Season Nine, Episode One Finds ‘The Walking Dead’ Back In Form
The first episode of the ninth season of The Walking Dead is called A New Beginning, a nice irony as the opening shot features scenes from what looks like a 18th-century farm. Modern solar panels power what looks like a windmill. Crops grow, Michonne smiles as she plays with Judith, and both make fun of Rick’s little pudge belly. Their idyllic walk is punctuated by a murmuration of crows in a field, wheeling in the morning light. If it weren’t for the viciously-spiked gate at the entrance of Alexandria, the outpost would look like a Brooklyn expat’s fantasy.
This episode takes place several months after the explosive end of Season Eight, a weak season marred by Carl’s unexpected death, Carol’s contrived absence, and tired writing. The old team is reunited at Hilltop, setting off on a mission to a Natural History Museum. There, everything old is new again. As Rick himself puts it, “We’re going to look into the past to help us with the present.”
The group is headed to the museum to gather remnants of the past–seeds, a wagon, a dugout canoe, and a contraption for the blacksmiths. They group comes together to bring these items back to Hilltop, but the situation is already strained. Maggie runs Hilltop and she’s supplying the former Saviors with food. Daryl currently runs the Sanctuary but he detests being there and he resents Rick for asking him to do it. Alexandria houses the beast Negan, and Rick’s controversial decision to spare Negan is not just an undercurrent. It’s the quiet beginning of a tsunami.
There’s the inevitable clash between the living and the undead, with dangerous repercussions for Maggie back at Hilltop. She deals with the threat with swift and savage justice, which makes for a fascinating comparison to Rick’s approach to jailing Negan. Maggie grew up on a farm and has a practical approach to survival; despite everything, Rick is still a deputy sheriff. Rick is lauded as the man who ended the war when he visits the Sanctuary, but the sentiment isn’t shared by Daryl. “There ain’t no us anymore,” Daryl snarls at Rick. “Everyone is everywhere.” The core group is fracturing. We already know that this is Rick’s last season. Will Daryl be part of that end?
The show looks better than it did last season. So many of the visuals seem inspired and informed by the comic book–the shot of the crows flying followed by a shot of crows pecking at dead corn, a walker killed at the end of a wall of “Human Evolution,” perfectly framed as the last of man–the show finally crackles again. It was wonderful to meet Hershel Rhee, Glenn’s son, and wonderful to have Carol back literally in the saddle as she returns to form. But there’s a funeral, pro-Negan graffiti on the walls at the Sanctuary, and confrontations with Rick, Daryl, and Maggie. Ultimately, Carol takes over the Sanctuary, Maggie has Hilltop, and Rick is sent back home. It’s an excellent episode, filled with dread. But where’s Dwight? More importantly, when are we going to see Negan?