New season. New storyline. New show-runner. Even new opening credits. After a couple very disappointing seasons of narrative wheel-spinning, can The Walking Dead get back on track and maintain its tenuous stature as the most-watched drama series on television?
The season premiere’s episode title, A New Beginning, is a particularly loaded phrase. Many fans, myself included, were very displeased with the direction the show has taken in recent years and its palpable decline in writing quality. Although the series still beats all of its competition, ratings have been on a troubling downward trajectory. In response to this, the ninth season brings some major shake-ups. Old show-runner Scott Gimple is out. (Officially, he’s been promoted to a new oversight role, but the nature of what that entails isn’t clear.) New show-runner Angela Kang wants viewers to know that this is a new chapter, driven by new ideas. But is that necessarily true?
In story terms, about a year and a half have passed since the Season 8 finale (once again jumping past the Fear the Walking Dead spinoff). The war against the Saviors is long over. Alexandria and its surrounding communities are rebuilding and expanding. Between seasons, Maggie gave birth to a son she named after her father, Hershel, and was democratically elected leader of the Hilltop. The Kingdom still has its king, Ezekiel. Rick reigns as a sort of benevolent dictator over Alexandria, while the former Savior compound called the Sanctuary serves as a satellite nation under Daryl’s watch.
If last season was a war story, this one is framed as a Western. As their supply of gasoline runs out, the characters rely less on driving cars (though Daryl keeps his motorcycle running) and more on old-fashioned technology like horses and wagons. Alexandria is starting to look like a classic frontier town.
The premiere opens with Rick leading an expedition into the heart of Washington, DC, once the home of this nation’s most powerful politicians but now overrun with mindless, unfeeling monsters of another sort. With well-planned efficiency, they clear a path to an American history museum, where they collect an antique ox plow, a canoe, and a supply of garden seeds. Most ambitiously, they roll a 19th Century covered wagon down the main staircase toward the exit. This proves challenging due to the glass floor in the main lobby. When the glass breaks, Ezekiel falls through and dangles from a rope above a horde of zombies pawing at him. The others haul him back up unharmed, and Carol plants a big kiss on him, confirming that they’re now officially ‘shipped. (Shall we call them “Cazekiel”?)
On the way back to Alexandria, Ezekiel proposes to Carol, but she rebuffs him and says that’s not what she wants. He tells her that he’s content to wait.
A downed bridge forces the characters to take a longer route, which results in the covered wagon getting stuck in some mud. When a herd of Walkers advances toward them, a teenage kid named Ken puts himself in danger to set the horses free, and winds up getting chomped on the arm. He dies moments later, and Maggie has to tearfully put him down. The ox plow is also broken in the fracas.
Upon her return home, Maggie delivers the bad news to Ken’s parents, Tammy and Earl. Tammy (Brett Butler) is furious that Maggie brought her son on this dangerous mission in the first place, and is just as mad that they have to share the spoils collected and their other resources with the former Saviors. She believes that peace with them was a bad idea. This seems to be a growing sentiment with others at the Hilltop.
It doesn’t help much that discontent at the Sanctuary has led to a pro-Negan movement there that Daryl struggles to quash. He tells Rick that he’s skeptical of their long-term prospects and wants to leave the Sanctuary, but Rick doesn’t have anyone to replace him. Later, Daryl has a moment with Carol, who offers to take over for him so that he can visit the Hilltop for a while.
Despite losing the election to Maggie, Gregory (Xander Berkeley) remains as duplicitous as ever. He ingratiates himself with Ken’s parents in order to undermine Maggie’s authority, and convinces them to help him take her out. First, Gregory concocts a story about someone defacing Glenn’s grave. When Maggie goes to check it out, Earl jumps her and tries to kill her. Fortunately, her screaming baby alerts others, who come to Maggie’s rescue. Maggie immediately figures out that Gregory was behind the assassination attempt and confronts him. Gregory rants that he built the Hilltop and she’s unworthy to lead it, then pulls a knife which she wrestles out of his hand.
Rick visits the Hilltop the next day to ask Maggie for help providing more food and supplies to the struggling Saviors. Recognizing the difficult political position this puts her in, Maggie takes a hardline stance, threatening to cut the Sanctuary off unless the Saviors do the majority of work repairing the bridges around them and send all of their remaining fuel to the Hilltop. “This has to stop,” she declares, meaning the way their former enemies have been mooching off her community. It’s a hard bargain, but Rick agrees.
That night, in the Hilltop courtyard, Maggie holds what at first appears to be a trial for Earl and Tammy, but is then revealed to actually be a public execution for Gregory. Strung up in a noose, Gregory pathetically begs for his life. Tammy and Earl are forced to watch as Daryl kicks the horse out from under him and Gregory hangs. In a show of strength, Maggie announces to those assembled that she doesn’t relish killing, but that she will make the hard decisions and do what needs to be done.
It’s of course far too early to judge whether this new season will really be an improvement over the last two, but the premiere at least seems to be heading in the right direction. The attempt to rebuild civilization will hopefully be a more compelling storyline than the endless cycle of fighting ruthless dictator villains. The injection of politics into the plotting takes a page out of the Game of Thrones playbook, which frankly isn’t a bad idea. I’m interested to see how Maggie and Rick and Ezekiel’s differing leadership philosophies clash. (Also, as has been widely publicized, both Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan will exit the show this season, and I’m very curious to see how that gets handled.)
Perhaps the most important change in this premiere is tone, which is a difficult thing to quantify or describe. The show feels like it’s making a real effort to refocus both its narrative and its characters. Remarkably, none of the major characters in the premiere make idiotic decisions or behave like dumbasses just to move the plot along. Their dialogue sounds like it’s spoken by real people, not just exposition delivery machines. The episode has a number of really good character development moments, and even with a 90-minute run time (around 70 minutes without commercials) avoids feeling padded or dull.
I also appreciate the attempt to make the Walkers scary again, rather than just set dressing. The opening museum sequence is quite suspenseful, and features the genuinely nightmarish image of a skeletal zombie spewing spiders from its mouth.
I’m not going to set my expectations too high, though. Previous seasons have also started well, only to deteriorate as they went. This season will need a lot more than one good episode before it’s considered a success.