The Walking Dead: Season 9 — a review

Maybe I have a flair for the dramatic.

I’ve never thought of myself that way, but it could be true. I walked away from AMC’s The Walking Dead at the conclusion of Season 8. Not for one major reason, but for a legion of little ones.

Some people would have been within their rights to assume that I left because Carl Grimes had to die. Because that happened. But, I was never fully Team Carl—at least, as far as the television series was concerned. His death bothered me, I’ll admit. But, not even as much as the deaths of Glenn, Abraham, Laurie, or Hershel. Not to mention Dale or Sasha or T-Dog or Lizzie Samuels or—-

My point is: There’s a lot of death on this show. Carl’s death wasn’t my tipping point.

Now that I’ve read all of the comic book series that this television show was based upon, I feel Carl’s death a little bit more impactfully. You see, in the comic, Carl survived until the end, as did Carol’s daughter Sophia. They are kind of the next generation thing in the source material. Both are deceased before Season 9 on the AMC series. I no longer feel that this is a spoiler. However, if you do, you may want to stop reading this now.

Coincidentally, on the AMC series, Sophia was played by Madison Lintz, who is Harry Bosch’s daughter Maddie on another series I’m currently watching, Bosch. Everything is connected. But, I digress—

The real reason I stopped watching The Walking Dead is that I became bored with the story being told. I knew I would return to the show some day. I think I even wrote as much somewhere, probably in a post on WordPress. I just needed some time apart. Our relationship was in trouble.

Reading all of the compendiums collecting the entire run of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead Image Comics series rekindled some of my desire to watch the show again. But, that desire was to watch the series from the beginning, not from where I left off.

When Season 11 was announced as the series’s final season, my desire to play catchup kicked into overdrive. It’s the collector’s curse. Something I’ve discussed here before. I’m too invested in this series to stop at Season 8. Something hardwired into my brain requires me to watch all three of the last seasons. No matter what.

Since the story isn’t quite the same as what I’ve already read, there’s still some central story questions—the fabled mystery box—that need to be answered to my satisfaction. Only watching the series will provide those answers.

So, I’ve explained my actions, I think.

A new showrunner began with Season 9, I’ve read. I already feel the difference. Or, it could be that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, because I’m excited about this series again.

The premise has changed a bit. Of that, there is no debate. The series begins eighteen months after Negan was finally defeated and jailed by Rick Grimes. The outside threat at the beginning of this season is still the memory of Negan and the Saviors. The central story thread is about the rebuilding of civilization.

I’ve attempted to explain this to Sharon, my lovely wife. This story is not about zombies. They are a part of the milieu, the story environment, like the political climate or the weather. The story is about the collapse and rebuilding of civilization.

I realize that this statement makes the show seem like something more highbrow than a show about zombies. My ultimate interest doesn’t lie within stories about deadly global pandemics (I wish this were just fiction) or about the reanimated dead (yes, still fiction). I’m interested in stories about people. This show is the story about human civilization, in a concentrated science-fantasy crucible.

I’ll stand by this assertion, and not because I’m ashamed by my fundamental nerdity.

As the season opens, things still aren’t all bright and sunny in this ever-growing new world. The residents of Sanctuary—the former Saviors—are still not fully integrated into Rick’s brave new world. In fact, someone is beginning to kill them off.

There is a strong undercurrent of “justice denied” here.

Maggie, as the leader of Hilltop, has demonstrated that she’s a strong leader. Gregory plots to kill her and fails, and Maggie sentences him to a public hanging. This happened in the comics as well, but it’s just as powerful here.

It’s no surprise that Maggie wants to see Negan similarly punished for killing her husband Glenn Rhee. If you’re a fan, you remember that devastating episode. In fact, Maggie travels to Alexandria intending to right this exact perceived wrong. She wants to execute the imprisoned Negan, and she’s not the only one who sees things this way. Daryl is also pushing away from Rick’s “every life matters” philosophy, and he helps Maggie move towards achieving her goal.

Maggie Rhee, upon seeing that Negan is in a state worse than death already, decides to let him live. A little anticlimactic, maybe, but believable. As long as he’s suffering, let him live, I say. This is one case in which I hope the television show doesn’t go the same route as the comic book. There’s no redemption—no forgiveness—for an evil bastard like Negan. As much as I enjoy Jeffery Dean Morgan’s performance, it doesn’t make me like the guy.

Meanwhile, after getting into a violent fight with Daryl—which kinda hurt my heart a little—Rick finds himself in dire circumstances versus a walker horde. He ends up being impaled on rebar. Always a fighter, he manages to pull himself off of the rebar and, on horseback, attempts to lead the horde away from the human settlements. Always the hero. Rick seems to be dying, and has hallucinations guest-starring several former characters who also died during the series’s run. Among these is Shane (Jon Bernthal), as well as Hershel Greene (the genuinely late Scott Wilson) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). No Lori, for some reason, which seems unlikely after you remember Rick once imagined hearing her voice on a disconnected telephone.

