Spoiler Warning for Season 9, Episode 2 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.

“It’s not the end of the world anymore. It’s the start of a whole new one.”

Two episodes in and Season 9 of “The Walking Dead” is exceptional so far. The series has returned to it’s classic feel of blending excellent character development with outright crazy walker action. By allowing the characters to speak to one another more and build those relationships that this series is built on, the show returns to it’s character-driven roots. The plot twists are plenty here as construction on the bridge to link the communities reaches a critical point.

It’s Day 35 of the reconstruction of the destroyed bridge. Rick narrates as viewers get their first look at the joint effort to link the communities back up together once and for all. A little over a month has passed since the events of the Season Premiere and things are looking good. Rick walks through a temporary campsite that houses members from the communities that are working on the bridge. Tara and Anne walk together, Beatrice and Kathy check out guns from Rosita, Arat and Laura give Rick a smile as he walks by; Jerry and Nabila have formed a relationship and embrace in a loving kiss before heading off to work. Rick walks to the “future” and looks at the bridge from a perch as an epic musical score plays. “We’re not just fighting to survive anymore. We’re making a new beginning.” The weight of Rick’s impending exit from the series can definitely be felt, especially in moments like this. We are witnessing the hero’s journey reach it’s end and Rick is looking out at what he has built for all of these people. Had he not woken up in that hospital all those years ago, none of this would be happening today.

Like its predecessor, this episode focuses heavily on the characters and their relationships AKA the backbone of this series. As the new day begins, King Ezekiel passes along an important message to Henry about the importance of the bridge in uniting the communities; he states that Henry will tell his grandchildren about his role in constructing the bridge one day. Carol and Ezekiel send Henry off to work and joke about how fast he is growing up, showcasing the fact that they have formed their own little family unit. Ezekiel is planning on heading back to the Kingdom to lead those that stayed behind and so Henry can continue with school. Ezekiel wants to build a real fairytale with Carol, but she still has plans to return to the Sanctuary to keep the unruly Saviors in line. Carol slowly seems to be coming around to taking her relationship with Ezekiel further, but she’s not quite there yet and he respects that.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Josh McDermitt as Dr. Eugene Porter. (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

Much of Season 7 and 8 saw Eugene on the side of Team Negan, but Season 9 shows him back with his family and working to help create that new world. He updates Rick on the support structure of the bridge, and also the runaway Saviors, which is a growing issue that is hinted throughout the episode. There’s also the issue of the food supplies dwindling at the communities and at the temporary camp, but Rick assures Eugene that Michonne is taking care of that issue. There’s a missable moment as Eugene glances down at the hand of a Savior missing fingers, a direct reference to Eugene’s exploding bullets in the Season 8 Finale. Rosita also checks in with Rick to let him know that the nearby herds are being dealt with and that explosives are being uses to redirect them. Rick stops by the infirmary to find Enid stitching up a wound on Cyndie’s hand. There’s a touching moment as Rick expresses his full faith and support in Enid as the bridge camp’s sole medic; Siddiq is being sent back to Alexandria to manage a “bug” that is spreading. This likely bears no effect on the story, but it could possibly be a callback to the flu outbreak at the Prison in Season 4. Enid being the chief medic at this camp is crucial to the events of the episode and serves to parallel the start of Season 6 when Denise was thrown into the action when the Wolves attacked Alexandria.

One of the best aspects of the second half of Season 5 was the friendship built between Daryl and Aaron. Unfortunately, this was thrown by the wayside after and they really only interacted one time after Season 5. This episode breaks that and has them actually having meaningful dialogue with one another as they build the bridge. Aaron tells Daryl about one of the gross yet hilarious moments he has had in raising baby Gracie; he also states that Daryl would make a great father, something he scoffs off, but Aaron is totally right. Henry distributes water to the Saviors working on the bridge, but Justin gets greedy and tries to steal from the supply and even knocks Henry to the ground. This sets off a tense altercation as Henry knocks Justin to the ground, and Daryl gets involved to protect the child from the rude Savior. The two men fight, prompting Rick to step in and cool down the situation before it turns ugly, demanding that everyone get back to work. Rick, Daryl and Carol have a meeting in their tent to discuss what just happened, and Daryl is PISSED. He simply doesn’t see any way that the survivors can coexist with the Saviors and wonders if they are all actually on the same side. Daryl storms away and Rick explains to Carol that things have been difficult between these brothers for quite some time. Carol heavily encourages Rick to talk to Daryl and to take a different approach; she states that his idea is right, but that the execution might not be working. It’s difficult seeing Rick and Daryl at odds, but this has sorta been a long time coming, tracing back to when Daryl had his very first interaction with the Saviors in “Always Accountable.” Daryl is DONE with the Saviors.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, and Zach McGowan as Justin. (Photo credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

