Spoiler Warning for the Season 9 Premiere (Season 9, Episode 1) of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed. Minor spoilers from “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be discussed.
“We’re looking to the past to help us with the future.”
It is back. “The Walking Dead” is back. That sentence has more than one meaning as not only has the show made it’s return to television for a ninth season…but the show that fans fell in love with all those years ago is back. The past two seasons are notorious for being far lower in quality than the usually high standard of the show; with a new showrunner and tone that blends a classic feel with a hopeful future, this zombie story is far from dead. It’s alive…and it is BACK.
A year and a half has passed since the conclusion of All Out War when the forces of Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom and Oceanside successfully defeated Negan and the Saviors. This is the largest time jump the series has done to date, and a lot has changed since we last left our characters. The episode opens up with a tour of Alexandria, now rebuilt following its destruction last season; a new sign at the main gate welcomes visitors, the church is being reconstructed, gardens flourish with greenery, solar panels sit in front of each house. It’s quite the sight to see. Rick Grimes makes his way onto the porch of the Monroe family apartment, now claimed by his own family. Judith paints on an easel as Michonne watches and giggles as the young child pokes fun at her father for having a “big belly.” Judith has grown a lot and she is now speaking full sentences for the first time in the series. One of Judith’s paintings is of her late brother Carl, showing that while he may be gone, Judith still remembers him and misses him dearly. The Grimes family take a trip out of their community to a field where they watch as a flock of crows fly in formation. It’s stunning to watch, and there is absolutely some symbolism and foreshadowing hidden in there, possibly in regards to Rick’s impending exit. For the first time in quite a while, there is peace here. There’s not an immediate threat. We are just seeing Rick spending time with his family…and that feels good.
There’s an excellent transition between the shots of crows flying over the field to crows wrecking havoc at the Sanctuary gardens, where life is extremely different now that Negan is no longer running things. Eugene, Rosita, Regina and others are in the process of making fuel out of the dead corn that failed to grow properly. Daryl has taken on the role of leader at the Savior community and he is running a tight ship. Arat and new character Justin (Zach McGowan) make a scarecrow of sorts by stringing up a walker, but Daryl is having none of it, clearly still bitter about the fact that the Saviors are being allowed to live freely after all of the bloodshed they caused. It’s established in this opening scene that the communities are more linked up than ever before with established routes and radio channels connecting everyone. Eugene, Tara, Aaron and Jesus pass along vital information about their forthcoming scavenging mission via the radio channels. It is here that we get one of many great character bonding scenes as Aaron asks Jesus to be trained in the art of his badass walker-slaying martial arts. During the time jump, Jesus established a class for the children of the Hilltop, similarly to what Carol did back at the Prison. This is just one of many tidbits of information that is provided to fill in the missing time and also show that elements of civilization are slowly making a return.
Over the past few years, both “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead” have explored the post-apocalyptic world and showcased countless new locations. In this Season Premiere, the series does just that as the characters venture into Washington D.C. on a scavenging mission. Nature has overtaken the streets and is reclaiming the land; the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, along with the National Mall are all shown to be decaying after years without maintenance. Walkers stumble up and down the streets in several shots the mirror those from the Pilot episode when Rick entered Atlanta. Survivors from each of the communities have joined this massive supply run into the city, each riding on the back of a horse or in a wagon; this is showcasing the transition from cars to more medieval forms of transportation as the modern luxuries of life slip away and become less feasible. As such, the characters decide to pay a visit to one of the Smithsonian museums to collect artifacts that they can use in their communities. The museum is awe-inspiring, but it holds a darkness to it as the remnants of what appear to be a survivor camp are strung throughout. It’s worth noting that the filming location for this museum is actually the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta. Yes…”The Walking Dead” actually got the approval to trash up a government building for filming. How many shows get to do that?
