Quick Answer: Robert Kirkman, writer/creator of The Walking Dead and Executive Producer of the TV series, has said he knows how the comic series will end. However, it may be more than a decade from now, as he has said there could be 300 issues in the comic with only slightly over half of them published to date. The television series will run as long as fan interest keeps the expensive production alive. Its narrative will continue to weave in and out of the comics while maintaining the core path of the characters.
The Walking Dead (2010 - ) is not without its imperfections. Some call it formulaic and repetitive, with awkward pacing and lulls in the narrative. Others complain that characters’ personalities and emotions fluctuate beyond reason, harming the story. But none of these perceived flaws has prevented The Walking Dead from becoming one of the most-watched series in cable television history with a fan base as ravenous as the “walkers” we see on-screen. AMC has expressed no interest in putting a crossbow bolt through the mega series’ forehead any time soon.
At the closure of Season Six, the characters of The Walking Dead found themselves in a confrontation with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the greatest villain of the comic series and a long-anticipated character for the television adaptation. Negan’s first appearance in the comic series came in Issue 100, first published on July 11, 2012. (The issue broke the record as the best-selling comic book issue in 15 years.) At the time of this writing, four years after Negan’s comic reveal, the comic series has reached Issue #155. In other word, the AMC series is only two-thirds of the way through the source material presently available, and new material is still being produced. As it took the show six years to cover 100 issues, extrapolating that pace moving forward, we would see at least another three seasons before the series catches up to today’s printed material. By then, comic writer Robert Kirkman and company will be another 30-40 issues deep, giving the show even more to work with.
All that considered, at the present pace, the series could easily run another five seasons before running out of source material. Two years ago, Executive Producer Dave Alpert said the writing team already had general story plots mapped out through Season Twelve. The comic series was only on issue #127 at that time.
What’s more, the series doesn’t move through the comics in a completely linear fashion. The writers pick and choose moments to inject into the series where they fit the television story best, while following the path of the series’ major moments, so they aren’t necessarily done with the first 100 issues just because Negan has reared his head.
Negan selects someone for execution
Robert Kirkman has declared that he hopes to write 300 issues of the series in total, meaning he’s not much more than half done, and he has a general outline of how the story will unfold. “I do plan on doing at least 300 issues, but if I’m having this much fun, then I won’t stop there,” he said. “Also, if I suddenly start having a lot less fun, I may end it earlier, but I don’t see that happening. I’m in for the long haul, and Charlie Adlard is, too.”
As for the television show, the AMC executives feel the same passion. Head of Programming Joel Stillerman told Collider, “What’s so fascinating about The Walking Dead is that Robert Kirkman set out to do something that proved to be remarkably brilliant in a couple of very fundamental ways. One is he wanted to use the world of the zombie apocalypse as a way to get at social commentary. That was always the killer app for the show. But if you ask Robert what his motivations were for writing The Walking Dead, he would say, ‘I loved zombie movies, but I just felt like the worst part of them was always the ending. You always had to manufacture some ending.’ So he set out to write this totally open-ended story, and the proof of that is in how vibrant the comics are. The answer to how long the show will go on in some way is directly correlated with the health of the storytelling in the comics. Those comics are firing on all cylinders. He still writes every line of dialogue in those books, and is as engaged as he was when I think he was sitting around in Kentucky writing the first issue. That is very much part of the DNA of the show. He sort of felt like, in real life, this goes on for a very long time. We’re along for that ride.”
When the end of the series does come, Kirkman has a plan. He said, “I do hope that The Walking Dead goes on long enough that when it ends, they’re like, ‘Good thing we took care of those zombies.’…I see the story from beginning to end, over many, many years, and so I think it’s a very hopeful story about humanity overcoming this insurmountable apocalyptic situation.”
Rick Grimes as depicted in the comics
He also confirmed to EW that he knows the story’s ending: “I do know what I’m building toward, yes. I don’t know exactly what issue that’s going to fall on, per se, and I do have a lot of road laid out before that that is going to take a long time, but I certainly know exactly what I’m building to. About a year or two ago, I finally nailed down exactly what I want the ending to be. So now I’ve kind of got two trails of story going in my head. One working to where I’m at very far into the future, and one working from the end backwards. When those two stories meet, then I’ll know exactly how long the story is. I’m rapidly approaching that point.”
Of course, that only confirms he knows how the comics will end. The show could end with something entirely different, especially if it does push past the source material after a few more years of mayhem. Kirkman received some internet flack for saying he was disappointed in George R. R. Martin’s decision to allow the HBO Game of Thrones (2011 - ) series to reveal parts of his yet-unpublished next novel, so Kirkman would likely be against the television series telling the end of his story before the comics get a chance. Fortunately, Kirkman has great involvement with both projects.
Cable series of this magnitude and length are nearly unprecedented. Most series that cross a 10-season run are network procedurals or sitcoms with smaller budgets and smaller scales of production. But as long as AMC can maintain The Walking Dead’s budget through viewership, its platform allows for continuity. The story is seemingly endless, and — given the realities of the universe — the characters are replaceable. When the day comes that The Walking Dead wraps up as a television series, it will likely be the result of a lack of audience interest and budget, not narrative material.