Dead City | The Walking Dead expands skywards
The Walking Dead TV series spawned four spin-offs, and among these Dead City was the one that viewers most looked forward to. Its protagonists, Negan and Maggie, are among the most successful characters in the original story. Moreover, there is the narrative tension that has always linked these two protagonists, suspended between hatred, a desire for revenge, guilt, and redemption. There is unfinished business between them, accounts to close, and they are destined to cross paths in the post-apocalyptic world conceived by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. Finally, there is the new and promising setting of this new chapter in the long-running saga: the island of Manhattan, which was one of the epicenters of the original zombie epidemic that destroyed civilization.
The apocalypse, five years on
The first episode of The Walking Dead: Dead City was broadcast in the United States by AMC on June 18, 2023, a few months after the final episode of the main series. However, the time jump between events is between five to six years: the audience will now come across Maggie (Lauren Cohan) again several times after the events narrated in The Walking Dead. A fresh challenge awaits her when a new enemy, The Croat (Željko Ivanek), kidnaps her son Hershel (Logan Kim) and, for mysterious reasons, takes him to his headquarters in Manhattan.
Maggie tracks down her arch-enemy Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the Croat’s old ally and mentor, and forces him to embark with her on a mission fraught with pitfalls to rescue Hershel. Complicating events is the fact that Negan is wanted, and hunted by Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles), the sheriff of the New Babylon survivor community.
New setting, new rules
Landing on a densely populated island after a zombie outbreak means running into the dead almost everywhere. Walkers spring up out of the water and make the approach a suicide mission. They mass in hordes that invade streets or subway tunnels, turning them into traps. They literally come from the sky, plummeting from skyscrapers.
Contained in the construction of these dynamics, as was in The Walking Dead, is the most successful aspect of the show. The series, which consists of only six episodes in its first season, has a script by Eli Jorné, former co-executive producer of TWD, and a subject by Robert Kirkman, co-author of the comic book and the original series. Cinematography is handled by Terry Stacey (The Witcher) and Vanessa Joy Smith.
This team had fun imagining the new rules of survival in a megalopolis of the post-apocalyptic world. So here we see the appearance of pulleys for moving between skyscrapers from above and new, more homemade weapons such as nail guns. And then there are the new groups of survivors: the tribes vying for territory, the “burazi” (brothers), a motorcycle gang under the orders of The Croat. The town is governed by new survival strategies for which the audience gets a feel, but wishes more space had been devoted to.
Negan, back to basics
In this fragmented territory, Hershel’s abduction is only one of a series of cogs that sets much larger and more complex mechanisms in motion. It is understood that much of the story revolves around the search for a leader, which Manhattan now lacks, and whom the strongest gangs hope to find in Negan. But not the one represented by today’s fugitive: instead, in that charismatic antagonist at the head of the Saviors, who did not hesitate to mangle his enemies with a baseball bat, just so as to set an example.
The reappearance in Dead City of that character is one of the most satisfying aspects. Negan has fulfilled his arc and seems forced to return to where he started. He actually seems to be enjoying the process at times, and the scene with the cheese grater is one well worth remembering for his devotees. However, he is a character who has gained depth, whose backstory is known, and who remains constant to that. Maggie in this series remains fundamentally the same: a mother willing to do anything- even be detested by her teenage son – to save his life. And as in TWD, when the narrative slows down and screws on the soap opera angle, it loses its pace and is less effective.
A new war for raw materials
In the big, massive set-piece scenes, such as the zombie-invaded Madison Square Garden sequence and the tunnel escape, Dead City is at its best. It is here that we also find the most articulate stage solutions in an atmosphere even darker and more suffocating than the world of TWD, lit only by gas lamps. The whole show has a steampunk allure.
However, the protagonists remain essentially alone: the new tribe characters prove too ephemeral to make a mark, and the only meaningful addition to the cast is Sheriff Perlie, with whom Negan weaves a fight/salvation dynamic similar to the one he has with Maggie.
It is Perlie who introduces the broader picture of the story: the struggle for raw materials, which in a world with no more industry or mining are worth more than gold. The Croat has a knowledge of chemistry and has figured out how to procure a perpetual source of fuel to keep the city running. However, this exposes Manhattan to the threat of war to wrest those resources away.
It is inevitable – and even desirable – that in season two, whose details have yet to be announced, Maggie and Negan are destined for larger roles in the world they inhabit, greater than the simple settling of scores that has dragged on for six television seasons. On the other hand, Maggie, whom audiences know in the role of leader, appears in this season to be relegated to a purely personal mission: saving her son. But if the writers can flesh out the events, the universe of The Walking Dead – not just its characters -will also have enough fuel for a few more years.
A puzzle being completed
Although the franchise has had moments of audience disaffection, especially with the first disappointing spin-offs, promising months are ahead for fans of this zombie epic. AMC wants to take yet another bet on the adventures of Deputy Rick Grimes and Co. The original group, so beloved of audiences, has splintered into different spin-offs: Daryl Dixon, out in late 2023, has opened up even more different scenarios with a decadent and atmospheric European setting.
Rick and Michonne are expected to reappear together in 2024 in The Ones Who Live. Pieces of a larger world than the one we met in The Walking Dead have also been scattered in the first spin-offs, Fear the Walking Dead, Tales of the Walking Dead, and World Beyond. It is a case of a pan-media story littered with clues that all point in one direction: that of a major cast reunion for a final showdown. According to the most commonly accepted theories, it will have at its center a war between the large survivor communities of the Commonwealth and New Babylon. For the writers, the challenge will be to offer the audience compelling and uncompromising writing that will win viewers back and hold them gripped until the last second.
In conclusion, The Walking Dead: Dead City offers an enjoyable show and an intriguing story for fans of the genre. Yet it is much more a case of what it promises than of what it accomplishes: the first season hints at an ever-expanding world with new dynamics and strategies to explore. However, the story still focuses on petty squabbles and drama between the characters, sometimes losing sight of the more compelling bigger picture.