The horror roots of the series can totally be felt as the characters explore the museum. A small subgroup enters a claustrophobic room that is decked out in spiderwebs and is pitch black dark aside from the flashlights. Siddiq becomes a witness to one of the most horrifying walkers to be featured in the series as he is grabbed and pulled to the ground; this walker is almost completely decomposed, and is now the home to a family of spiders, which pour out of the eyes and mouth and all onto the floor as Siddiq puts down the walker. We learn here that Siddiq is afraid of spiders, seemingly more so than the monster he just faced. Father Gabriel, now partially blind after falling ill last season, kills a walker in a way that makes its corpse part of an evolution display; this is a unique way at highlighting the full “devolution of man” from primates to walkers. Anne (formerly Jadis) is shown to be fully committing to the efforts of the group as she assists in finding seeds that the museum stowed away for their gardens prior to the apocalypse; she’s also given some backstory as it is revealed that Anne was a teacher before the outbreak and led school field trips to the museum. These seeds could be an absolute game-changer for the future of the communities, specifically the Sanctuary, which is having an especially difficult time growing crops.
This episode features the welcome return of realistic dialogue between characters, something that has been sporadic for the past few seasons; to clarify, this means that the characters are no longer speaking in long-winded poetic monologues, but rather sound more like actual human beings. One case of this can be seen as Daryl and Cyndie work together to move a canoe and end up talking about their brothers. This is an unlikely pairing, but Daryl is able to pass along some wisdom to the young Oceanside leader as he cites his tumultuous relationship with Merle that ended tragically; he relied on the people around him to move forward after his brother’s death, and that’s exactly what Cyndie should do. There’s also a fantastic conversation between Carol, Maggie and Michonne, who haven’t really interacted together as a trio. They discuss an election between Maggie and Gregory that took place at the Hilltop during the time jump. They point out how ironic it is that the Hilltop had a democratically elected leader, while the Kingdom is operating as a monarchy. Michonne expresses her joy that Maggie won the election, and Maggie points out how glad she is that she grew up on a farm, a touching callback. Michonne notices a poster displaying the “conflicts that shaped our nation,” putting a flurry of ideas into her head about the future of the communities. These scenes are so simple, yet hold so much depth and character development. It’s these human scenes that the show has been missing…but now they’re back.
There is some serious teamwork on display this episode as the museum scavenging team links back up at the main staircase to pull a wagon down. The survivors work slowly seeing as there is a glass floor with a collection of walkers below that they must pull the wagon over to get it out of the building. It’s a tough effort, but everyone is pulling their weight. After successfully moving the wagon out of the way, Rick and the others transport the various artifacts they have looted, but the glass is beginning to crack and they realize that they are running out of time. While carrying a plow across the glass, King Ezekiel falls through and dangles just inches above the grabby walkers as his friends switch into emergency mode to get him out. This scene really resembles Glenn’s daring venture into the well on the Greene family farm back in the Season 2 episode “Cherokee Rose.” Fortunately, Ezekiel is rescued and he is embraced with a kiss by a relieved Carol. The two have formed a romantic relationship during the time jump, something that had been building since their first meeting in Season 7’s “The Well.” This was a close call, and everyone feels it. They load their supplies into the wagons outside and march onward and out of the city, leaving the dilapidation behind them. It’s a shame that Abraham never got to explore Washington D.C. seeing as how he made it his mission to get Eugene there. Still, this feels like a minor homage to him.
“The Walking Dead” has always had as western vibe to it, tracing all the way back to the Pilot and this episode sees a return to that. While on the journey back, there are more of those human conversations between characters. Alden speaks with new characters Marco (Gustavo Gomez) and Ken (AJ Achinger) about Ken’s father who is the blacksmith of the Hilltop. There’s a superb moment with Carol and Ezekiel as the future of their romance comes into question; Ezekiel proposes to Carol, clearly as a reaction to his near death experience. She is having none of it, playing hard to get as usual. Come on, Ezekiel. You’re going to have to do better than a horseback proposal for our Carol. Ezekiel is clearly smitten with Carol, even flat out saying that he loves her, but it seems that the feeling may not be 100% at least right now. Rosita arrives on an ATV and links up with the crew to show everyone that one of the bridges linking the communities has been destroyed by a herd. Michonne proposes that they take an alternate route and stay at Alexandria for the night, but Maggie doesn’t want to and the characters split up here. The groups headed to the Hilltop and the Sanctuary encounter a problem when the horses are unable to pull the wagon through mud. Walkers show up and complicate matters further as the survivors scramble to escape, but Ken stays behind to free the horses and ends up being bitten by a walker and kicked by a horse. Siddiq and Enid try to save him after amputating his arm, but he slips away in Maggie’s arms before she puts him down. And just like that, a supply run for the future takes a deadly turn.