This episode really dives deep into a handful of character’s backstories, providing much-needed insight into who they are. One great case of this comes as Father Gabriel and Anne share a meal together and make a few final touches on a drawing that Anne has made. Eagle-eyed viewers might recognize who the subject of this drawing is, but that isn’t explained until later in the episode. Conversation turns to the fact that Anne still feels like an outsider among the group even though Gabriel, Rick and Morgan all welcomed her into the fold. There’s some excellent parallels that are drawn between Gabriel and Anne as they touch upon their pasts. Gabriel mentions that the group didn’t trust him initially, between him locking his parishioners out of his church and then later betraying the group upon their arrival in Alexandria. Anne worries that they will never accept her after all of the harm she caused during her time leading the Scavengers. The two touch hands, hinting that a romantic relationship is blooming…and quite frankly, it makes sense. Speaking of tricky pasts, there is a wonderful moment between Rosita and Arat as they prep explosives to redirect the herd. Clearly, they have come a long way, but there is still some shaky trust between them with Rosita bringing up Arat “slicing her face up with a knife” during the events of “Hearts Still Beating” when Rosita shot at Negan after he killed Spencer. It remains to be seen if the Saviors such as Arat have really turned a new leaf or if this is all an act.

Redirecting a herd is never an easy task and can go wrong by just a simple mistake as seen in the Season 6 Premiere. Thankfully for the group, Tara is the eye in the sky and she’s keeping things lighthearted. Sporting her cool orange sunglasses that she found in “Swear,” Tara alerts “Mother Goose” AKA Rick that a herd is approaching the construction site, but that there are plans in place to redirect them. There’s some subtle humor between Rick and Tara that is always enjoyable to watch. Tara orders Jerry to sound a siren, successfully turning the herd away from the site. Meanwhile, Alden arrives at the base of the bridge to update Rick on the disappearing Saviors, explaining that they never showed back up to the Sanctuary. Rick theorizes that they probably just ran off and notes that the even though the Saviors have been disarmed, they will be protected. This prompts Alden to make a chilling comparison to a certain tyrant who used to run things; “so they work for you, and you protect them? Who’s that sound like to you?” Something is very wrong. Tara frantically tries to radio Justin, who is in charge of sounding the next siren, but he’s not responding. This causes the herd to keep their current path and head directly toward a lumberyard where members of the communities are collecting trees for the bridge. Shit is about to hit the fan…because of one simple mistake.

Rhys Coiro as Jed, Ross Marquand as Aaron. (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

At the lumber area, Daryl, Aaron, Jed and others work to saw and move wood that will be used on the bridge. Something is very off, however, as some of the horses are spooked by what is coming. A few straggler walkers stumble onto the scene, but are quickly dispatched by Daryl. It is revealed that the entire herd has actually arrived and Daryl orders everyone to fall back. Jed’s utter carelessness causes him to drop one of the logs directly on Aaron’s arm. Daryl quickly realizes what has happened and screams at Jed and the other Saviors to help free Aaron. Being the absolute hero and good guy that he is, Aaron tells Daryl to leave him behind as the walkers begin to swarm them. Daryl being Daryl would NEVER do that and manages to get Aaron free, rushing him to safety. In perfect timing, members of the communities arrive in squad formation to help clear away the walkers and allow Daryl to get Aaron away from the scene. Rick, Carol, Gabriel, Anne, Alden, Cyndie and many others rush forward and clear the walkers away with their melee of weapons. It is truly a badass scene that has some shades of “No Way Out” to it. Rick is crazy resourceful and sees the opportunity to take down all of the walkers by shooting at the rope holding together the stacked lumber, effectively creating a deluge of rolling logs that crush and splatter tons of walkers in brutal and gory fashion. This just goes to prove that even nine seasons in, “The Walking Dead” still manages to find wickedly creative ways to kill walkers.

The next few moments of the episode are HUGE for our two OG Alexandrian characters as their resolve is put to the ultimate test. Daryl rushes Aaron to the infirmary at the bridge camp for an emergency operation to treat his now mangled arm…but Siddiq already went back home. It is up to Enid to treat Aaron, and Daryl seems to have full faith in her. Enid looks at Aaron’s arm and realizes that there is only one option: the arm must be amputated. This is downright shocking to Aaron, who can’t even begin to process what is happening. Enid gathers the supplies she will need as Daryl prepares the arm with a tourniquet. Enid switches into battle mode and grabs her knife, ready to make the cut that will change everything; “you can do it,” Aaron says to Enid while grabbing onto Daryl’s hand for support. Thankfully, the scene cuts away before things get too gory and Daryl rushes to the HQ tent, covered in Aaron’s blood, to find Carol lambasting Justin for not fulfilling his role in setting off the siren. Daryl SNAPS and throws several punches at Justin, knocking him out of the tent and onto the ground, even slamming his head with a pot. Carol manages to pull Daryl back and notes that they will find a different way to deal with what happened, noticing Henry watching the scene unfold. This new way of life isn’t easy for anyone and Daryl is having an especially difficult time, but Carol wants to make sure that Henry steers clear of the dark path that both he and Daryl have already been down.

