It is easy to imagine the pitch meeting that led to The Walking Dead: World Beyond. It’s been ten years since The Walking Dead premiered. For the past decade, the franchise’s core fanbase has remained both passionate and loyal — but they’re not getting any younger, and it’s not like next year’s season-11 premiere is likely to draw many new eyeballs to the series. Why not aim for a fresh start? Why not roll the dice on what’s essentially a YA Walking Dead?
But as cynical as that calculation might sound on paper, the premiere episode of The Walking Dead: World Beyond makes a decent case that this spinoff might actually be the shakeup the Walking Dead franchise has needed. With a refreshing pair of young new protagonists, along with a new setting and premise, World Beyond might just manage to breathe some new life into this franchise.
Before we formally meet any of our new heroes and villains, World Beyond takes the time to acclimate us to a new setting. This time, we’re in Omaha, where Nebraska State University has been transformed into the Campus Colony. In a cute nod to the premiere date of the main series, it’s been ten years since the zombie apocalypse first broke out. By the looks of things, the Campus Colony is about as idyllic as the post-apocalypse is going to get: just under 10,000 survivors living in relative harmony. There’s ample food. There are plenty of defenses against the zombies outside their gates. (This time, they’re called “empties,” because it wouldn’t be Walking Dead if they didn’t twist themselves into pretzels to avoid the word “zombie.”) And — mostly importantly — there’s a whole new generation of teenagers attending a reasonably stable approximation of what a normal American high school would have looked like before society collapsed.
Our protagonists are two of those teenagers. Iris Bennett (Aliyah Royale), the student-council president, is a driven, high-performing student — think Tracy Flick in the post-apocalypse, and you’ll be in the ballpark. But there are already some troubling cracks in Iris’s type-A façade, including recurring nightmares in which she sees herself as a zombie. Iris’s sister Hope (Alexa Mansour) is a self-styled outsider, who uses her natural scientific talents to make her own booze and rebels against an alliance with a militaristic group called the Civic Republic Military, or the CRM. And both girls are reeling, in their own ways, from a pair of familial traumas: the death of their mother on the night the zombie apocalypse broke out, and the absence of their father, Leo, who agreed to go work for the CRM on a secret base as part of the alliance pact.
Even in a fictional universe as thoroughly explored as The Walking Dead has been, this is a lot of new information, and the first half of the premiere is mostly just characters explaining everything we need to know via inelegant info-dumps. How do we know Iris loves art? Because Hope and her psychiatrist both remind her she loves art. How do we know that the smirking soldier Felix (Nico Tortorella) is supposed to be the girls’ guardian while their dad is away? Because Iris reminds Felix that he’s supposed to be their guardian while their dad is away. Hope makes her displeasure with the CRM known by sabotaging a welcome banner to make it say THE CIVIC REPUBLIC SUCKS ASS.
Nothing about any of this is particularly subtle. But just when I was worried that World Beyond might devolve into the characters just turning to the camera and explaining things directly to the audience, the premiere unexpectedly settles into a groove.
It starts with the introduction of World Beyond’s intriguing new villain: CRM Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Kublek (Julia Ormond). It’s obvious from the start that there’s something shady about the CRM — for one thing, World Beyond wouldn’t really have a story to tell if this alliance was on the level — but by making Elizabeth the avatar for the CRM, the series is able to keep adding strange new wrinkles to what the group might actually be doing. When Elizabeth meets Iris as part of a welcome delegation, she acts rigid and formal. Later, Elizabeth expresses some genuine-sounding appreciation for Iris and Hope’s willingness to give up their dad in hopes of a brighter future. Deep into the night, she approaches the girls yet again — this time drunk on champagne — tells them their dad is in New York, and gives them a top-secret CRM map that they might be able to use to find him.
