TV ratings aren't quite what they used to be, and we're at a point now where appointment television is more endangered than white rhinos. And even though The Walking Dead falls into that trend, the zombie drama's viewership is still toppling most other shows, and it seems like there's no end in sight. But let's take a look at how realistic that "no end in sight" conceit actually is by pulling together things that creator Robert Kirkman and network AMC have said on the issue. Spoiler: there's a lot of this show left to come.
Currently making the news rounds is something Robert Kirkman said earlier this year in the Walking Dead comics' fan mail section, dubbed Letter Hacks. In it, he used the comparison between the TV show and the comics' release pace to offer a rough assessment of how long the show could last.
It took us 6 seasons to get to [issue] 100. It won't take us 6 years to get to 200 and that will take us to Season...TWELVE. And we'll STILL be ahead of the show by that point. And if the show is still going strong at Season 12...well, that would be about the most amazing thing ever...so we'll all be too busy celebrating to worry about anything.
Now, Robert Kirkman said this well before Season 7 premiered, but likely at a point when the season's scripts were mostly structured, if not completely filled out. So he was likely well aware of the story rapidly flying through the comic issues in the first half of this latest season. Some fans have been vocal about how the more focused episodes are "too slow," but many clearly aren't understanding just how much of the source material got covered in this year's episodes. Elements from a slew of issues have been brought into different aspects of Negan's arrival, so even using the comic books as a time gauge is getting tougher.
There was talk earlier this year about The Walking Dead potentially coming to a close on TV at the same time Robert Kirkman pulls the plug on the comic series, which has been in print since 2003. But that would require some mighty hefty streamlining on the show's part, since it's so far behind at this point. Plus, for that to happen, it would require Kirkman and Image Comics to actually end the print series, and that's going to take a sustained effort. It wasn't all that long ago that Kirkman admitted to Rolling Stone just how long he can formulate ideas for this narrative.
If I don't get bored and people are still enjoying the story, I can do 1,000 issues of The Walking Dead. So it is actually possible to tell a story that follows the collapse of civilization into the dark ages into the rebirth of civilization, where things are completely different. There could be an issue 700 of The Walking Dead that's about people delivering mail. That is exciting to me.
Strangely, it's ridiculously easy to envision a future where there are still Walking Dead issues being created that are beamed directly into our brains that are floating in jars. And considering how popular the comic series still is - its currently storyline is arguably as exciting as anything else in the franchise - I can't imagine anyone involved will be willing to call it quits in the next few years.
So it would almost have to fall down to AMC and its execs to be the ones to put feet down and take the show off the air. But seeing as how this is easily AMC's biggest hit, it would take something extremely unpredictable to force their cancellation hand. The show's marketing team hasn't shied away from teasing story elements that are still years away in the comic books, and while that could be seen as a possible consolidation of storylines, it's far more likely that they're just teasing the long game.
Earlier this year, AMC's network chief Charlie Collier told Vulture that no one at the network is even discussing when or how the show will end there, and that the focus is on how to keep it cable's top drama in both total viewers and the coveted adult demo. And here's how programming head Joel Stillerman described their stance on the show's longevity.
The answer to how long the show will go on in some way is directly correlated with the health of the storytelling in the comics. Those comics are firing on all cylinders. He still writes every line of dialogue in those books, and is as engaged as he was when I think he was sitting around in Kentucky writing the first issue. That is very much part of the DNA of the show. He sort of felt like, in real life, this goes on for a very long time. We're along for that ride.
As well, Robert Kirkman was on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron last year and somewhat hyperbolically claimed that AMC wanted the show to go on for 50 seasons, and that it could very well be the case if the narrative keeps panning out. Strange that the fate of one of TV's biggest shows comes down to one person and his storytelling prowess.
Thankfully, there is an actual end goal in place, at least tentatively. Over the years, Robert Kirkman's ideas for how it will all end have differed, usually because he ends up taking on and going beyond his original plans. But there is at least the grain of the idea in his head, though not the guarantee that we'll ever be able to see it pulled off. (And if he needs any ideas, Michael Rooker's recent idea for a finale capper is gold.)
So if guessing is necessary, then I'd give the show another 5 years to wrap things up. Assuming there's no big time jump like there is in the comics, the two mediums' stories will begin to further branch off from one another, and perhaps then we'll get to a point where things can end smoothly and realistically, without much contrast from Kirkman's vision for the source material.
With no series finale in sight, even using a busted up telescope, The Walking Dead will return to AMC for the remainder of Season 7 on Sunday, February 12, at 9:00 p.m. ET. Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see when everything else will be returning to the small screen in the near future.