Ross Marquand as Aaron, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, and Katelyn Nacon as Enid. (Photo credit: Richard Lee Jackson/AMC)

The entire episode isn’t set at this bridge camp and much of the story takes place at the Hilltop in the weeks after Gregory’s execution. In a scene that feels as though it was ripped straight out of the comics, Maggie rides a bucking horse at the Hilltop corral all the while downing a new outfit. Michonne arrives on horseback from the Sanctuary to discuss the growing food shortage taking place. Jesus acts as a sort of intermediary as the two leaders debate on whether or not the Hilltop can spare to keep handing food over to the Saviors, especially considering they aren’t keeping up their end of the deal; ethanol from the Sanctuary was sent to the Hilltop, but never arrived, leaving the characters wondering if the Saviors in charge of transporting it ditched town. The Hilltop is facing its own crisis of sorts as the tractor has run out of fuel and the broken plow that was retrieved from the museum can’t be recreated due to the fact that blacksmith Earl is currently locked in jail. Michonne questions how long he will be kept prisoner, but Maggie isn’t quite sure seeing as how the communities has never had to deal with something like this. Michonne expresses her sorrow and anger for what Earl did to Maggie and Enid, but explains that all of the survivors will suffer if they can’t get the crops planted. Maggie is stone cold and she has every reason to be. She has plenty of issues to deal with at the Hilltop, but Michonne wants her to expand her viewpoint and think more about the united communities.

The weeks since the execution of Gregory haven’t been easy for anyone at the Hilltop. Tammy is having an especially difficult time seeing as how Earl was locked up immediately after the execution. She pleads with Jesus to be let into the jail, underneath Barrington House, to see her husband, stating that he is all she has left in the world after the death of Ken. Jesus is caught in a tricky place as Michonne questions whether he thinks Maggie is making the right decisions as leader; it’s great to see Michonne really press Jesus to voice his own opinion even if it may contradict that of Maggie. There’s a truly excellent scene set in Maggie’s office as she plays with baby Hershel; on the wall are paintings done by Anne of Glenn, Hershel, Beth, Josephine (Maggie’s mother), Annette (Maggie’s stepmother) and Shawn (Maggie’s stepbrother). Jesus picks up a letter from Georgie and it is revealed via dialogue that Maggie is still in contact with the mysterious leader via deliveries from Hilda and Midge, the two twin guards. Georgie has apparently been asking Maggie to join her…wherever she is, and this just might be setting up the apparent “opened ended exit” of Maggie that is reportedly just episodes away. Georgie had a major impact on the story when she was introduced in last season’s “The Key” and fans have speculated about her being the leader of the Commonwealth, a gigantic community that is introduced in the comics and plays a large role in the story. Jesus really stands out in this scene as he serves as an advisor to Maggie, making it clear that while he thinks she is a great person with the right intentions, he doesn’t always agree with her decisions. Thank God Jesus is finally receiving a solid role in the story after two seasons of being left by the wayside. Tom Payne really does great work with the character and it is great to see him finally being rewarded with worthwhile story.

Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee, Tom Payne as Paul ‘Jesus’ Rovia, Danai Gurira as Michonne. (Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

Maggie is a hard woman, but she is not heartless. She allows Tammy to pay a visit to Earl in his cell, albeit supervised. The two reconnect and Tammy expresses her forgiveness for what Earl did. Maggie watches on, clearly taking note of how much they love one another, something that is rare these days. Later, Maggie pays a visit to Earl and asks to hear the story of his alcoholism. Earl has a dark past and his drinking clouded what should have been happy memories of Ken. There was even a point where he risked Ken’s life to drive drunk, something that could have ended things with Tammy, but she stuck beside him and helped him on the path to recovery…only for it to end because of sniveling Gregory. This conversation is crucial for Maggie’s next decision and she really relies upon her history and more specifically, her family. While speaking with Michonne, Maggie reveals that she has decided to provide the Saviors with the food that was requested and to also free Earl so that he may work under supervision. Maggie also states that she plans to form a council to assist in the decision making process, something that worked greatly in Season 4 at the Prison. Things get really emotional as Maggie explains that her father had a drinking problem (as seen in Season 2), but that he was given a second chance and many people benefitted from it; Michonne states that she herself is better off from knowing Hershel. Maggie doesn’t regret hanging Gregory, and she still plans on holding onto the Hilltop’s independence, but she accepts Michonne’s proposition to form a charter with the other communities. And just like that, we see that the farmer’s daughter is still working to honor her father and all those that got her to where she is.