The mood dramatically shifts following the death of Ken as Maggie returns to the Hilltop and must break the news to his parents, Tammy (Brett Butler) and Earl (John Finn). They’re understandably devastated to learn that their son has died, but Tammy is furious that he died to retrieve tools for the Saviors. Maggie offers to help with Ken’s funeral arrangements, but Tammy is having none of it and questions whether or not the right person won the election seeing as how Maggie has been lenient on the Saviors. Times have changed at the Hilltop. Before the arrival of our group, the bodies of their fallen residents would be burned, but they are now buried and Ken is given a full funeral complete with drinks, speeches and a moving musical number by Alden (is he Beth reincarnate?). Gregory gives a rousing toast that even Jesus acknowledges as being heartfelt, especially coming from him. Following the funeral, Gregory offers the mourning parents alcohol; Earl passes seeing as how he is sober, but Tammy accepts and gets WASTED. Always the conniving and scheming son-of-a-bitch, Gregory takes advantage of Earl’s grief and gets him drunk also before spewing ridiculous anti-Maggie rhetoric at him even though Gregory was the one to align with the Saviors the past two seasons. Fans of the comic can see that he is fulfilling his counterpart’s arc to a tee…and it won’t end well.
At some point during the time jump, Maggie gave birth to a beautiful son, whom she named Hershel after her late father. After first revealing that she was pregnant in Season 6’s “Now,” this baby has been a long time coming. Taking an evening stroll with Hershel in a stroller, Maggie stops to speak with Gregory about the difficult day they had. Gregory butters up Maggie about her election win before dropping a chilling bit of information on her: apparently someone has defaced Glenn’s grave. This sends Maggie into a saddened fit of panic and she rushes over to the Hilltop cemetery with Hershel only to be attacked by a hooded figure. The two fight one another as Hershel is knocked from his stroller onto the ground. Enid rushes to the scene to assist Maggie, but she is pushed away and hits her head on a bench, knocking her unconscious. Alden and Cyndie arrive and hold the hooded figure back, and Maggie finally gets a clear look at him: it’s Earl. Maggie is PISSED and rightfully so, but she knows who is responsible. She barges into Gregory’s trailer and yells at him for being a weak leader and an even weaker murderer. There’s some more excellent dialogue as Gregory accuses Maggie of being “Rick’s lackey” and of being too scared to face Negan that she can’t even visit Alexandria. He pulls a knife on her for one final assassination attempt, but this is Maggie we are talking about. She can take care of herself and she does. There is no way that Gregory of all people would be the one to take Maggie down.
A significant chunk of the episodes takes place at the Sanctuary following the arrival of Rick, Michonne, Daryl and the others. To say that Rick has become somewhat of a legend here is an understatement. The workers who suffered under Negan’s tyrannical rule adore Rick…and they let him know it. Eugene and Laura update Daryl on the supplies and encourage him to give a speech to the Saviors…but he isn’t Negan. Michonne is concerned when she spots writing on the wall stating “Saviors Save Us! We are still Negan!” Not everyone is happy with this new way of life after Negan and one of those might just be Justin, whom Daryl orders to clean up the note on the wall. There’s yet another one of those fantastic character interactions as Rick and Daryl have a meaningful conversation about the future of the Sanctuary. Daryl doesn’t want to lead the Saviors anymore, and he doesn’t see why they should care if the Sanctuary fails. Rick is trying to build a better life for everyone in honor of Carl, but Daryl doesn’t know if its realistic to include their former foes. Daryl expresses his disdain for the group being so split, and he misses the tighter knit team of the earlier days. This seems to a spilling over of the conflict that was teased at the end of last season, but Daryl’s ends up accepting Rick’s viewpoint. They’re brothers through and through, even if they aren’t always on the exact same page.
