“The Walking Dead” ended last year to little fanfare, tempered as the finale was by news of at least three additional series on the horizon (in addition to the three already in existence). At first glance, it’s difficult to comprehend what additional zombie stories could possibly remain to be told. But for those who haven’t yet succumbed to zombie-apocalypse fatigue, the first of this new batch of spinoffs may suggest a spark of life remaining in the franchise. The first season of “The Walking Dead: Dead City” is a well-told, self-contained story that retains many of its predecessor’s best qualities while deepening two of its most beloved characters.
The series, which premieres on AMC on June 18, is less of a spin-off of the flagship, and more of a sequel featuring only Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as they navigate new challenges several years after the events of “The Walking Dead” series’ finale.
As “The Walking Dead: Dead City” opens its six-episode first season, Maggie’s community is raided, and her son Herschel is taken hostage by a warlord known only as The Croat (Željko Ivanek). When she realizes that The Croat is connected to Negan, she enlists the latter to help her mount a rescue mission. The pair explores Manhattan aided by helpful locals, but their quest is further complicated by Armstrong (Gaius Charles), a Wild-West-style lawman who’s been tailing Negan for months.
Negan explains that he considers The Croat to be “an exceptionally insane son of a bitch,” but the insanity on display is fairly pedestrian as far as Walking Dead villains go. Though Ivanek is no stranger to playing creepy characters, he plays this one with restraint and subtlety that’s not only uncharacteristic of The Walking Dead universe, but of Ivanek himself, who has been a far more unsettling presence on shows like “24,” “Big Love,” and (most memorably) “Oz.”
This controlled performance by Ivanek is especially strange given that he is sharing the antagonist spotlight with an abundance of over-the-top undead gore. “Dead City” proves to be one of the most gruesome sub-sections of the TWD universe, with some truly inventive new ways in which to showcase the dead’s potential to decompose, split apart, melt, or otherwise become, well, more dead.
As with all good New York City-set shows, the city itself emerges as a character, and in this case, it practically serves as yet another villain. There’s a real Mad Max sensibility to the Manhattan survivors’ setup: the New Yorkers of “Dead City” don motorcycle helmets bedecked with saw blades, drive cars covered in railroad spikes, and get around the city by ziplining from rooftop to rooftop. The show maximizes its practical effects and sets by sandwiching indoor scenes between cinematic establishing shots, which gives certain pivotal moments the feel of grandiose set pieces without having to actually stage them as such.
To be fair, more could be done with New York as a setting (even if the series was actually filmed across the river in New Jersey). Easter eggs for locals are nearly nonexistent, apart from a few sly mentions of pigeons and cockroaches. But at its best moments, the look and feel of the show is at least a clear departure from previous iterations of the franchise. The idea of a post-zombie-apocalypse civilization in Manhattan raises many questions about world-building and logistics, and it’s clear that showrunner Eli Jorné has pondered these questions at length.
In fact, viewers who stick around through a somewhat slow start will indeed be rewarded with answers to every question the series raises, whether germane to world-building (how are they keeping so many lights on?) or to the plot (why is Negan wanted by the law?). When it comes to “The Walking Dead” and its spinoffs, it’s never a given that plot holes will be resolved, so it’s genuinely exciting when “Dead City’s”” loose ends begin to tie themselves up mid-season. As a bonus, these resolutions are frequently deeply connected to prior “Walking Dead” canon.
Cohan and Morgan, veteran actors who’ve inhabited these roles for close to a decade, hit their marks with practiced ease, but they are also given more to work with than they have in years. Both actors were criminally underutilized during the final seasons of “The Walking Dead” (Cohan, in fact, sat out most of Seasons 9 and 10 while she pursued other acting roles), and they benefit greatly from an opportunity to spend a sustained amount of time in the spotlight.
Morgan, of course, is given ample space to grandstand — and most of the series’ best lines: “You’d better get out your umbrellas, because it’s about to goddamn rain!” Negan crows from a mezzanine before slitting a hostage’s throat and spraying blood down to the ground floor. But he tempers each callback to Negan’s days as “The Walking Dead’s” most formidable antagonist with a sense of inner conflict. Whenever circumstances compel him to revisit his days as a ruthless dictator, it’s easy to perceive the pull between Negan’s desire to be a better person and the fact that he’s genuinely good at being bad — and what’s more, he resides in a world that actively rewards him for giving in to his most villainous impulses.
While early episodes devote far too much time to reestablishing Maggie’s deep hatred of Negan, once the duo is off on their adventure, Cohan is able to shine as well. Maggie’s own dark impulses are closer to the surface than ever, as she revisits the wrongs Negan has committed against her people and balances her love of family against her desire for revenge. The chemistry between these two actors has been palpable from their first scene together (the brutal premiere of “The Walking Dead” Season 7), and the push and pull of the characters’ contentious relationship drives the plot and raises stakes at every turn — and even manages to leave room for future clashes should the series receive a second season.
Self-awareness goes a long way here, and “The Walking Dead: Dead City” knows exactly who it’s for: deep fans of “The Walking Dead” who weren’t ready to close the door on its universe. Surprisingly, there is enough great storytelling here not only to keep that door open, but actually to inspire a little hope that the next era of “The Walking Dead” might be its best since the flagship’s early days.
“The Walking Dead: Dead City” premieres on AMC and AMC+ on June 18.