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The Walking Dead: Dead City Trudges Through the Ruins of a Moribund Franchise

It must be hard to be “The Walking Dead” in a post “The Last of Us” world, really. Where HBO’s newest hit show feels fresh, an invigorating zombified character drama suffused with possibilities, AMC’s flagship franchise is nearly half a decade removed from its best days. And while the series has enjoyed several spinoffs (“Fear the Walking Dead” keeps shambling on eight seasons in, while “The World Beyond” lasted a paltry two), the OG show only recently shuffled off its mortal coil eleven seasons and 12 years later. 

And yet, like so many walkers before it, the universe simply refuses to die. Where the main series has ended, many smaller spinoffs have sprouted up to seek more flesh (and audience’s eyeballs) for some of its fan-favorite characters. “Dead City” is the first of these, and thus a test to see how these splintered stories will fare. And the future’s looking a bit bleak.

Set some time after the finale of the original series “Dead City” reunites Maggie (Lauren Cohan), last seen becoming the leader of Hilltop, and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), former big bad turned semi-repentant hero, whose introduction saw him bashing in the head of Maggie’s husband, Glenn, with his signature barbed-wire baseball bat, Lucille. (She’s nowhere to be found in “Dead City,” with no explanation given.) Now, the two of them become reluctant partners on a most dangerous mission: break into zombie-infested Manhattan, which was cut off from the rest of the world early into the outbreak in a futile attempt to stop the spread of the virus. 

As Maggie explains to Negan, a new group of baddies raided Hilltop, stealing all of their grain and—most crucially—Maggie’s son, Herschel (Logan Kim). What’s more, she has a sneaking suspicion their leader, “The Croat” (Željko Ivanek), has a history with Negan. So off they go to Manhattan, to face down the Croat and get Maggie’s kid back.

What follows is “The Walking Dead,” kinda, but with a heaping helping of “Escape from New York” slathered atop like so much viscera. Ian Hultquist’s synth-droning score evokes John Carpenter’s patented electronic pulses, with Negan and Maggie as our bifurcated Snake Plissken wandering down emptied New York City streets. They run across gangs both hostile (The Croat’s goons) and friendly (a group of native New Yorkers still hopeful they can take the island back), all of them in leather coats and sporting improvised weapons. “The Walking Dead” shows prior were ensemble dramas that often weaved their narratives across dozens of central characters; the narrative of this six-episode season is more focused, and the better for it.

That’s not to say it’s all rainbows, though; if you were tired of the “Walking Dead” formula, “Dead City”’s modest modifications aren’t quite enough to save you. Creator/showrunner Eli Jorné (who co-created with “Walking Dead” showrunner Scott M. Gimple) still leans on those tried-and-true TWD patterns: murky flashbacks, bursts of gooey KNB EFX Group zombie violence interspersed with one weepy monologue after another. While Maggie and Negan are as strong as ever (though Negan’s witticisms have evolved to dad-joke levels at this point), the show frequently splits them up for extended periods. What’s more, the secondary protagonists leave much to be desired: There’s a small-town marshal (Gaius Charles) whose Javert-esque journey to bring Negan to justice doesn’t add much to the table, and a mute teenager named Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) who’s meant to offer an emotional anchor for Negan, but instead wastes our time with pointless subplots. 

At least there are some fun new zombie and zombie-killing gimmicks to spice things up: ziplines, fortified football helmets, grappling-hook nail guns the Croat’s men use to reel in their prey. There are walls of congealed zombie fat, the New York sewers rotting corpses to the point where you see rat-king walkers with multiple heads and limbs fused together. And, of course, the requisite zombie-pit arena where the sneering, one-dimensional bad guy sends his prey to kill or be killed. If you’re looking for squishy zombie-killing mayhem, “Dead City” delivers on at least that front. 

Its most interesting ideas, frankly, only gain purchase in the final eps of the season (a second is almost certainly on its way). The show is strongest as a battleground for Maggie and Negan to hash out their complicated feelings for each other: The monster who’s turned a corner and the victim who has to decide whether to ever forgive him the monstrous things he’s done. Too bad they have to make room for one uninteresting side character after another and a climax that upends what you think you know in favor of a twisty setup for season two. 

“Everyone knows the ending is all that matters,” mutters one character late in the season. That statement feels particularly galling, considering “The Walking Dead” is a franchise that simply refuses to die. Even when the shambling corpse of its original self finally stops moving, its component pieces break off into one spinoff after another. “Dead City” is set to take more fleshy bites of the Big Apple, and at least two other “Walking Dead” spinoffs are on their way. At what point can these characters, and this cast, rest in peace?

All of season one screened for review. "The Walking Dead: Dead City" premieres on AMC+ on June 18th. 

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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