One of the most important dynamics of the story is that of Carol and Daryl. The two meet up outside and have an amazing heart-to-heart that once again allows both characters to demonstrate the tremendously improved dialogue. Carol expresses the fact that neither of them are able to sleep anymore, but that Ezekiel can…and he snores. Daryl calls him corny, bringing back some of that genuine humor his character has been missing. Carol states that after what she went through with Ed, having a corny lover is welcomed. Daryl is happy for his long-time friend. He misses her though, but she proposes a solution to his problem and decides to stay as the leader of the Sanctuary in his absence. This conversation features some rewarding callbacks to their relationship, including Carol calling Daryl “Pookie,” and Carol’s disdain for smoking. As if seeing these two together wasn’t enough, we also get some Richonne loving as they prepare for bed and discuss the day they had. Michonne teases her boyfriend for being “the famous Rick Grimes” and also questions whether they made the right decision in sparing Negan’s life. Rick still believes they made the right decision, likely because it’s what Carl would have wanted. Michonne is so determined for building this future that she explains her plans for drafting a charter that establishes laws among the communities and also consequences for breaking the rules. Richonne is just what the new world needs, and they both acknowledge how lucky they are to have found one another. We’re pretty glad they did too.
When morning rolls around, it is time for the characters to get back to their somewhat normal life. Carol and Ezekiel embrace in a final kiss as the King prepares to head back home to the Kingdom along with Jerry. Rick, Michonne and Daryl arrive at the Hilltop and are stunned to find Maggie battered and bruised. In a scene that feels totally like Season 2 on the Farm, Rick and Maggie sit on Barrington House’s patio and discuss how perfect Hershel is. Rick states that he would love for Maggie to visit Alexandria, citing the fact that Judith is always talking about “Aunt Maggie at Hilltop.” Rick also wants Maggie and the Hilltop to assist with repairing the destroyed bridge, including offering more resources to the Sanctuary. Maggie comes up with a deal that has the Saviors trade their labor and fuel for food. This is where Rick and Maggie differ as Maggie doesn’t feel any obligation to solving all of the Savior’s problems when there are clearly problems at her own community. There’s a callback to the Season 8 Premiere when Maggie notes that Rick fell through on his promise to follow her, because “she wasn’t someone to follow…but that changes now.” Maggie has really come into her role as leader during the time skip. She still respects Rick and they are still family, be she isn’t in total agreement with him.
“It’s time to put the children to bed,” Maggie eerily declares as night begins to fall. This has a double meaning to it as the children are literally put to bed and the community gathers at the gallows. Everyone is present, including Enid, who is now bound to a wheelchair after being injured by Earl. Speaking of him, Earl is now a prisoner and a witness of what’s about to happen. “At Hilltop, the punishment fits the crime,” Maggie announces before turning to Gregory, who is sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck. He gives his final words, calling Maggie ashamed…but he’s wrong. She gives Daryl the order to carry out the execution and Gregory cowardly pleads for his life as the horse rushes forward. Two children have come out to see the proceedings, prompting Michonne to attempt to stop the execution…but it’s done. Gregory hangs and slowly chokes to death as the residents of the Hilltop look on. His body swings across the screen as the faces of several characters, including Jesus, Alden and Enid, are highlighted. Justice has been served. Maggie doesn’t want this to become the new norm at the Hilltop and she uses this as a stern warning for everyone to honor the rule of law. The episode cuts to black as Maggie orders for Gregory to be cut down and his body drops to the ground. After two and a half seasons of causing problems at the Hilltop, Gregory’s reign has ended. His iconic comic end has been adapted to the screen…and it is perfect.
“A New Beginning” is exactly the episode that “The Walking Dead” needed to get things back on track. Obviously, there is the looming shadow of both Rick and Maggie’s forthcoming exits this season, but it seems as though incoming showrunner Angela Kang really understands this story and its characters. She has crafted an excellent premiere that pays homage to the past while charting the course for the future. There are vast improvements to the writing, dialogue and tone, adding more realism, humanity and hope that gives the show its classic feel back. The performances across the board are stellar with Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride and Khary Payton really doing wonderful work that highlights their character’s ticks and personalities. The standouts of this episode are Lauren Cohan, Xander Berkeley in his final performance on the show, and newcommer Brett Butler, all of which deliver a brilliant remix of the Hilltop arc. Things are changing with this series…and it’s about damn time. The slum of Season 7 and 8 is finally over, and a new beginning is here. There’s still a lot to be seen this season, particularly Negan and those mysterious Whisperers, but this is a great jumping point for everything to come. Cheers to Season 9!
Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.