Skip to main content

The Walking Dead is coming to an end, but its life lessons will stick around

All it took was one brutal scene.

Fans of The Walking Dead had been gearing up for it for months, but when a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire brutally ended the story of one of the show’s most beloved characters in October 2016, it became a turning point for both the post-apocalyptic drama’s cast of characters and its longtime audience — forcing many to consider whether the deeper issues explored by the series were worth the show’s infamously gory violence.

Related Videos

Nearly five years later, The Walking Dead — a series about a virus that causes humans to reanimate as flesh-eating zombies — is set to begin its final season against the backdrop of a real-world global pandemic. Fans who have stuck with the series through its brutal moments, dipping ratings, and more than a few stale and repetitive story arcs across 10 seasons have been rewarded with themes that far transcend its visual effects and prosthetic make-up prowess.

Maybe more importantly, however, is that the show’s apocalyptic premise has allowed the series to explore some questions about society and survival that have become particularly relevant in the last 18 months, while giving fans like myself an escape from tough times.

Negan from The Walking Dead holding his bared wire bat Lucille.

More than zombies

Ask any longtime fan of The Walking Dead and they will insist that the series is about the people, not the zombies.

Indeed, in season after season, the most formidable foes its group of survivors face are often humans, not the herds of “walkers” (the show’s term for the shambling undead) that lurk around every corner. And central to every episode is not necessarily survival in its rawest sense, but rather the difficult yet relatable choices characters are forced to make under extreme circumstances.

These ever-difficult decisions come across like a game of “Would You Rather” with life-or-death stakes, forcing both the characters and the show’s audience to confront the aftermath of their choices.

Would you cut off your own arm to stop an enemy from killing your child? Would you cut open a pregnant woman to save her baby knowing it will kill her in the process? Would you allow a dangerously sick — physically or psychologically — individual to remain in your home, or take them out to pasture for the good of the community?

Lizzie pleading with Carol in a scene from The Walking Dead.

Finding order in chaos

Along with posing serious questions about life, love, survival, and the lengths you might go to survive, The Walking Dead also offers a surprisingly deep exploration of how we could all lose — or perhaps, find — ourselves in circumstance.

How people might act, and react, in the most difficult situations is a thematic undercurrent that runs through every season of the series, particularly as the titles and social constructs we’re accustomed to are stripped away in the world the characters inhabit.

Can a lawbreaking redneck find common ground with a small-town police chief? Would an aspiring actor’s talents be enough to convince others that he’s a worthy leader? Could those we least expect to be strong — from a young man who delivers pizzas to an abused housewife — emerge as pinnacles of resilience?

These broader cultural questions are just some of the lessons hiding behind scenes of guts spilling from a zombified man or a bloated walker in a well.

The leaders at Grady Memorial Hospital in The Walking Dead.

Finding your group

Much like in real life, many of the choices characters make in The Walking Dead are heavily influenced by the group each individual joins.

The communities portrayed in The Walking Dead demonstrate different ways people might adapt to survive apocalyptic conditions and what they’ll sacrifice in exchange for a sense of safety and security.

In the show’s Grady Memorial Hospital, for example, community leaders effectively brought back a form of slavery. Injured people were lured inside, nursed back to health, and then forced into a life of manual labor and servitude.

The community of Alexandria offered a progressive, eco-friendly sanctuary that lived in blissful ignorance of the dangers outside their walls, while the mafia-like Saviors functioned more like a cult, surviving through threats, intimidation, and taking what they need from others.

And at the most extreme, the residents of Terminus resorted to cannibalism, fattening up and slaughtering humans, then cooking and eating their flesh.

Watching each group in action and how characters change (or don’t change) as a result of their time with one group or another makes it easy to question whether our own personal views and morals are a matter of choice or simply based on circumstance.

Rise up

Michonne leading members of the group in a scene from The Walking Dead.

Suffering through the low points of The Walking Dead has also become its own reward, because the show has managed to do the unthinkable in TV land: Return to what made it great in the first place.

After earning consistently positive reviews across the first five seasons, critical consensus on the series plummeted in the next few seasons — hitting a mere 64% positive reviews for seasons 7 and 8. However, the most recent two seasons have been warmly received by critics, with some indicating that recent story arcs feel “more alive than ever, with heightened tension and a refreshed pace that rejuvenates this long-running franchise.”

