The Walking Dead vs Game of Thrones: Why the zombie drama is better than George RR Martin's fantasy hit

As season seven begins, we make a case for AMC's apocalypse drama

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The Independent Culture

The Walking Dead is the third most watched show on television. In 2014, the show’s season five premiere became the most viewed in cable history (17.29m on channel AMC), an already impressive feat beaten by its very own spin-off (Fear the Walking Dead) a year later.

While available on network television, the show's ratings drastically exceed those amassed by Game of Thrones (8m in comparison). Still, with a record-breaking 38 Emmys to boot, it’s clear that ‘experts’ deem HBO's fantasy series the superior show. 

Now, I’m not saying viewer ratings equate to quality; if that was the case, I’d be writing an ill-judged appraisal on The Big Bang Theory. But in this case, I do believe The Walking Dead is a far better television series than Game of Thrones - and it’s about time it got recognised as being so.

Based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, The Walking Dead follows survivors of a zombie apocalypse, led by sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Developed by The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, the series began in 2010 with a concise six-episode season. An unfairly maligned second followed before the third kicked the show into an unprecedented speed that's only gaining momentum; it's tough to recall a series whose assuredness has multiplied in stature with each new season.  

Thrones, however, feels like a show struggling to retain its peak. After a solid three and a half seasons, standout episodes now feel few and far between, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss content to shortchange their audience in favour of sporadic (and questionable) shocks. Forget Game of Thrones’ annual ‘episode nine’ event - a once-exciting, now-gimmicky showpiece hour of TV that sends the world into furore; The Walking Dead has multiple episodes akin to those in one season alone (fourth series episode "The Grove," for example, delivered Red Wedding levels of shock albeit in an understated, more chilling manner).   

The Walking Dead isn't afraid to put the brakes on, either, delivering episodes that strip away the brutal action and hone in on certain characters. But these serve as a necessary reprieve, permitting your attachment to these creations to broaden. Thrones, on the flipside, has started to feel too much like a show whose feet remain firmly on the brakes, tantalisingly relieving pressure if only to keep viewer's frustrations at bay.

With each new season of The Walking Dead comes a stylistic evolution - the writers are increasingly less afraid to play around with the timeline's linearity or to switch up their directing style (case in point: Tyreese-centric season five episode "What's Happened and What's Going On"). Consequently, episodes feel like standalone pieces to be appreciated. Save for Thrones' breathtaking scenery, nothing set any season five episode apart, save for the Hardhome battle and Daenerys' dragon-escape - both unforgivably arriving at the season's tail-end.

A few characters aside (Littlefinger, Cersei and Tyrion Lannister), the Westeros-dwellers feel like pawns in a very despicable game of chess; there’s an overarching sense that the creators don’t particularly like these people, instead viewing them as tools to shock the audience with - their actions feel less a character’s decision than the result of a writer’s room brainstorm. 

The same can't be said for The Walking Dead's ensemble, however. Two of The Walking Dead's most interesting characters include Lincoln's sheriff and Carol Peletier (played by Melissa McBride - how she hasn't won an Emmy for this role I'll never know). Both begin as the group's moral compasses - Rick the archetypal leader, Carol the abused victim - but as the series has transpired, the two have become more depraved, electing to kill anyone who obstructs their plans whether they want to or not. Grimes especially has transitioned into TV's current incarnation of the antihero - you could readily mention him in the same breath as Tony Soprano and Walter White.

The act of killing is never mindless in The Walking Dead - every life in the apocalypse is sacred. It's the moral questions these situations throw forward that make these characters feel more human - a notion heightened even further by the undead surrounding them.

Due to offing their lead in the first season, people believe Thrones to be synonymous with unpredictable shock deaths. Quite simply, though, it has nothing on The Walking Dead, a series that - by my reckoning - has the biggest character turnover of any show I've seen. Both shows have large casts, bu every single episode of the zombie drama is layered with a sense of dread that any character can go at any time, regardless of their current position in the story. It's due to this I find The Walking Dead's deaths to carry more weight, aided by the writers' decision to focus on the aftereffects on the surrounding characters - a sense that will be in full swing with the arrival of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's malevolent antagonist, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Game of Thrones' deaths serve to gut-punch - and that's about it. The departure of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) has only served to highlight how weak a villain Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) is, and in dispatching of Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal), the show rid itself of its greatest new addition since it commenced. These deaths may have had a purpose, sure, but the series' increasing struggle to balance the overcrowded plot has inadvertently seen the planned aftermath fall by the wayside.   

The Walking Dead is a quick-paced show that sheds its skin every eight episodes, fast becoming a series decipherable by the way in which it continually switches up its locations and villains. It almost seems as if each half season is mapped out as an enticing chapter in an ongoing saga. In this way, The Walking Dead feels more of a story than Game of Thrones ever could - scandalous when you consider George R.R. Martin's source material remains a riveting read.

Still, the rigmarole will continue: The Walking Dead will continue to lie in Game of Thrones' mammoth-sized shadow every time the bandwagon rolls into town each spring. But, if you ask me, in the overall battle of zombies and dragons, it's a no-brainer - the undead will endure.

The Walking Dead season 7 begins in the US on Sunday (23 October) and will air the following evening on FOX at 9 PM.