Rick apparently doesn’t die. After saving everyone again by blowing up a bridge with a zombie horde on it, a bridge that had become a symbol of the burgeoning civilization, Rick is saved by the treacherous Jadis, who had previously betrayed Gabriel and summoned the mysterious helicopter from wherever it comes. The episode in which Andrew Lincoln left the series, “What Comes After,” ends with a quick scene of Rick being carried away in the helicopter. Maybe he was taken to the 4077th MASH.

I was aware that Andrew Lincoln was leaving the series. It was one of the reasons I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to watching it. Since then, I’ve heard that Danai Gurira, who is wonderful as Michonne, has also left the show. Not looking forward to that either. Lauren Cohan (AKA Maggie Rhee née Greene) left and came back.

Things change. People leave or die. Life goes on.

I am perhaps one of the people in the world who is the least amenable to accepting any kind of change (or, maybe, I’m just one who’s honest about it). However, I must accept that this series, which has always been evolving and changing shape since the Frank Darabont days, is changing once again. This time, it’s in a fundamentally basic way. The series just lost the character that the story’s always been about. No, not Carl. Rick Grimes. No matter what else was going on in the story, how many new characters were introduced or how many familiar characters were killed off, the central story thread always focused on Rick Grimes.

While Rick doesn’t seem to be dead when he helicopters away, he may as well be from a storytelling perspective. It poses a huge question. If this is no longer Rick’s story, then whose story is it now?

Rick’s departure from the series is followed by another time jump. This one is over six years. Judith is six years older and has taken to wearing the same hat that her father, Rick, and her brother, Carl, used to wear. Judith rescues a woman named Magna and her group of survivors from a horde of walkers.

Part of the on-going story becomes about the process of assimilating Magna’s group into what now passes for society. The adopted son of Ezekiel and Carol, a young lad named Henry, is going to Hilltop to apprentice with the blacksmith. Henry essentially fills the role of Carl from the comic book series. Henry gets involved with Lydia, who is a member of the Whisperers, human survivors who mingle with the walkers with masks made from the faces of the dead. Lydia was captured and is being interrogated to gain more intel on these new antagonists. Lydia is able to recall repressed memories and she eventually tells the Alexandrians everything. The leader of the Whisperers is her mother, who is known as Alpha.

Meanwhile, Jesus is stabbed and killed by one of the Whisperers, disguised as a walker. I know, it was unfair of me to blurt that out without a spoiler warning; but, why would you be reading this review if you hadn’t already watched this season? I’ve grown mostly numb to character deaths on this show, but I was sad to see Jesus shuffle off this mortal coil.

Negan temporarily manages to escape from his prison, with the unlikely aid of Judith Grimes. He discovers that the world is no longer to his liking, so he returns to Alexandria on his own volition to reincarcerate himself. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s talents as an actor seem a bit wasted on a story arc that seems to be going nowhere.

All of the communities are preparing for the big Fair, an event I remember from the comic book. I also remember what happened during the fair, so these events in the series also come with a rising feeling of dread.

The leader of the Whisperers, Alpha, eventually arrives at Hilltop to exchange two captured prisoners for Lydia, her daughter. Neither Henry or Daryl like the fact that Lydia is being returned to her abusers. Henry follows the Whisperers to rescue Lydia, and ends up being captured himself. Daryl and Connie, the deaf woman from Magna’s group, disguise themselves—Whisper-fashion—to rescue Henry, also taking Lydia back with them in the bargain. This ends up with a showdown in an abandoned building. Daryl ends up facing off with the Whisperers second-in-command, known as Beta. Beta is played by Ryan Hurst, who you may recognize from his role as Opie on Sons of Anarchy. Anyway, Daryl pushes Beta down an open elevator shaft in the episode “Chokepoint.”

The Fair finally happens, and—just as in the comics—Alpha and the Whisperers choose that moment to make a statement about the borders between nations. Yes, characters we’ve gotten to know, some only recently, are killed, their heads put on top of stakes. I’m not going to list the newly deceased, just in case you’ve never seen the season and still chose to read this far into my spoilerific review.

I will say that not all of the characters beheaded in the comics received that treatment here. At least, not yet. I was pleased with this particular change.

After Rick’s departure, it felt, in many ways, like the beginning of a completely new series. A spinoff, even, with a few of the same characters. By the end of the season, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the names of many of the characters who were suddenly getting a lot of screen time.

And, you know what? I was okay with it. The stories seemed to be reverting to the types I enjoyed when the series began. Not knowing everyone in this fictional world, and mourning the loss of several familiar faces at the same time, drives home the feeling of change and the growth of civilization in the post-Rick era. The Whisperers and the events of the fair could not be avoided, and this group is poised to be the Big Bad on into Season 10. I look forward to it.

In conclusion, I’ve returned to The Walking Dead in a more positive frame of mind, and discovered that I enjoyed this season more than the last. Even to the point where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it with real living people again, like we did when everyone was watching the show. Not my wife. She’s not down with zombies.

Firewater’s For-God’s-Sake-Don’t-Look-at-the-Flowers Report Card: B+

Cautiously optimistic here. Not a return to the good ol’ days, but still the promise of something special to come.

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