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The Walking Dead Gets the Fresh Start We've Been Waiting For

By Rob Bricken on at

Were you sort of dreading the season nine premiere of The Walking Dead? I was. The series has had increasing problems since the beginning of the boring, interminable Savior War, and the show’s declining ratings back that up. But I’m surprised—and happy!—to report that the season nine premiere really feels like a new beginning, and damned if it didn’t make me excited for the show all over again…mostly.

Some time has passed since the not-good season eight finale, I think around two years (I’m utterly terrible with guessing kids’ ages, but Judith is maybe five, and Maggie’s baby Herschel is around one and a half), and a lot has changed. The premiere is literally titled “A New Beginning.” Mainly, for the first time in goodness knows how long, there’s been no one to fight but the dead. There’s been time to build and grow and simply live in peace, and just about everyone’s better for it: Carol and Ezekiel have finally hooked up, Michonne is 100 per cent Judith’s new mum, Alexandria’s been rebuilt, there are crops being grown at Sanctuary, all the colonies have improved themselves and evolved and expanded, like zombie apocalypse SimCities.

But most importantly, everyone’s working together for the common good, best exemplified by the very organised joint task force sent to DC to go to the museum. One of my favourite things to see in The Walking Dead is when people find clever ways to improve their normal, day-to-day lives during the zombie apocalypse, so watching them raid the museum’s seed vault (thanks to a tip from the artist Anne, formerly known as Jadis) for more crops to grow, and them grabbing the old-timey plough and wagon from the human history exhibit so they can use them to build their own, was just fantastic. (I don’t really know if, say, the American Natural History Museum actually keeps a bunch of common food seeds vacuum-packed in its basement, but I’m not going to complain).

There’s a brief scare in the museum, as there’s a horde of zombies under the giant glass floor of the museum’s lobby (a wonderful visual), and Ezekiel briefly falls in when the glass cracks, but ends up fine. However, when the group is trying to bring the wagon home and it gets stuck in the mud, Ken, son of Hilltop’s blacksmith, gets bitten when a dozen zombies pop. It’s a small attack, the kind that hasn’t fazed our heroes in years, and Ken’s death is so common that it barely would be a blip on their radar…except everyone gets really upset. The message is both interesting and crystal-clear: This is no longer a world where people can get killed virtually any minute. Death is rare enough that even people who don’t belong to Hilltop grieve. There has been actual peace., which is arguably the biggest status quo change the show has ever made.

After all the years of conflict in general, and the Savior War in particular, it’s immensely satisfying to return to these characters and see that they’ve finally gotten ahead for once; that they’ve been, as much as they can be after all the horrors they’ve experienced, something close to happy. This, more than anything, is what breathes new life into the show. Everything had been so fraught and bad that it had gotten monotonous. Now, these characters have something to fight for again beyond just their survival—and they have something to lose other than their lives.

Another welcome change is that Rick isn’t the main focus here, and also that he’s managed to stay a good dude after his face turn in the last few minutes of the season eight finale. I don’t know if this is something that’s going to last longer than this episode, but I certainly hope it does. Not just because Rick’s moral struggles are as boring as they are maddening at this point, but because star Andrew Lincoln is leaving in just six episodes and taking Rick with him, the only way the show can continue without its main character and keep its remaining audience is by expanding its focus to other characters and let Rick become one of the many for the little time he has left. He’s been the show’s anchor for eight years; unless the weight gets redistributed this season, and fast, when he goes the show will simply drift away.

Maggie (Lauren Cohan) smells a weasel.

Honestly, there’s only one downside in the episode, but I can see why the show did it. Gregory, the weaselly weasel played so well by Xander Berkeley, is still around, and still pulling his exact same weaselly bullshit in Hilltop. After Maggie returns home from her museum trip, she tells Ken’s parents Earl and Tammy about his death, and they do not take it well (their shock is more proof that death has become a rare occurrence). Tammy is especially pissed that her son died helping to get things for Sanctuary, as she, like many, feel they are still the enemy, regardless of whether they’ve been defeated. Ol’ Gregory takes the opportunity and runs with it, starting subtly by giving a genuine, moving speech at Ken’s funeral, with zero sneering subtext. Then things quickly get absurd. Namely, he gets Earl drunk and talks him into trying to murder Maggie but also directly sending her into the ambush, and then trying to murder Maggie himself when she confronts him.

