If there were no villains in The Walking Dead…what kind of show would that be?
Last week, going off of a question a fan asked me, I wondered whether or not The Walking Dead and its sister series needed villains.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the role the villains play in The Walking Dead and wondering what the series would look like without villains and whether anyone would watch the series as it progressed. Honestly, I don’t think it would be quite as black and white as you might think.
A World Without
To begin with, the first seasons of The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead didn’t have villains. Yes, you could (And I did) count Ed and Merle and even Dr. Jenner as villains in the first season of The Walking Dead, and Corporal Adams could be considered such in the first season of Fear, but…let’s get real, here: None of them were serious, imposing threats for more than a few minutes of an episode or two, and Dr. Jenner saved Rick Grimes’ group twice, so, to call any of them “villains” is, frankly, a bit of a stretch.
That said, their presence alone makes the idea of a Walking Dead show without some kind of villain a little difficult to fathom. Night Of The Living Dead (Which obviously inspired The Walking Dead) and all of its sequels had somebody who, on some level, posed a threat to the protagonists or the final survivor in some way, so, the idea of having a zombie series without someone posing a threat on some level is…tough. Imagine a Walking Dead show with no internal threats to the group (i.e., No Shane/Rick conflict, no Spencer betrayal, no Dante being a spy for The Whisperers, etc.) and no external threats — No Governor, no Terminus, no Negan, no nothing. At that point…what are you left with?
What would it LOOK like?
Now, while it may be tough to imagine a zombie apocalypse show with no human adversaries for the protagonists, it has been done before, in 1985’s Return Of The Living Dead. There were no villains in that movie whatsoever; it was simply about the characters trying to survive an ever-increasing number of sentient, unkillable zombies. No internal bickering, no power struggles, no idiots more interested in their own megalomania than actually staying alive, just people versus zombies.
Elegant in its simplicity.
If The Walking Dead and its sister series were to go more than one season without some kind of human villain, this is what it would resemble. It would simply be about Rick and company (And whoever they meet) trying to survive against the hordes of the undead.
Honestly, I think this could work, both in-universe and out, in the short term, but how long it could work out-of-universe really depends on what happens in-universe.
If you’ve seen me rant enough times about the first season of Fear The Walking Dead, you know that I hate how rushed I found it, with the show glossing over the period wherein the government determined they couldn’t hold Los Angeles and decided to destroy it and with the protagonists all seeming to adjust to the situation way too quickly. It all felt like everyone just…” got used” to people turning into mindless cannibals, impervious to pain and most things that would kill an ordinary person, and just accepted it as the world they were living in now.
Well, if you were to have a Walking Dead series without villains, you couldn’t do that. For the walkers to be a threat that doesn’t get tiresome, the show’s characters would have to remain confused about them and unaware of the rules surrounding them. They would have to remain as in the dark as they possibly could for the longest possible time because, if they didn’t, then we’d see the characters behaving towards the dead the way they did in season three of Walking Dead: Cautious of them, but, not afraid of them. If there were no villains, and the group wasn’t really afraid of the dead, then…where would the conflict come from?
Yes, the dead would still pose a threat, but if the characters knew how to deal with them effectively, would encounters with them still retain the necessary drama, or would they get tiresome without something to break things up? Would there need to be ever greater numbers of walkers for them to be seen as a threat? How many times would the group have to run into massive herds before people would find it routine?
On the opposite side of the coin, there could be other external hazards to the survivors that could be a nice change of pace. We’ve things like the flu in season four of The Walking Dead, the blizzard in season nine (When The Kingdom was being evacuated), the drought in season three of Fear, the weevils creating a famine at the stadium and the flooding in season four, and the radioactive walkers in season five are all good examples of something different than just walkers that could be used if there weren’t any villains around.
Of course, if the show drew things out slowly from the outbreak, things like these could be held off until much later, as the zombies would likely feel fresher to the audience if the idea of a zombie felt newer and scarier for the characters longer.
The question is: Would anyone watch it?
I obviously can’t predict with absolute certainty how people would take to a hypothetical Walking Dead series that not only didn’t have villains but never did because, if such a show got past its first season, clearly, the audience would have different expectations for it, and would obviously accept it for what it was (If they didn’t, it wouldn’t get to a hypothetical second season).
That said, I can try to make a guess based on the closest statistics available to me: The rating’s average for Fear The Walking Dead from season four to season five. For season four, where you had The Vultures as the villains in the first half of the season and Martha in the second half, the average came to 2.27 million viewers. In contrast, season five, with Logan and Virginia being rather “hands-off” villains in the first and second halves of the season, respectively, drew only an average of 1.51 million viewers. That’s a drop of 760,000 viewers.
Could there be other factors? Sure. But, I can’t imagine it didn’t play at least some role in the ratings drop.
As I said before, I can’t say for certain whether people wouldn’t watch a Walking Dead series without villains, but, with this being the closest thing we got, and with the numbers being what they are, I also can’t say for certain that people would.
I think having villains in The Walking Dead, even if they’re only members of the group creating conflict, is necessary for the show to work. You guys know I love zombies, but I think that if there weren’t other living people to break up the group’s run-ins with the dead or instigate such run-ins (Especially if the shows ran at the same pace of characters getting accustomed to the zombies as they normally did), then, I don’t think the show would be quite as effective.
Don’t get me wrong: I think zombies should be the scariest thing in a “zombie” show, but, without hostile people around, I fear the impact of the zombies would diminish faster than they might otherwise. Not only does the presence of villains mitigate this problem, but, also makes the idea of the zombie apocalypse scarier because it gives a frightening window into how depraved people can be at a time when people are most in need of coming together and doing good. Basically: The dead bring out the worst in us, and, without that, the dead just become something you get used to.
What do you think? Do you think The Walking Dead series would be better off without villains? Do you think the shows would even work? Would you watch a Walking Dead that never had villains? Let me know! I’m curious! And, if you enjoyed this and want to learn how not to be the villain in your own attempt to survive a zombie apocalypse, then why not pick up a copy of my book, The Rules: A Guide To Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse! You can also get it at Amazon here, on iTunes here!