With 11 seasons of a main series, eight seasons of a companion series, and various other spinoffs either currently running or in the works, the Walking Dead franchise has covered a lot of ground in the zombie genre. It’s such a cultural staple, with its shock value having mutated into by-the-numbers mayhem, that refreshing it on a conceptual level seems impossible. But The Walking Dead: Dead City attempts to do that, and is halfway successful. Its thematic power is built solely on how much you’re willing to care about the emotional trauma of characters in The Walking Dead at this late stage, but its best moments come when it leaves their former world behind.
Dead City sees Lauren Cohan return as Maggie — who, aside from a brief detour into other projects, has been a reliable mainstay of the show since season 2 — teaming up with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, a character who began the series in the final moments of season 6 as a vile warlord bashing in beloved characters’ heads with a baseball bat. Through some fairly laborious seasons, he’d evolve into a will-he/won’t-he sort of antihero, the kind of guy with a warped code of ethics who’s willing to play along with the good guys if it means not getting eaten or shot.
So they’re a bit of an odd couple, even if you ignore the fact that one of those baseball bat’d heads belonged to Maggie’s late husband, Glenn, the most likable character that the franchise ever produced. Glenn and Maggie’s kid, Hershel, has recently been kidnapped, leaving Maggie to seek Negan’s help in the rescue mission.
The Walking Dead was set, for the most part, in the humid Southeast, where empty rural views often gave way to shots of massive zombie hordes walking across pastures and fields. Dead City takes us to a much more claustrophobic Manhattan (actually New Jersey, but the sight of some buildings above a few stories tall in The Walking Dead will let you forgive any discrepancies), so instead of farmhouses and forests, the undead escapism of Dead City rushes the characters atop skyscrapers and through alleyways. In the first episode, zombies plummet from rooftops in gory slapstick fashion in their attempts to snack on the heroes, which is a funny reminder of the franchise’s more curious glory days. It’s the kind of “oh, huh, I guess that would happen to the undead” touch that the franchise can pull off well when it wants to.
What isn’t a callback to those simpler times is the dynamic between Maggie and Negan, one whose efficacy demands that you still be passionate about Glenn’s murder — an event that happened back in 2016 and seemingly caused a massive drop-off in the main show’s popularity. In Walking Dead time, that’s forever ago, and with the amount of plot and sheer exposure that the franchise has run through since then, it’s almost impossible that you’ll share Maggie’s deep-rooted anger if you’ve kept up with it for this long. The show might even work best if you haven’t, and the wounds of Glenn’s demise have yet to heal. On the other side, Negan no longer has the brutal edge that he debuted with. Hell, the dude has been a playable character in a Tekken video game since then. If anything, he is now The Walking Dead’s particularly vicious uncle. He’s been around so long that you’re less likely to worry about his attempt at a redemption arc and more likely to see him as a homicidal lil’ scamp.
This doesn’t render the characters inept. Cohan brings world-weariness to Maggie that’s fitting, seeing as she’s one of the longest-living survivors of AMC’s evergreen apocalypse. Morgan plays Negan, on the other hand, as almost a sadistic Greek chorus for Dead City’s violence and action sequences, to the extent that he’ll actually comment on how cool or awful something is with fair frequency. Together, they have a haggard yet charismatic dynamic: two people that don’t get along, but God, when you’ve made it this far and you’re around someone that doesn’t either want to stab you or devour your flesh, ya gotta take it as kind of a win.
It’s a simple main cast, and its best moments clearly recall another “get into a dystopian Manhattan and get out with someone” piece of media: John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. In that film, which saw “Snake” Plissken infiltrate NYC to nab the president and get out before the “Duke” that runs the prison-city guns him down, character relationships feel both well worn and bare bones. Many characters know Snake (or at least know who he is), but unlike in Dead City — which is prone to diving into multiple past-revealing monologues per episode with its side characters — their histories are left to simmer and brood. It makes for immaculate pacing (Carpenter famously excised a lengthy prologue scene that gave Snake more backstory), and the moody atmosphere is only heightened by everyone’s gritted-teeth anxiety around one another.
In its best moments, Dead City can feel like that, especially when it gets around to introducing the main antagonist for the series — the Croat, played with scene-eating relish by Željko Ivanek. Walking Dead villains typically adhere to a pattern of sullen intensity followed by brutish breakdown. (Many characters, bad or otherwise, follow that route, to be honest.) But Ivanek gives Croat a kind of crude, cheeky devilishness from the beginning. In this way, he’s the prime antagonist for a series that thrives when it doesn’t have much to say and exists on the power of vibes. Expecting The Walking Dead in 2023 to suddenly match a John Carpenter film is a downright cruel ask, but the Croat does feel a lot like Escape’s Duke, a man who is all bizarre personality and disturbed urges, and works best when we don’t have to explain too much.
It’s a lot of people chasing people — Negan himself is being pursued by post-apocalyptic law enforcement, namely Perlie Armstrong, played with appropriate surliness by Gaius Charles — and whenever it decides to dip into other aspects of The Walking Dead’s now-expanded universe or fit into its wider frame, things slow to a crawl. Seeing how other settlements are faring is nice, but a narrative like this one craves momentum. Even the little insights we’re given into the communities formed in Manhattan serve as a diversion (Maggie’s son has been kidnapped by a maniac! Things should be moving faster than this!) from the desperate stakes of its endpoint.
Obviously, we’d like to be emotionally attached to the people that are getting munched on, but in a series built so heavily and yet so precariously on the most famous death in the franchise, we don’t necessarily need to be anywhere but with Maggie and Negan in New York City. The Walking Dead: Dead City works best when it forgets that it’s part of The Walking Dead.