As night falls at the bridge camp, Rick pays a visit to the infirmary to check in on Aaron. Enid tells Rick that Aaron should be fine, but he has a long road of recovery ahead of him. Daryl has been sitting by Aaron’s side for hours now, showing that while the friendship between these two may have been forgotten by the show for a while, Daryl still cares for Aaron greatly. Rick sits beside Aaron and apologizes for pushing everyone so hard and contributing to the dangerous work environment that may have caused the accident. Aaron puts a stop to this and states that Rick is not responsible for what happened, and that he is eternally grateful for his role in building this new world, something that Rick himself started. When Rick and Aaron first met in Season 5′ “The Distance,” their relationship was rocky and unstable with Rick even threatening to kill Aaron, but look how far they have come; they are family now, the love each other. Speaking of love, Gabriel and Anne have their own little thing going on outside of the camp as they listen to the sounds of frogs mating. Anne asks Gabriel about the woman he had her draw, revealing a mystery that was never addressed; a walker in Gabriel’s second episode seemed to be a source of sadness and guilt for him, and all these years later, her identity is revealed to be an organist at his church, whom he cared very much for. Much like the frogs around them, Gabriel and Anne take their relationship to the next level and have sex. What an unusual pairing that sorta came out of nowhere…but it works. Their similarly dark pasts makes for a shared understanding of what it means to come back from the things they’ve done.

Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier and Khary Payton as King Ezekiel. (Photo credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC)

In an episode chock full of parallelism, there’s one instance of it that is slightly subtle. Rick takes a moment to reflect on the day by looking out at the group of survivors that surround campfires as they relax and unwind together; everyone is happy and relaxed. Rick has a smile on his face that mirrors that of Bob in Season 5 as he looked at his fellow survivors inside the church just moments before being captured by Gareth and the Terminians, and later dying that night. Rick’s exit is coming, and this moment allows Rick to look out at his people; it’s not easy to say this, but they’ll be okay when he’s gone. Carol and Ezekiel embrace in each other’s warmth and Carol decides to hold onto the ring that Ezekiel proposed with, but this isn’t a formal acceptance; Ezekiel hilariously gets down onto one knee, but Carol doesn’t want a proposal…but he prepared a speech…of course he did. From atop the lookout post, Anne holds a sculpture of a frog she made after her love session with Gabriel. A mysterious sound can be heard from above, and it is revealed to be a helicopter…presumably THE helicopter that Anne has some sort of connection with and almost picked her up back in “Still Gotta Mean Something.” The mystery of the helicopter continues and that’s not the only mystery the episode wraps up with as Justin is seemingly attacked by someone he appears to know while walking home to the Sanctuary at night. The scene is shot in POV in the style of a classic slasher film, but it is unclear what exactly happened to Justin; is this another case of a missing Savior? Is someone hunting them down?

“The Bridge” is actually framed as a recapping of events, told by Rick to Negan in his cell at Alexandria. This is our first look at Prisoner Negan and it is jarring as he hoarsely tries to tell Rick that he is still in charge. The new world that Rick and his fellow survivors have created is not perfect, but it is thriving without Negan. This adaptation of Negan’s post-war comic arc is just one case of Angela Kang paying close attention to the source material while remixing her own unique elements into play. This second episode of the season is really quite excellent and serves as another example of the vastly improved dialogue and character dynamics. The characters are actually talking to each other, and like human beings again; that’s exactly what fans have been asking for. Across the board, the performances are superior, but the standouts include Lauren Cohan, Ross Marquand, Katelyn Nacon, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Brett Butler and John Finn in their respective roles. There is a lot happening in the story right now, and the added element of mystery really helps to give the show a refreshing feel to it as the arcs unfold. Season 9 is already shaping up to be an thrilling and meaningful expansion of the show, and these final episodes of Rick Grimes are an absolute return to form as the series prepares to bid farewell to its lead. Construction on the bridge is still underway, but the communities are already united in their quest to build something greater than themselves. Will it all come crumbling down though? This still is “The Walking Dead,” so it probably will.

Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.

Jeffrey Kopp is the Community Editor of the Niner Times. He is a senior double majoring in Communication and Political Science. His interests include writing and keeping up with an excessive amount of television shows. He is also the go-to expert on all things “The Walking Dead."