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Stellar Performances Almost Save AMC’s Bloated The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

Pre-HBO’s “The Last of Us,” for years, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was undeniably the most popular piece of zombie media. Since the original show’s final season in 2022, there have been a handful of spin-offs that have tried to recreate the magic that captured the eyes and hearts of millions of viewers in the early 2010’s. After leading man Andrew Lincoln's departure from the series in November 2019, it was only a matter of time that he too was brought back for a mini-series of his own.

Although they were originally set to be feature films, the COVID-19 pandemic squashed those dreams, and so we have shows like “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” and now “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.” When this new series was announced, the choice to make Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) the leads of this next chapter injected fresh interest into a series that, if the ratings are anything to go by, was rapidly losing momentum.

This new iteration picks up almost immediately where Rick’s last appearance left off, and we’re forced to follow Rick’s new life with the CRM (The Civic Republic Military). It’s a mundane and dangerous life, but through it all, the memory of Michonne and their daughter Judith keeps him going. It’s quite jarring watching a character who was once seen as an elite hero be forced into a position that leaves him in a robotic-like state, and even harder to watch as that state begins to break down. Rick’s struggle with the idea of being alive without an essential purpose — and without his family — is perhaps the most interesting aspect of any of “The Walking Dead” spin-offs so far.

At the core of “The Ones Who Live” is a fascination with memory, and how sometimes, it can be the death of us. As he struggles with the idea of what his life used to look like, Rick is also forced to question if the man he is today could even possibly return to the life he once lived. Throughout the series, he and Michonne both cling onto the memory of each other to keep themselves strong, willing their minds to recall the brief traces of each other’s faces before it's too late and they cannot remember any longer. 

Each time Lincoln and Gurira are on screen it becomes clear that while the spinoffs have been entertaining, they were missing the kind of sincerity these two actors bring to the table. When they think of each other — often showcased through narration — it feels as if we are intruding on something we shouldn’t be watching or listening to. After so many years, they are still able to perfectly embody a longing these two characters have for each other, and it’s quite easy to get swept up in the romance and forget you’re watching a show where the backdrop is a world ravaged by a zombie apocalypse. 

Unfortunately, like some of the earlier spin-offs set in this universe, its newest installment would be better if it abandoned the overarching plotlines the original series struggled to contain in its final seasons. Frankly, a show about Rick and Michonne should be just that: a show about Rick and Michonne. The reason these two became fan favorites is because of not only their bond but because of their entertaining skills as warriors. The chemistry is enough alone to fuel a 16-episode epic, so why not do it? It almost feels as if the creators (previous “The Walking Dead” showrunner Scott M. Gimple and Lincoln and Gurira) wanted these two characters to try and make their way back to each other, but they had no idea how to craft a story around that desire. 

“The Ones Who Live” suffers from its position in the bloated universe these characters find themselves in, and despite the beautiful work from its two main actors, it never quite reaches its full potential. The stakes don’t truly feel high enough. If this spin-off was able to exist as its own contained story, there is no doubt it would be able to shed the interconnected threads that ultimately weigh it down. 

“Everything we had is broken,” Rick states halfway through the series, and the same could be said for the formula of franchise spinoffs. When it works — like in “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” — it really works, but, when it doesn’t, it has you questioning the longevity of this decades spanning franchise. Is there a world where these spin-offs can offer something new to longtime fans? Is this franchise, which was one of the first of its kind, still sustainable in the age of shows like “The Last of Us?”

“The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” doesn’t fully answer these questions, and perhaps these new renditions will never be as great as the first few seasons of the original show. It’s not until episode 4 — written by Danai Gurira herself — where it seems like the series may finally start to pick up, though it feels too-little-too-late. It’s by far the best of the episodes screened ahead of the show’s release, and truly allows Gurira and Lincoln to shine as performers. While it leaves a lot to be desired, at least with these spin-offs we get to watch two talented actors who we fell in love with over nearly 15 years ago. For that, it’s hard not to be somewhat thankful.

"The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live" premieres on AMC and AMC+ on February 26th. Four episodes screened for review.

Kaiya Shunyata

Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance pop culture writer and academic based in Canada. They have written for RogerEbert.com, Xtra, Okayplayer, The Daily Beast, AltPress and more. 

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