Not long into the premiere episode of its ninth season, The Walking Dead serves up a gag that’s unusually funny and pulpy for the series, and one hopes that it will be a guiding principle for AMC’s long-running program in more than just thematic ways. A nearly blind Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) takes a whack at a walker right as the ravenous creature stands perfectly to the right of the Homo sapien in a wall-size depiction of human evolution. Gabriel steps back and remarks, “Intelligent design.” To which Jadis, now Anne (Pollyanna McIntosh), responds: “The de-evolution of man. I like it.”
Funny, and on the surface a winking acknowledgement on the part of The Walking Dead that change is afoot for the series as it lurches into its new season hoping to recapture some of its lost mojo. Angela Kang, a longtime writer and producer on the series, is now its showrunner, and the premiere episode, aptly titled “A New Beginning,” drops one of its bigger surprises within minutes: the show’s new title sequence. Starkly and expressionistically animated, it brings to mind the stylings of both The Walking Dead comic book and its video game adaptation by Telltale Games. Is this, then, a telltale sign of the de-evolution of the series? The short answer is: probably not.
Right out the gate, the new season sees Rick (Andrew Lincoln) trying to ensure the future of humankind by literally turning to the past. The early part of “A New Beginning” largely plays out inside a museum of natural history in Washington, D.C., where Rick and his fellow survivors go searching for tools, like plows, that Alexandria’s blacksmiths need as models for duplication. And the episode’s best set piece, in which the survivors try to carry these heavy tools across a floor made of toughened glass that’s ever so slowly cracking, is fueled by a thrilling mix of pulp and drama—the fear that a fall into an oblivion of walkers will have repercussions beyond the museum’s walls.
That set piece has a sufficiently deep enough conversation with audiences about the survival of Rick’s group, and does so only using the pull of rope, the cracking of glass, the sturdiness of steel, and the strength of a collective to save Ezekiel (Khary Payton) from being bit by a walker. But more times than not, the episode is content to more conspicuously blare its themes, as in Carol (Melissa McBride), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) walking through the museum, powwowing about the absurdity of putting the “rebirth of democracy” in the hands of the ever-problematic Gregory, and Michonne being taken off guard by a sign celebrating the preamble to the United States constitution and “the conflicts that shaped our nation.”
Luckily, the phenomenally heavy hand of that moment doesn’t shatter the ground beneath anyone’s feet and Rick’s group gets to live another day. Well, there is one casualty on the way back to Alexandria and its neighboring colonies, and it serves to conveniently add grist to the mill of Gregory’s (Xander Berkeley) paranoia. In swift fashion, the seeds of an uprising are planted by the Hilltop’s ex-governor, who feels emasculated in the wake of having to cede power to Maggie, and the latter is pushed, if not exactly forced, to retaliate in a way that comes to weigh on her conscience.
Lincoln is leaving The Walking Dead at some point this season, and “A New Beginning,” like a good bugler, gets the ball rolling on giving him a fond send-off. The episode begins with an almost beatific sequence that sees Rick, Michonne, and little Judith enjoying a rare moment of bliss out in an open field, their mere presence seeming to summon a murmuration of birds. It’s as if Rick already knows he’s about to walk into the afterlife, and the subsequent snapshots of the survivors under his watch going about their everyday business thrum with a tender melancholy. Daryl (Norman Reedus) spares a walker from an eternity of being propped up like a scarecrow; Aaron (Ross Marquand) asks Jesus (Tom Payne) to teach him how to efficiently stomp the undead; and good old Eugene (Josh McDermitt) keeps things together over at the Sanctuary. It’s as if they’re all thinking: “We got this, Rick.”
But do they? Late into the episode, Rick and Michonne talk of things they maybe should have done and things they should probably do in the future. Michonne, inspired by what she saw inside the museum in D.C., mentions drafting an agreement to unite all of the communities. Rick, seeming at once beaten and blissed out, is receptive to the plan, and in the moment it’s as if the series is announcing its intention to get down to the nitty-gritty of what it means to ensure the creation and continuance of an egalitarian system of government. It’s a promising road to take viewers down, and the season’s second episode, “The Bridge”—which largely revolves around efforts to build a bridge that will facilitate trade between the various communities, including Oceanside—is as close as The Walking Dead will probably come to displaying an almost Wiseman-esque fascination with the process of development.
“The Bridge” sees Siddiq (Avi Nash) passing on the baton of his medical knowledge to Enid (Katelyn Nacon), which comes in handy toward the end of the episode when disaster strikes. It’s a moment that could have been prevented if several Saviors had been on top of their game, and Rick’s struggle to manage the animosities of Negan’s former lackeys, who are deeply conscious and resentful of their fall, is neatly braided into the episode and set against Maggie’s own trials of governance. And the episode’s emotional highlight shows Maggie simply listening to Earl (John Finn) as he mournfully ruminates on the downs of his life, including his addiction and sobriety, then asks her why she spared him after he drunkenly tried to kill her. And Maggie’s answer suggests that she already possesses Rick’s ability to determine a person’s goodness by how they go about casting blame.
How Rick will go into the night remains to be seen, but one imagines it’ll have something to do with a mystery introduced in “Warning Signs.” The season’s third episode is almost all setup, often drearily so, and there’s a flatness even to the moments that feel as if they should be cathartic. Maybe that’s because, after three episodes, we know that Maggie is already steadily steering her people toward what’s increasingly looking like a sustainable future, but worse is the sense that seeing and hearing her grapple with the morality of how she governs looks and sounds an awful lot like the same motions Rick went through across The Walking Dead‘s first eight seasons. Which is to say that viewers have reason to worry that maybe the series isn’t so much taking them down a road less traveled so much as leading them around in circles, dragging itself out in order to once again make a familiar and garrulous point about the best-laid plans of mice and men often going awry.