The Walking Dead
A people divided by politics and deeply rooted grudges. The rule of law and the Constitution, now relics of days gone by. The nation’s capital overrun by groaning mouth-breathers. Aren’t we watching The Walking Dead to get away from real life? The promos for season nine have made two things clear: Rick Grimes is saying good-bye one way or another, and the series is headed in a very different direction. The ninth-season premiere proved the latter to be true in nearly every sense, right down to the opening sequence. Let’s be honest: TWD desperately needed a Daryl-horse-slap-in-the-ass to find fresh energy (especially for anyone watching Fear the Walking Dead, which just wrapped up a season that was better than TWD has been in a long time). But is this better, or just different?
The curtain rises a year and a half after Rick, in honor of his deceased one-eyed pacifist son, spared Negan’s life and pledged to rebuild civilization. Good-bye, life on the road; the gang is officially all-in on Virginia. Cue the Alexandria Safe Zone, which has a spiffy new sign (how lucky is the person who landed “graphic designer” as a job?), a robust garden, and solar power. Daryl is running a motorcycle shop at the Sanctuary while Eugene makes corn fuel. Maggie won an election, beating that sleazebag Gregory for the unenviable honor of leading Hilltop. Carol and Zeke are shacking up at the Kingdom. Roads are now oddly alphabetized (was a confusing interstate highway system really such a problem?). The four outposts are thriving (sort of) and living with an uneasy peace. Judith has also become even more impossibly cute, particularly for a child growing up in a world filled with flesh-eating monsters. How is she so happy? And is it weird that I want Michonne to carry me through a field and point at the squawking birdies as they fly away?
Then there’s that animated opener. It’s not as horror-film ominous as the old intro, with its sepia-toned images from the show and that haunting zombie stumbling through a field. But if a new chapter is what we’re in for, well then, let’s wipe the slate clean (sort of) and look at everything with fresh eyes. I dig it — there are still lots of spooky stuff like a creepy windmill and a pitchfork in a skull and a noose (foreshadowing!) and more of those damn crows. Are the birds harbingers of Rick’s fate? Seems likely — a lot has changed this season, but a newfound subtlety is not on the menu.
To wit: Rick stops by Sanctuary and gives a pep talk that doubles as an explainer for us Deadheads: “We’re looking to the past to help with the present.” That’s why the gang rolled into downtown Washington, D.C. — where the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument loom as burned-out ruins — to raid a museum for a big-ass wagon and some seeds. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the oddly placed glass floor splinters and shatters as they clumsily move large, heavy objects across it, and Zeke barely avoids getting dragged into a zombie buffet by his dreads. Something else that’s changed is the zombies themselves: As more time has passed, they look more rotten and wretched (and in the case of that museum walker, spider-infested). They even seem a little extra groan-y and moan-y these days. Aren’t we all, though?
Peace hasn’t made life easy, however. Horses are a preferred mode of transport now that fuel supplies are low, and a key bridge has been knocked out of commission by a roaming herd. As one might expect, hard feelings left over from the war with the Saviors haven’t been resolved, either. At Sanctuary, one large former Savior says, “Bless you, Rick Grimes,” which earns a round of applause (and later, some cute ball-busting from Michonne). Not long after, the opposition party sends its own message in the form of graffiti: “Saviors Save Us … We’re Still Negan.” Rick suggests what they really want is food, not their old skull-bashing boss back in charge. But bad blood runs deep on both sides. Maggie is still so unnerved by Negan’s existence that she won’t step foot in A-town; not even for playdates with Judith and Hershel. (She named the kid Hershel! I mean, I would have gone with Glenn Jr., but solid choice, Mags. Also, let’s hope he doesn’t grow up to be the equivalent of a new-world lax bro, because Judith’s bf options are crazy limited.)
Some characters have been changed more than others as a result of the Great Savior War. Gabe looks at least partially blind from that nasty illness and has taken to wearing a spiffy hat. Daryl is rocking a gangsta bandanna and reminiscing about the good ol’ days when their posse was small and they “could do anything.” (Note to Daryl: Are you referring to that sunshiny era during which your brother died and you were almost wiped out by a former middle manager turned walker-head-aquarium-aficionado, a band of cannibals, a handful of assholes who took over a hospital, and a couple zombie herds?) Ms. Spock, a.k.a. Jadis the haiku-speaking artsy-fartsy freak show, is now Anne, the former schoolteacher and productive, articulate member of society. Carol the Romantic hasn’t changed a lick. Her response to Zeke’s awkward marriage proposal is basically, ew, told you not to do that, jewelry is a hazard out here on these streets, and “this is not happening on a horse.” Fair point, C-Dogg. To her credit, she makes it clear that when she relieves Daryl of his post at the Sanctuary, she plans to come “home” to her cornball king. I officially endorse this couple.
The key story line begins with Ken, a rando who gets himself killed while trying to save a horse from becoming zombie food. For all you psycho animal lovers out there, let this be a lesson: You will never survive an undead uprising, because you will be compelled to do dumb stuff like that. (I wonder: How many people ended up undead because they ran back into their house to get their cockapoo’s shearling aviator jacket, raincoat, and turtleneck sweater so he’d be soooo comfy-womfy like a good boy?) While Ken really only had himself to blame for dying, his parents back at Hilltop see things differently — they voted for Maggie Rhee, they tell her, but that Gregory, boy, he really wants to make Hilltop great again. Gregory doesn’t miss a chance to speak at the kid’s funeral, and even Jesus buys his bullshit, for some reason. It’s all a sham, a setup for Gregory’s most gutless power play yet (and that’s really saying something). He pushes Ken’s old man off the wagon, then gets him to drunkenly ambush Maggie at Glenn’s grave, of all places. Perhaps the episode’s most implausible moment comes when Maggie somehow resists cutting Gregory’s throat.
Later, a busted-but-badass Maggie makes it clear to Rick that she won’t help him rebuild the bridge unless the Saviors do most of the work and pony up more fuel. Then she lays out her vision of the new world: “When we were fighting the Saviors, you said soon you’d be the one following me. But you didn’t. ’Cause I wasn’t someone to follow. That changes now.” To which Rick says absolutely nothing.
Will the show improve now that the focus has shifted, at least temporarily, from the Big Bad of the moment to the challenges of rebuilding society? It’s hard to say; we’ll need a few more episodes to see how the conflicts deepen and whether a deeper focus on character makes for more compelling drama. One promising sign is the dark, long overdue ending: Maggie says there’s no shame in her justice game as Gregory, with a rope around his neck, snivels to the bitter end. Daryl gives the horse a slap and off it goes, leaving one of the all-time TWD lowlifes to twist and kick in the wind. (Mags apparently gives Ken’s dad a bereavement pass.) And with that, it appears the survivors will be forced to choose sides: either Team Maggie or Team Rick. Right now, I’m with her.