At its heart, the series is a deeply emotional saga of survival, friendship, revenge, and difficult decisions — and the series’ own ability to survive what would have ended lesser shows has rewarded longtime fans with some of the best stories of the show so far.

Sure, some of the longer arcs are repetitive — group finds safe-haven, group faces new, seemingly invincible enemy, group rises above — but isn’t that what life is about: Dealing with ups and downs and rising above each time? The enemy might be a bat-wielding cult leader one day, and a cannibal the next, or it might be the loss of a job, and then a global pandemic.

Negan reading to his wife Lucille in a flashback scene of the episode "Here's Negan" in The Walking Dead.

Not an ending

What began as an entertaining comic book series created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard now seems poised to end up one of the most exciting post-apocalyptic sagas to ever grace the small screen.

To its credit, The Walking Dead never jumped the proverbial shark, even if it did tread water for a few seasons. Fans who stuck with it were gifted with a return to brilliance in recent seasons. In one of its most memorable arcs, the series was even able to humanize and redeem the character responsible for one of its most polarizing moments in a testament to the power of unfettered forgiveness.

Although several spin-off projects will extend the franchise’s run, it’s the original show that introduced many of the life lessons with importance that extends beyond the screen.

Don’t be too judgmental, for example, because you never know the difficult decisions someone is facing behind the scenes. Be thankful for what you have, because it could be gone in the blink of an eye, and be confident, because it can get you far.

Time and time again, the series has taught its audience not to make assumptions about the people around them, because every person can surprise you — and you might even surprise yourself.

I will be watching every episode of the series’ final season, and like so many other fans who stuck with it over the last ten seasons, I’ll carry its life lessons with me long after it’s over.

Season 11 of The Walking Dead will premiere this Sunday, August 22, on AMC.

Editors' Recommendations

Pinocchio comes to life in Disney+’s new live-action trailer
Disney's Pinocchio from the forthcoming live-action remake.

Pinocchio may not have been the first animated film produced by Walt Disney, but it has a major place in Disney lore. The 1940 animated classic still holds up well 82 years after its initial release, and its signature song, When You Wish Upon a Star, has become an anthem for the entire Disney company. For this year's Disney+ Day, the studio is releasing a big-budget, live-action remake of Pinocchio. And this CGI wooden puppet looks uncannily like his conventionally animated counterpart in the new trailer.

Trailer 2 | Pinocchio | Disney+

Read more
Can House of the Dragon save the Game of Thrones franchise?
Milly Alcock and Emily Carey in House of the Dragon.

Game of Thrones was a revolution. The show once not-so-eloquently described as "tits and dragons" proved to be so much more, introducing a seemingly never-ending parade of compelling characters likely to die from one episode to the next. High production values and genuinely impressive CGI further contributed to the show skyrocketing into the apex of pop culture, but Thrones' secret weapon was always the writing.

Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens; Thrones knew that. Its action episodes were thrilling and massive -- from Stannis' invasion of King's Landing to the infamous Battle of the Bastards. However, most of the show's most iconic clashes were verbal; think of Littlefinger and Varys' snarky remarks to each other or Cersei and Tyrion's surprisingly honest conversations. Guided by George R. R. Martin's sprawling source material, Game of Thrones was a writer's dream. Enhanced by the delicious readings of a cast of icons at their prime, the dialogue in Westeros was a writer's dream come true. Thrones was the perfect combination of cleverness and wit mixed with political intrigue, high stakes, ambitious world-building, nonstop violence, and yes, "tits and dragons."

Read more
Tales of the Walking Dead trailer shows new zombie adventures
Two women stand on an overpass and watch zombies walk towards them in a scene from Tales of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead franchise is adding more zombie adventures to its universe with the addition of Tales of the Walking Dead, the new spinoff series set to premiere on AMC and AMC+. Scott M. Gimple, a co-creator of Tales, shared the first trailer from the spinoff in front of the lively crowd at the 2022 San Diego Comic-Con. Also on hand for the announcement were showrunner/executive producer Channing Powell, director/executive producer Michael Satrazemis, and some cast members, including Terry Crews and Samantha Morton.

Tales of the Walking Dead will be a six-episode anthology series that features a standalone story in each episode. New and established characters in The Walking Dead universe will be featured throughout each episode. The tagline reads, "Six New Stories. One Dead World." The footage highlights all six stories in different settings as the characters all try to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Read more