Over the last five or six years, I’ve probably written about The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead nearly as much as anyone in the media alongside Matt Fowler (IGN), Paul Tassi (Forbes) and especially Brandon Davis at Comicbook.com (whose dreams, I am fairly certain, all take place within The Walking Dead universe). It’s not something I aspired to; it’s just something I kind of fell into, though I have grown to enjoy it more than I probably should, and it’s not even about the show, so much as it is reporting on it like an NFL season — what happens on the field is only a fraction of what we talk about, and everything else is the drama surrounding it.
Meanwhile, I don’t write a lot about fandoms here, because I don’t intersect with too many of them, and those that I do don’t really have toxicity problems, like the DC or Rick & Morty fandoms, etc. I witness a lot of what goes on in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul fandom, and the worst that I can really say about them is that they are by and large irksomely pedantic, while I also witness much of what goes on in the Wynonna Earp fandom too, so much so that I don’t write about the show because they love it so earnestly and with so much passion that I wouldn’t want to write about it critically because I have zero interest in being a buzzkill, even though I believe that the series has kind of lost sight of what it once was this season.
But in my day-to-day, I am surrounded by The Walking Dead fandom, and it is such a weird beast, and unlike anything else I see in the other fandoms. It is huge, and it is passionate, and it is viciously critical of both shows (The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead), but also fiercely protective. It’s kind of like an SNL fan: They hate current iteration of the show; they look at the past through rose-colored glasses; and they reject almost any kind of change, e.g.: “Kristen Wiig is the worst. God, I hate Kristen Wiig! What? Kristen Wiig is leaving the show? SNL is ruined forever. It’ll never recover. It was so much better with Wiig! Who is this Kate McKinnon replacing her, and why is she so awful?”
Changes to Fear the Walking Dead offer a perfect example of how the fandom operates. This is a series that was mostly reviled during the first three seasons under showrunner Dave Erickson, and much of that ire was directed toward Kim Dickens’ character, Madison Clark. She was the Andrea of Fear, ruined not by Dickens’ performance (Kim Dickens is a brilliant actress, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but by consistently poor writing. In the fourth season, two new showrunners, Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, came aboard and redeemed Madison Clark’s character before killing her off. The fandom went apeshit, and the previous showrunner, Dave Erickson, became something of the George W. Bush of The Walking Dead universe, as in: “Oh, maybe he wasn’t that bad, after all,” nevermind the fact that Madison Clark was never a likable character until the new showrunners redeemed her.
Currently, Scott Gimple — the former savior of The Walking Dead (he oversaw the show during its three best seasons, four to six) — is the major source of the fandom’s ire. Gimple stepped down as The Walking Dead showrunner at the end of last season and took a position as the architect of the entire The Walking Dead universe, which means he’s apparently solely responsible for every misstep either series takes, from the death of Glenn Rhee (which was in the comics), to the decision to kill off a reviled character in Madison, to the decision to switch Morgan over to Fear the Walking Dead to even the decision of Andrew Lincoln to leave the series after 9 long years filming in hot Atlanta heat while living across the ocean from his family (“Damn you, Gimple! If you were a better showrunner, you’d move the show to London to accommodate Lincoln!”). The worm had started to turn when Glenn died, but the fandom went in full-blown revolt after the death of Carl Grimes, the most unexpected development in the history of the series because it was one of the rare moves that was not foreordained by the comic books.
Personally, I thought the decision to kill off Carl was a great one, and a bold and necessary step in light of the fact that the series has been bleeding viewers since the death of Glenn (which, again, is not Gimple’s fault; it’s in the comics, and the comics began losing a lot of fans after that death, as well. It seemed inevitable the same fate would befall a television series that so closely follows the source material).
Gimple, to his credit, does not seem to engage that much with the virulent criticism, dealing with fans agreeably at the many fan conventions he goes to while plowing ahead with planned changes and bringing in a new showrunner on The Walking Dead in Angela Kang, who wrote probably 60 percent of the show’s best episodes. She’s fantastic, and she actually gives me a lot of hope for the future of the series, even without Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan (both of whom will depart the series in its upcoming ninth season, though Lauren Cohan has the option of returning). Mark my words, however, if history is any indication, Kang will take the brunt of the criticism over the next few seasons while fans will look back on Gimple’s tenure favorably.
Chris Hardwick, through his relationship with The Talking Dead, also became both a victim and beneficiary of the The Walking Dead fandom. Though The Talking Dead was popular before the Chloe Dykstra allegations (The Talking Dead is the second highest-rated program on AMC behind only The Walking Dead), Hardwick was not. The Walking Dead’s fandom felt similar to the way the rest of us felt about Hardwick: As in, anyone can do this job, why this mediocre guy? Why not Nicolle Yvette Brown (still probably the most popular figure in the entire The Walking Dead fandom)? However, when the allegations surfaced, and people began calling for Hardwick’s head, for some reason it activated the TWD fans’ protective instincts. This guy that they couldn’t give two craps about six months ago is suddenly someone in need of saving, and the fanbase turned so hard on Chloe Dykstra that she contemplated suicide. But why? Honestly? Why? All this over Chris Hardwick, who is not even a cast member? Whose contributions to the show, to the fandom, are practically nil. This same guy who the fans constantly belittle for refusing to speak critically of the series, and now they want to throw themselves at the altar of Hardwick.
The best I can reckon is that The Walking Dead fandom is a passionate believer in the status quo. They love to hate the show, but they hate anyone or anything that seeks to disrupt the status quo, whether it is Dykstra, Gimple, or the new Fear showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg (who have been doing a fine job, but who have also been held to unreasonably high standards by fans who only like the former showrunner in retrospect).
Maybe the best illustration of how The Walking Dead fanbase operates is this: Josh McDermitt plays Eugene Porter, a once beloved character on The Walking Dead whose alliances shifted last season. So upset by this change in the show’s status quo were The Walking Dead fans that they chased McDermitt — the actor — off of social media over the actions of his character. He had to quit because he was receiving death threats from “fans.”
Meanwhile, over on Fear the Walking Dead, Jenna Elfman — who ostensibly filled the space vacated by Kim Dickens on the series — reportedly blocks anyone who mentions Dickens on social media, and while the fanbase gives her a huge amount of shit for that, I completely understand why she does it: It’s preemptive. They blame her for Madison’s death, and she wants to get out ahead of it before they begin inevitably attacking her. It’s another situation where — ironically — in a show about deaths, about the anticipation and excitement and dread concerning who will die next, the fans have made their resistance to change personal, even as they constantly demand change to a series they seem to love to hate, but are so passionate about it, they’re willing to direct death threats to people who aim to improve it.
Header Image Source: AMC