There is something about a six-episode season that suggests a full story is going to be told. With a 10-episode season, or 13-episode, or even an 8-episode season, viewers can probably expect a continuation of the story. But a six-episode season says to me, “There may be room for a second season, but we’re also going to tell a full story from beginning to end.”
Spoilers, but that’s not what happens in the first season finale of The Walking Dead: Dead City, which is not a limited series but more akin to what Lauren Cohan once mistakenly called the 12th season of The Walking Dead before correcting herself. That’s essentially what is happening with Dead City, the Daryl Dixon spin-off (which has already been picked up for a second season well ahead of its first season premiere) and the Rick and Michonne spin-off. They are additional seasons of The Walking Dead without the overhead that comes with paying a massive cast and crew the going rate for 12 seasons. Seasons one to three are cheaper to produce, which is why Netflix often cancels series after three seasons.
So, how is the 12th season of The Walking Dead going, so far? It’s actually not bad, and it’s certainly better than the 8th season of Fear the Walking Dead. The Maggie-and-Negan show also has an advantage that the increasingly sprawling The Walking Dead no longer has: The ability to maintain its focus on a small number of characters. There’s no A-plot, B-plot, and C-plot. There are no characters introduced in one episode and not seen again for six more episodes.
It’s one story, and it’s a decent one, although — again — it was just finding its rhythm as it reached the season finale. The season-long story is essentially this: It’s many years since the events of The Walking Dead. Negan has gone his separate way. Maggie is running the newly reformed Hilltop, which relocated from Virginia to New York. A man who goes by the name The Croat (Željko Ivanek) kidnaps Maggie’s kid, Hershel. It turns out that The Croat used to be one of Negan’s Saviors, but Negan had to kick him out because the Croat was even more sadistic than Negan could stomach.
In order to facilitate the retrieval of Hershel, Maggie tracks down Negan and enlists his aid, reasoning that he has knowledge about The Croat that she needs. Meanwhile, Negan is pursued by Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles), a marshal for the New Babylon Federation, a network of survivor communities in New York. Negan is also caring for a young, mute girl named Ginny (Mahina Napoleon), whose parents are deceased.
The first five episodes are essentially what one might expect: Maggie and Negan begrudgingly work together for the good of Hershel. The marshal nearly captures Negan, but Negan ends up saving the marshall’s life, so not only are he and Negan good, but the marshal drives Ginny to The Hilltop so that she can be looked after.
The interesting twist comes in the fifth episode when we learn that Maggie didn’t seek Negan out for his knowledge of The Croat. She deceived Negan. Her plan was to trade Negan for Hershel. In the finale, Negan figures it out. A fight between Maggie and Negan ensues, but Negan’s heart is clearly not in it. By the end, he essentially surrenders to The Croat so that Maggie can retrieve Hershel.
As it turns out, however, The Croat has a boss himself: The Dama, played by Lisa Emery, who many may remember from Preacher. The Dama doesn’t want to kill Negan. She wants to revive the old Negan, the blustering showman that killed Glenn. She intends to use that Negan to amass power and execute a series of typical supervillain schemes. She kept one of Hershel’s toes and warns Negan that if he doesn’t cooperate, she will harm Hershel, leaving Negan with little choice but to comply. Meanwhile, back at The Hilltop, it turns out that Hershel may have been brainwashed into developing an interest in The Dama’s supervillain plans.
It’s an intriguing setup, and it’s mostly frustrating in that it’s only a setup. It feels like the first season is a prologue to a more interesting story, but we’ll have to wait another year (or more) for the continuation of that story. It’s only frustrating because of my expectations: I thought these spin-offs would be standalone stories that might even provide additional closure to the TWD universe. I was naive. They are not. They are just more seasons, meaning that The Walking Dead will never actually end, and therefore closure will never truly arrive.