*Some The Walking Dead Season 9 Spoilers and references to TWD Comics are in this article*
“I am Alpha.” The moment when I knew us Walking Dead fans would be in for a treat when it comes to Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the iconic villain. Her southern drawl is so calm and ever so collected, yet the quiet madness resting in her eyes and her rigid demeanor draws comparison to a rabid dog ready to pounce. Since the mid-season 9 finale brought our quiet killers in on a murderous note, the Whisperers seem to have re-ignited the unique passion found within this fan base, and looking forward to the rest of this season and onward shows no sign of such passion lessening.
However, the ratings and overall viewership numbers for Season 9 are telling a different story. I firmly believe that the old adage of “the numbers don’t lie” is not entirely truthful in terms of a television show’s quality. Now, I have no intention of boring you all with the viewership numbers, but for the argument’s sake, I do want to touch on a few relative details. In terms of TWD’s life, one could make the case that Season 5 was the show’s high point with an average of 15.8 million viewers, and Season 4 was a close second at 15.7, according to Variety. Compared to the peak of the show’s popularity during those seasons, Season 9 isn’t fairing too well…yet. Personally, I don’t like reading articles or posts discussing how TWD is failing to capture viewers and how numbers continue to fall. (It is still one of the highest viewed cable television shows in history.) Honestly, such stories tend to place blame on the show’s content, and one could make a strong claim to the validity of such idea based on Seasons 7 & 8 and their dragging plot lines. But such ideology can also be flawed.
Before I dive into my thoughts, I think it’s also important to touch on the elephant in the room: the comic books. It’s important to consider the built-in comic fanbase, but the television show has become so much more than what was originally depicted on paper for better or for worse. I know the two texts should be viewed separately, but many fans want the popular comic plots to be brought to life on television. Therefore, said logic will be addressed below.
For one reason or another, Season 9 unfortunately boosts the series’ lowest average viewer rating thus far, but all is not lost. Cue Alpha, Beta, and the Whisperers to reverse the trend. Let’s draw some comparisons. I have a hunch as to why Season 4 was so popular and why Season 5 was such a disappointment to viewers despite the ratings numbers telling a different story. First, the Governor (played by David Morrissey) was the featured baddie in Season 4, and we ultimately saw his demise in said season. The feud between Rick Grimes and the Governor had been brewing for some time, and most fans loved the idea of a consistent, on-screen foe. The subplots were also manageable in terms of location and relation to the real direction of the Rick/Governor conflict. Also, the Governor checked all the right boxes when it comes to a villain as he was unpredictable in his position of power, and his persona was so captivating and deceptive. His backstory? Somewhat sympathetic, but he brought on much of his distaste for people himself. It was not intended to make the viewers empathetic, so it made complete sense that fans tuned in week after week to see how the Governor would wreak havoc on the prison and if Rick would ever lead his group to prosperity.
Once the Governor was defeated, our group of heroes coasted through to Season 5 with the highest ratings in the show’s run. Plus, we added Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita to the mix at the end of Season 4, so that’s a win. However, the subsequent season’s plot wasn’t all that Season 4 promised it would be. Instead of prosperity, we now had two big problems: The group was separated from one another, and there was a lack of a singular villain. In terms of the separation, the dynamic that was so powerful during the previous season was halted. I mean holy subplots, Batman. The separate story lines each week negatively affected the franchise’s pacing, and such drawn out conclusions were met with less excitement as anticipated. Yay! Glenn and Maggie found one another, but it could have been done in an episode or two. I thought Season 5 was soooo slow, and many fans were critical of the build to the mysterious Terminus. I mean the “Terminus” plot in the comics is not really true to it’s comic roots, and I feel like Kirkman’s villains are so good they don’t need much tweaking on screen. The writers stretched the antagonist too thinly. The Hunters were not that menacing or large as depicted through Gareth and Terminus, which also had fans questioning the Season 5 build up. Plus, the storyline lasted over a season break and then ended quickly. “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Ah, iconic, but it came back on a flat note after such a moving moment. Thus, viewership numbers began their steady decline. The answer to the “why question” is simple: There was still not a Governor-like villain to hate.
Let’s jump to Negan because here is a minor flaw in my theory. Negan checks all the right boxes when it comes to a Governor-like villain: explosive entrance, powerful dynamic, misguided sense of reality, and violent tendencies. On paper Negan looked like a home run (pardon the baseball bat pun), but fans really hated on Season 8. Why? Comic books fans know Negan is not a true villain, and his relationship with Rick is one of the most interesting ‘friendships’ built in the comics. Television Negan had his fate decided before we first heard the glorious whistle call and that tyrannical charade he put on was anticipated to be limited. Negan wouldn’t cut it, and it took almost two years for the show to depict it. Again, a steady decline in viewership happened to a culminating low at the end of Season 8.
Numbers aside, Season 9 is different, and it’s all for the right reasons fans experienced back in Season 3. Ironically, we now have a truly villainous group with a deranged leader, and our heroic communities are almost as fresh-faced as Rick’s group was when they left Hershel’s farm with new allies. New faces create new opportunity to build up a fan base. Since a lot of fans checked out after Carl or Rick’s departure, the only way to go is up. Alpha is eerie and her early unpredictability leads me to believe she will get more brutal. Beta (played by the talented Ryan Hurst) is equally deranged and even more unpredictable at this point. His character growth could go any direction, and people love it. Additionally, his voice is creepy, and he is a huge. Let’s hope he gets more time showcasing his signature weapons, too.
What may come as a disappointment to some hardcore Dead purists, the fact remains: The show is slowly becoming more independent from the storylines in the comic books. With that said, Alpha may just be the one character to break away from her pre-determined fate and cause some real issues for our new storyline. Samantha Morton is too good for a quick departure. Sure, she has already had some of her early iconic moments like dealing for Lydia without her mask and brutally killing a subordinate, but some of Alpha’s most iconic moments are yet to come. Most of those moments deal with Rick, Maggie, or Carl, so I’m thinking these next few episodes would be the perfect opportunity to separate her television character from her comic character. As many fans know, the Kingdom’s fair is a critical starting point in the war with the Whisperers, and the show could even go in a different direction as to who falls victim at the hands of Alpha and Beta.
Season 9 has not been perfect, and as some actors pursue different opportunities outside of the show, we still have a very passionate cast ushering in a new era for the franchise. Would I love to see Rick Grimes talk with Alpha? Of course. Would I like to see Carl fall for Lydia? Yep. But things are what they are, and I am not going to focus on the what-could-have-beens. Heck, Dwight is my favorite character in the comic books, and you see the predicament I am in following Austin Amelio’s journey to Fear. (Side request: Bring him back!) So if you are hating on this season for one reason or another, I strongly suggest you give Samantha Morton and Ryan Hurst a chance. These two have some crazy cool chemistry so far, and I can only imagine how things will play out. If numbers mean anything and trends repeat themselves, I think TWD is in for an overhaul, and I hope fans are receptive to such change.
What do you think? Will TWD come back to ratings highs with the Whisperers? Is Alpha the real deal? Or are you more excited for Beta?
Jon Maus is a high school English Language Arts teacher and an all-around pop culture enthusiast. He has a B.S. and a M.E. in English. Some of his favorite fandoms include The Walking Dead, Marvel, Disney, Back to the Future, and the Karate Kid.