series will spend an hour on zombie gore and brutal fight scenes and then end on the most wholesome hug you’ve ever seen between two friends who are reuniting after time apart.
Much of the season’s arc looks to be ground that we’ve trod before on this show. In the first two episodes of the second part of the final season (a mouthful) we see new rivalries spring up between beloved characters, a potential dystopia to dismantle after uncovering its dark secrets, Carol wielding a plate of fresh-baked cookies, and even another time jump. Same as it ever was.
But returning to familiar situations while still introducing new characters isn’t the worst place for a show to be in its final season, more than a decade later. It’s good to create bookends and reminds us why we started watching The Walking Dead in the first place. It’s satisfying to see these characters take what they’ve learned and not repeat mistakes they’ve made in the past. In that way, the Commonwealth feels more like the final exam after a 13-year class.
And of course the stakes are far different for this troupe than they ever were. We’ve seen the survivors go from the woods to running water before at the CDC and in Alexandria. We’ve seen communities with dangerous distributions of power and leadership with The Governor and Negan. But we’ve yet to see these characters readjust to things like dress codes, journalism, money, the service industry, and a socioeconomic class structure. The problems they’re facing in the final season are more like the problems they faced in the before times. The main threat in the Commonwealth comes not from cult worship or cannibalism, but from a worker’s rights rebellion. It’s not so much terrifying as deeply depressing.
One of the reasons zombie apocalypses and the end of the world in fiction is so beloved is that it provides an escape from the mundane and the oppressive conventions of modern society. It’s easy to imagine what kind of person we would be if we didn’t have jobs to go to and bills to pay. It’s an equalizer. The jerk who cut you in line or didn’t leave a tip would get eaten first. That’s the fantasy, right?
Eventually, as The Walking Dead has figured out, those types of people and situations will come back; that’s the price to pay for safely and complacency. You can afford to be rude when you’re not fighting to survive. The primary antagonist in Season 11B is an entitled, privileged product of nepotism named Sebastian Milton. His mother, Pamela, is a former politician who seems hell-bent on maintaining the world that benefitted her. They are exactly the type of people who one would think lack the strength to make it through an apocalypse, and here they are bossing our weathered survivors around. Pamela’s power comes from a reactionary place of familiarity and comfort, and that’s not always a good thing.
Think about the kids, for example. The Walking Dead has been on the air (and jumped ahead in time) for so long that we’ve watched multiple children grow up in the zombie apocalypse. They’ve been deprived of what we consider to be a “normal childhood” and had to grow up very fast with all of the violence and death that surrounds them. But when Daryl can’t afford to give Judith Grimes an allowance when she asks for one, it’s a reminder that so-called normal childhood has its bummers too.
Is it even ethical to rebuild society the same as it was before, flaws and all? This question was also raised on another post-apocalyptic series this year: Station Eleven. That series’ antagonist (for lack of a better term) rejected efforts to bring back society as it was. And such themes tie Station Eleven to something like The Walking Dead’s final arcs, especially as we the audience are dipping back in and out of society in the waning days of a global trauma that could have easily ended the world.
In our world, the pandemic has had a way of revealing priorities in a way that is at times heartwarming and at other times painful. The Walking Dead is perfectly poised to use its final season to address this in a creative, if not a little on the nose, way.