Of course, Elizabeth’s apparent kindness and generosity is just a front; by the end of the episode, she’s leading a group of soldiers who wipe out the Campus Colony, thereby establishing the CRM’s dominance in yet another region. But whatever mind games she was playing with the Bennett girls, she may have miscalculated, because they’re already gone. After receiving an SOS message from their father, Iris and Hope decided to hit the 1,100-mile road from Nebraska to New York, hoping to find their father at the end of it. (They also bring along a couple of classmates — witty Elton and gentle giant Silas — who we’ll presumably get to know better along the way.)
And so, while this series premiere certainly has its clunky moments, it ends with an open road, and a lot of promise ahead. World Beyond still has some growing to do before it establishes itself as a key part of the overarching Walking Dead universe — but at the very least, it does feel like this show is arriving at the perfect time for a story about young people figuring out how to navigate a terrifying and uncertain future with courage and grace.
• Most of the premiere focuses on Iris, Hope, and Elizabeth, but there are a bunch of characters we’ll presumably get to know in the episodes to come. Huck (Annet Mahendru) is Felix’s partner in the security force, and they both allude to Felix’s missing boyfriend Will, who has been tasked with guarding Iris and Hope’s father. Felix and Huck also leave the Campus Colony in search of the girls before the CRM massacre, so we’ll see them on the road as well.
• Iris, who wasn’t there when her mother died, believes she was killed by zombies. A flashback reveals her mother was actually shot by another desperate (and pregnant) survivor, which led the pre-teen Hope to pick up a gun and kill her in return. That certainly helps to explain Hope’s ennui and nihilism, and the longstanding lie will probably drive a wedge between the sisters whenever the truth comes to light.
• At the end of the episode, Elizabeth is looking for “her.” Is that Iris? Hope? Someone we haven’t met yet?
• Another mystery left to be answered: Are those coded SOS messages really coming from Leo Bennett? Or is someone just pretending to be Iris and Hope’s father for their own as-yet-unrevealed purposes?
• One thing I really like about World Beyond: The series is definitively slated to end at the end of its second season, meaning (barring some kind of spinoff from this spinoff) that this whole story will be told in 20 episodes. Given the seemingly endless nature of every other Walking Dead series — especially with the “finale” of the mothership series just transitioning into a Daryl and Carol spinoff — I’m excited to see how this franchise tells a story with an actual ending.
• World Beyond is mostly a standalone series, but if you’re into Walking Dead lore, you surely recognized the CRM. They’ve popped up in both the original series and Fear the Walking Dead, and they’re sure to play a big role in those upcoming Rick Grimes movies, since it was a CRM helicopter that saved Rick from certain death. The Walking Dead Wiki has a much deeper dive on the CRM if you’re interested, but the short version: They’re big and mysterious and heavily armed, and in the long run, their omnipresence seems like the thing that’s going to tie all these different Walking Dead stories together.
• This premiere episode was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who’s best known for directing Kong: Skull Island.
• The song that opens and closes the episode is PJ Harvey’s “The Devil.” It rules.
• Iris’s sessions with psychiatrist Dr. K got me extremely jazzed about what In Treatment in the Walking Dead universe might look like. Who wouldn’t want to watch Gabriel Byrne help a rotating panel of patients solve their post-apocalyptic problems?
• If you’re interested in another take on what it would be like to grow up in the zombie apocalypse, check out Telltale’s acclaimed series of Walking Dead video games, which covers similar territory to brilliant effect.
• Elton mentions that he got separated from his mom on the night of the zombie apocalypse. She’s presumed dead, so my guess is we can all look forward to meeting her sometime later this season.
• A good weird detail: Campus Colony soldiers spray-paint the zombies blue, like you’d tag a deer, so scientists can track the movements of their herds.
• One of my favorite goofy things about the Walking Dead universe is how every character gets their own signature weapon — but as hard as they try, I don’t think they’ll ever manage to top a triceratops horn tied to a stick.
• Per Dr. K, there were 9,671 survivors in Omaha. Did the CRM really manage to kill all of them?
• How did Hope manage to make Champagne, anyway?