The Walking Dead is back!
Over the past few years, our beloved zombie-killing epic has seen a disappointing decline in quality. What was once the one of the best shows on TV has felt like a shell of its former self, as it desperately tries to recapture the magic that made it so astronomically popular in the first place. We were in urgent need of shake-up. But now, with the season nine mid-season finale behind us, a shake-up is exactly what we have; in fact, it feels like a brand-new show. I’m excited about the Walking Dead again. Imagine that.
Rick Grimes’ exit
Let’s start with the big one. Robert Kirkman had a lot to contest with going in to season nine, most namely, lead actor Andrew Lincoln’s decision to step away in a bid to spent time with his family. The prospect of The Walking Dead without main protagonist Rick Grimes was a nervous one for fans of the series. Ricks narrative was the driving force for all the other stories to work off, and in recent seasons, his personal battle with Negan in the wake of his friend’s death was nearly the sole focus of the entire show. His loss will certainly have a lasting effect on things going forward, but it’s not all bad. The void he leaves behind can’t be filled by one person, but that could be a saving grace. Characters that have too long been on the fringes could finally get some screen-time front and centre. While the old faithful will have to do a lot of the carrying in the main man’s absence, lesser players like Magna’s group, Aaron and Sidiq could have a chance to be fleshed out that wouldn’t be there with Rick.
I’ve seen a lot of varying opinions of the way that they handled this huge departure, with some seemingly wishing that the showrunners had the “testicular gravitas” (my favourite Eugene quote) to simply kill Rick and let the series move on. Whilst the approach they took did leave an underlying sense of dissatisfaction at the end of what was an otherwise stellar episode, it did present the opportunity for the universe to expand in a way that we’ve not seen before. We’ve only experienced the apocalypse from the ground-level, focused on small groups of survivors struggling to find their way. There’s a whole world out there we haven’t even had a tease of yet. Did the virus make its way beyond the United States? Is there anything left of the government? How on earth can those guys run a helicopter? Here’s hoping we get some answers in the spin-off films.
As if Grimes’ exit wasn’t enough to wrap your head around. Once our heartstrings were sufficiently pulled and the big farewell had wrapped up, we were subjected to a six-year jump in time to a fragmented community and a frosty atmosphere between Alexandria and its fellow camps. This signified what felt like a real fresh start for the show. The choice to not beat us over the head with the remaining survivors mourning their (presumed) dead friend and skip ahead to start afresh was a bold one, but ultimately the right one. The series was never going to be the same without Rick, so its pivotal that they aren’t trying to be. What we’re left with is a more personal, multi-character driven narrative with plenty of threads to develop going forward, but also six-years of mystery to fill in when the time is right. It’s refreshing to see the show strip away the grand set-pieces in favour of taking time to establish dynamics between characters, something that has been severely lacking during the battle with the Saviors. Holding back on the action only heightens the impact when things do go off the rails. Carol’s new role as a loving wife and mother paired with her, shall we say, more homicidal tendencies offers a lot of potential for an interesting family drama. Negan’s relationship with Judith after everything he’s done to her post-apocalyptic family, and the fierce rivalry he had with her father makes for some intriguing avenues to explore. Michonne’s battle with, well, everyone while she struggles with her own demons make her a much more relatable character than she ever has been. Mix all of this with the looming threat of the Whisperers and I’d say we have a show.
For what feels like a lifetime, the sinister threat that is the Whisperers has been rumoured and teased. In season nine we finally got our introduction, with the mid-season finale establishing them as a force to reckoned with. For the first time in forever, the hardened walker-slayers saw something which genuinely terrified them. Seeing the confusion on the faces of Daryl and co after years of dealing with predictable herds was as entertaining as it was unsettling. The hazard of the undead had been put on the backburner in favour of the conflict between rival survivors, after-all, it’s hard to keep something that never evolves or adapts interesting after nearly a decade. That why the Whisperers make sense now. After a long-period of presumed inaction and complacency, this is a reality check of the insane means that people will go through to get-by in this world – walker-skin masks and all. This was typified by that finale, and the way they dispatched Jesus was the epitome of the threat the Whisperers pose. Jesus (no relation) was easily the most skilled fighter in the series, which he proved in spades in his final moments; cutting through walkers with the ease you’d expect after everything that’s happened, even throwing in a cheeky “I got this” for good measure. The culminating shock on his and the others faces as a normal looking undead dodges, stabs and taunts him is palpable. This is something new. This something is something terrifying.
We’ll have to wait until the show picks up again in the new year to see where this new journey takes us. What I do know, is that the former best show on TV was back at best in the last episode – long may it continue. And if that dog dies we riot.