This is, finally, the very last straw Gregory was clinging onto, and Maggie finally hangs the weasel in front of the colony. We, the viewers, know it’s spectacularly overdue, but it’s potentially the first time a human has killed a human since the war ended, and it makes a crack in the careful peace that has been wrought over the last couple of years. Because the peace they’ve created is still as fragile as the glass floor of the museum. People still resent the ex-Saviors, and some Hilltoppers especially resent that their bountiful food supply goes to feed them. But the crops failing at Sanctuary means some of those ex-Saviors also feel like they’re getting screwed, and wish Negan would come back, because at least then they wouldn’t have to worry about food. Unrest is brewing.

This unrest is not just on a macro level. Daryl hates being leader of the Sanctuary, because he feels it’s doomed no matter what he does. Carol decides to take his place…but she’s also leaving right after Ezekiel proposed to her, and she’s not exactly sure what she wants. And Maggie, irritated that Rick has never really acknowledged her a leader on his level (as he’d promised to), and also increasingly angry that her people are making sacrifices for others without getting anything in return, starts, well, demanding something in return for Hilltop’s assistance.

Class trip to Washington DC

The show has never shed away from the dilemma of whether helping others is worth it or not, but there’s something more poignant (and more unique) when the opposing sides are led by two protagonists we’ve been watching for years, and not just the random murder-happy arseholes Rick and the others have been fighting this whole time. Both Maggie and Rick want what’s best for people, it’s just that Rick feels by “people” he means the colonies as a whole, while Maggie thinks her responsibility is to her people at Hilltop, not others—or at least not the former Saviors.

Still, when Michonne and Rick are talking the two of them realise there need to be some kind of agreement between the colonies, of how they should handle certain things—an agreed set of rules, if you will, with agreed-on punishments for those who break them. I’m sure everything will go to shit before this charter comes to fruition—it’s The Walking Dead, of course it will—but man, it’s refreshing that the characters on the show are in a place where they can even think about creating laws to help reestablish civilisation.

I’m going to give a lot of credit to new showrunner (and longtime writer) Angela Kang for this very fresh start. It really does feel like an entirely new chapter in the saga (it especially helps that Negan doesn’t even show up) and the upcoming drama feels a lot more meaningful because it’s not a conflict involving cartoonish villains. Honestly, I was interested in everything the show had to offer except watching Gregory do his same, weaselly dance of treacherous bullshit, but again, I see why the show chose to do it. A public and deliberate execution not only shows how far the colonies have come but also illustrates the dark side underneath the veneer of civilisation that seems like it’ll be the season’s theme. Also? I bet they figured no one wanted to miss seeing Gregory finally die for his shenanigans, and I think that was the correct call. Whatever repercussions come, it’s nice to know Maggie—and we—won’t have to deal with him anymore.

In fact, the season premiere was good enough that it’s made me cautiously optimistic for season nine. So much is new that it seems like it would be difficult for the series to backstep, although it’s certainly not impossible. Honestly, any hope could so, so easily come back to give me a zombie-infected bite on the arse; after all, The Walking Dead has always been pretty good at taking off, it’s the landings it never seems to get right. If that’s the case yet again, oh well. I’m still going to try to enjoy this specific ride for as long as I can.

Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) share a moment.

Assorted Musings:

  • There’s a new animated opening to the series, and maybe I’m just riding the high of the entire reset, but I think it looked pretty cool.
  • One of my favourite moments is when two Sanctuary people tie up a zombie to a cross as a scarecrow to keep birds from eating their pitiful remaining crops. Daryl takes one look and shoots it in the head. You never let zombies inside, no matter how useful think they might be, idiots.
  • Really great zombie moment when the museum zombies grabbed Siddiq in the dark, and the only thing that could be seen clearly was the huge spider crawling out of the corpse’s mouth and a million tiny spiders scuttling over it. Super-gross.
  • Hey, what happened to that Key to the Future book that lady Georgie handed to Maggie and Michonne last year? Did that not have instructions on how to make ploughs and wagons and stuff?
  • Gregory called for an election at Hilltop and lost, which means, as Michonne points out, the weasel technically reinvented democracy before he got himself hanged. Nice work!
  • Finally, Gregory is also the recipient of the episode’s best line, delivered by a very angry Maggie after the failed assassination attempt: “You want to lead this place? You can’t even murder someone right.”
  • Hey, Judith—don’t fat shame your old man. Not cool.