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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Walking Dead: Dead City – Season 1 Review

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The Walking Dead: Dead City's first season premieres on AMC on June 18.


With The Walking Dead wrapped up and Fear the Walking Dead closing up shop, the franchise continues with Dead City, featuring strange bedfellows Maggie and Negan. They team up for a six-episode mission in Manhattan, which one can imagine, now 15(ish?) years into the saga’s zompocalypse, is in less-than-ideal shape. Dead City offers up better material than both previous shows have given us in a couple years, but it also stumbles off the blocks by undoing much of the key emotional work these two characters did over the course of Walking Dead's final season.

Dead City is a soft recommendation. Walking Dead superfans? All yours. Completionists? Have at it. Maggie and Negan fans, specifically? This was designed for you. More casual viewers? Maybe. Folks who feel the franchise’s best years are behind it, and that the latter half of The Walking Dead's tenure was a massive space-waster? Proceed with caution. Not much new ground is covered here; there are newer, better zombie shows on the block now, and they fill their episodes with denser, more effective material.

One can speculate if Dead City’s step backwards in Maggie and Negan’s relationship is designed to appease lapsed fans who may have skipped Walking Dead's eleventh season, or because it's presumed that the only interesting dynamic for these two characters is for them to be at each other's' throats until all is forgiven again. Whatever the reason, it’s Dead City’s method for not wasting time and space with flat, thin characters. Remember, we left these two at an "okay" place when Maggie offered Negan, along with his wife and unborn child, a place at Hilltop. They weren't buds but they could coexist, in close proximity… but then Dead City picks up a couple years later and just trashes that so it can run us through a repeat of this redemption arc.

On the upside, despite Dead City insisting that Maggie and Negan still have s*** to sort out – and, to the story's credit, there are explanations here and there as to why Maggie's gone back to her old "End of Season 10" stance regarding him – the adventures ahead offer up a new Escape from New York-style sandbox and a vile new villain in Željko Ivanek's Croat. A city teeming with zombies isn't new to the genre, but it is sort of new to The Walking Dead (Atlanta was a long time ago, at least) so there are moments here that liven things up. Stars Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan still work wonderfully together, despite their characters’ hostile relationship being a retread.

A city teeming with zombies isn't new to the genre, but it is sort of new to The Walking Dead.


You’ll get zombie cage fights, harrowing zip-lines across buildings, new weapons, fresh armor, and a peek inside an altogether different realm. A lot of it takes place in darkness and shadows, sometimes to a frustrating degree (be ready to turn up the brightness on your TV), but it’s still a decent contrast to the vast, bland, outdoorsy aspect of the main series over the past couple seasons. This is the most dystopian The Walking Dead has ever felt, given that our characters are sneaking through a ruined metropolis (midtown Manhattan, specifically). It’s a chance to see fallen landmarks and a toppled civilization.

The Walking Dead: Dead City Images From NYCC 2022

Also…Maggie and Negan got their own spinoff for a reason, right? The Walking Dead carried the burden, for years, of having a large and mostly underserved ensemble. An ensemble the show became way too precious with compared to how little they did with these folks. Maggie and Negan are top-tier, though. And Maggie learning to live with Negan – and not just let him live, which she already did back in Season 8 when she spared his life – was a huge arc on a show with very few emotional changes (the character journeys were usually innocent-to-dangerous or menacing-to-kind). Dead City indulging in a relapse, and bubbling up their previous hate vibes, also undoes Negan's Walking Dead endpoint as a budding family man. Again, reasons are provided but they don't make the torching of previous heavy lifting more palatable.

Dead City indulging in a relapse also undoes Negan's Walking Dead endpoint as a budding family man.


Dead City draws upon Maggie's trauma and Negan's position as the founder/leader of the Saviors to explore a new, niche corner of ravaged America. Manhattan is now a truly cut-off island due to the military blowing up bridges and tunnels and as a crowded skyscraper graveyard it’s now ruled by someone from Negan's past. Someone whose methods echo the Saviors playbook – even going so far as to torment Maggie again by swiping her teenage son Hershel (now played by Logan Kim) and hiding him away in the concrete jungle. Thematically, this near-impossible rescue mission totally works to bring Maggie and Negan back into each other's orbit years after the events of The Walking Dead finale, but it misses the opportunity to build on what's already been created between these two beloved characters.

The most eye-rolling new aspect here is the inclusion of Mahina Napoleon as young Ginny, a mute girl who Negan is protecting. It's an almost too-obvious attempt to get in on the “surrogate apocalypse dad” trend. Making Ginny mute also feels like a shortcut, in that little attention is given to her having any layers as a character, but not as much of a cheat as how little payoff there is to this pairing. The Walking Dead not only gave Negan a soft, nurturing relationship with Judith but they gave him his own kid. Instead of exploring any of this further though, it wipes it all clean and introduces a stranger who can barely advocate for herself (but sure is capable of doing dumb things when the plot demands, of course).

We’re able to revel in a villain with actual grand plans and ferocious foresight.


Other newcomers include Gaius Charles as a lawman from a nearby town who's on the hunt for Negan, Jonathan Higginbotham and Karina Ortiz as city survivors hiding from the Croat, and – in a small role – Star Trek: Picard’s Michelle Hurd. She’s being mentioned because it’s fun to have her in the universe given her husband, Garret Dillahunt, being on Fear the Walking Dead for a few years. The flashiest addition though is the aforementioned Željko Ivanek, who helps class up the proceedings in a psychotic way. As the episodes slowly reveal the meaning behind his actions, and his reasons for kick-starting this entire ordeal, we’re able to revel in a villain with actual grand plans and ferocious foresight.

Verdict

The Walking Dead: Dead City thins the herd, allowing for a tighter, more-focused story. Setting things in an obliterated city also nicely whisks the saga out of the stale farmlands and into dire, dystopian wreckage. Stars Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan got here for a reason, and it’s because they fully inhabit these characters and work amazingly with each other. However, too much of the healing and forgiveness achieved in their relationship during The Walking Dead’s final season gets taken back and undone, which makes Dead City feel like an unsatisfying loophole was created around moving their story forward. It’s not a full Alien 3 situation, but it’s close enough that it sours the first chunk of this season, and even the interesting new villain can’t bring it back to safe territory.

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