The Walking Dead: Season 9, Episode 1 – A New Beginning

“We deserve to live in peace. Negan and the Saviors tried to take that away from us. Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom and Oceanside came together. To fight for a better future.

“We won.

“Not without painful losses. Today, we try to heal. We try to forgive. Now, the work begins. The new world begins.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Fine words, Rick Grimes. This is indeed a new world for The Walking Dead. A world where showrunner Scott Gimple has been replaced by veteran scriptwriter Angela Kang. A world with a plot other than about Negan. A world where Carl Grimes, alive in the comics, is dead – and his father is about to join him.

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Yes, as is now well-known, this is Andrew Lincoln’s final season on The Walking Dead. Lauren Cohan too, having played Maggie Greene since way back in season 2. With the setup at the end of the previous season pitting Rick and Maggie against each other, and the discontent already evident in this season opener, I’d say each will be the end of the other. Word is that Rick will be gone by the mid-season finale – a brave move, killing your longtime leading man off halfway through the season. Will viewers stay watching a Walking Dead without Rick Grimes?

AMC must be hoping so, after the stagnated plot of the last two and a bit years meant viewers left the show in droves. To keep that in perspective, it’s still the most watched show on basic cable, so I’d say its future is safe. But it’s not the ratings juggernaut it once was, and actually a shift into entirely original territory, even further away from the comics, might do it the world of good. After all, sister show Fear the Walking Dead has (after a shaky start) been consistently more interesting for the last few years.

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On the basis of this season opener, though, they obviously haven’t got there yet. This was a mixed bag of a premiere, divided neatly into two halves – the first, following Rick and the gang on a scavenger hunt into the ruins of Washington DC, was pretty thrilling. The second, setting out the discontented factions both within and between the four communities now forming the backbone of the show, really wasn’t, unfortunately.

It was necessary for plot purposes, of course, but ideally it might have been better intertwined with the other plot rather than having them occur one after the other. It’s a bit jarring to have a thrilling narrative suddenly replaced by one entirely more sedate halfway through the ep. The show’s got form on this sort of thing, especially with season openers; and frequently, as here, they’re written by Angela Kang herself. Showrunner she may now be, but perhaps more script editing might have kept this overlong episode tighter.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t some good stuff here, even in the slightly draggy second half. The showdown between Maggie and the ever-slimy Gregory feels long overdue (though apparently it was actually moved forward from the original plan to accommodate Lauren Cohan’s departure). It was fairly faithful to the comic, though as I recall Gregory’s assassination attempt there involved poison rather than a discontented resident trying to bludgeon Maggie to death.

The punishment, however, was exactly as shown in the comic, and carried a fair bit of dramatic weight. Unsurprisingly, Gregory went to his death snivelling to the last, but the thing was, some of what he said was actually true. Maggie is starting to behave like a tinpot dictator, even if she has the best of intentions. What with the execution, the unseen election and Gregory’s insinuations of voter fraud, it made me wonder whether Maggie’s being shaped up as some sort of comment on the current US presidency.

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The end of the previous season showed us that Maggie wasn’t the only one dissatisfied with Rick’s ‘civilised’ decision not to kill Negan, and the other main character sharing her feelings was Daryl. This ep built on that – he’s still not happy, and it seems in particular with Rick himself. Again, there’s obvious conflict brewing here, though Rick seemed entirely oblivious to it.

At least Daryl still gets on with Carol, since they’re the show’s most popular double act. This ep gave them a charming nighttime chat scene, with the now smokefree Carol admonishing her friend that “those things’ll kill you”. Quite how Daryl still manages to have cigarettes when the communities can’t even find gasoline any more is an enduring mystery, but it’s such a fixed aspect of his character’s image it’s hard to imagine him without them.

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Carol has her own worries of course (when doesn’t she?), not least of which being that Ezekiel has actually proposed to her and she was half-inclined to accept. Well, why don’t you? Carol, of course, has been on the show long enough to know that it never has happy endings, and any promise of one is likely false. My guess is that, having had the temerity to imagine one, Ezekiel won’t last out the season.

Luckily there were plenty of new characters on the scene – it is after all eighteen months since the end of the All Out War. Trouble was, very few of those new characters were fleshed out very much, so we haven’t really got to know them yet. In particular, I’d like to have seen more of Zach McGowan’s truculent ex-Savior Justin; McGowan was the best thing about Black Sails, and a star performer in The 100 – if he’s been cast, I’m expecting the character to have a major role in the season.

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I’d also like to have seen more of AJ Achinger’s sweet junior blacksmith Ken, but he didn’t even make it to the halfway point of this ep. Since his death was the catalyst for the later discontent at the Hilltop, he actually was given some sort of character; it’s just a shame it didn’t last very long.

His death was sort of dumb, though. Walkers aside, you’d expect a blacksmith to know to keep clear of a frightened horse’s hooves. In fact, while the Washington trip had plenty of spectacle and some nice tense moments, I have to say the characters seemed to be behaving pretty stupidly throughout. As soon as we saw that glass floor with hordes of Walkers milling about beneath it, it was plain that it someone was going to be falling through it at some point. And while I can understand the quest for the museum’s seeds for crops, surely there were safer places nearer to the communities to obtain an old covered wagon and a plough, the acquisition of which ultimately led to Ken’s demise.

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Still, director Greg Nicotero kept the first half moving at such a lick you didn’t stop to think about that till afterwards, and there’s always a thrill in seeing semi-ruined familiar landmarks like the Washington Monument. He also came up with some repeated visual motifs that will surely have some significance. Obviously the broken bridge (which was remarked upon with repeated sledge hammer subtlety) serves to represent the broken bonds between the now distrustful former allies. Nice visual gag with the Walker at the end of the evolutionary link diagram too.

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But what of the recurring flock of crows (the proper collective noun for which, remember, is a murder), which even showed up in the wholly revamped opening credits sequence? I’m hazarding a guess that the crows mean nothing good, and that it’s nothing good for Rick Grimes in particular…

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Gore of the week

Actually there wasn’t much. Despite a lot of Walkers heads meeting the usual fate, which we’re pretty much inured to now, there were only two deaths and both were fairly bloodless.

The unfortunate Ken did get bitten, so there was a nasty wound on his arm – but we’ve seen worse. Even having been kicked in the chest by a horse gave him nothing more visible than a crescent shaped bruise.

Gregory’s death, while even more bloodless, was arguably nastier. That was a pretty convincing hanging, complete with nasty gurgling strangulation sounds – no wonder Michonne didn’t want the kiddies to watch.

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There was at least an inventive Walker in the opening sequence. The sequence already resembled the opening to George Romero’s 1986 classic Day of the Dead (which Greg Nicotero was actually in), so the Walker here with the badly dislocated jaw felt like an obvious tribute to the first zombie we see in that movie, who’s missing his jaw entirely.

While it’s undoubtedly a relief to finally be past the whole Negan/All Out War plot, this ep still felt a bit lacklustre as a season opener. It does its job well enough in setting up the plotlines for the new season, and the Washington sequence was fun, but nothing much of note actually happened. This used to be a show where the tension was kept up by the knowledge that any major character could die, at any time. It’s been a while since it’s done that (and the last one, Carl, felt fairly contrived), and this season opener only killed off a character who most viewers had probably been wanting dead since they first met him.

Still, it’s a new format, and the possibilities look interesting. Especially with Negan still rotting away in Alexandria’s jail like a post-apocalyptic Hannibal Lecter, and his fan club plainly still in business. This wasn’t the storming season opener I’d hoped for, and the jury’s still out on whether the show still has anything to say. But I’ll be back next week, as I always have been…

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