'The Walking Dead' Season 9 Review: The Old Show's Return

For the first time in more than two years, an episode of The Walking Dead has nothing to do with war, Negan, or fighting to survive. An episode of The Walking Dead focuses on putting its core characters at the forefront, build relationships and a world, and offer stakes which don't involve any blatant villains. It's an odd feeling, having watched the series through its seventh and eighth seasons, to feel no immediate objective for the group other than surviving but it is a welcome tone on a show which thrived under such circumstances eight years ago.

Through three episodes, The Walking Dead Season Nine is all about its characters, intriguing mystery, and nostalgia. It's reminiscent of the days where Rick's biggest problem was his former best friend while the priority was keeping everybody safe.

Launching what feels like a slow-burning series premiere with Episode 9x01, perfectly titled "A New Beginning" to not only signify the characters' journey but a milestone for the AMC series as Angela Kang steps in as showrunner, the zombie drama makes a slow return. The premiere bears a heavy burden of building the landscape for the season and series moving forward and, in an extended runtime, does just that. Updating the status of Rick, Michonne, Carol, Ezekiel, Daryl, Maggie, and others in the about 18 months which have passed since Negan was defeated is a demanding endeavor.

Though an ominous feeling shrouds the scene each time Andrew Lincoln steps into frame as Rick Grimes, the character is showing no signs of desire to depart, nor is the actor. Delivering with each line and appearing to have genuine fun while shooting with Michonne actress Danai Gurira (specifically in one optimism-loaded scene with Judith, one unfamiliar to the dark series), Lincoln's loss will be felt in spades but Kang is wisely building the characters around his. It's something recent seasons have failed to do -- or even attempt.

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(Photo: AMC/Christine Ramage)

In fact, the first three episodes of Season Nine are not only character-driven but are also steered by relationships. The show sees characters hold hands and kiss for the first time, while simultaneously introducing new and important platonic pacts. Whereas bullets and punches would once speak for many, language now involves hand-holding, kisses, valuable dialogue, and the occasional grimacing look.

Though characters like Carl or Glenn are not being executed on-screen in these initial outings of Season Nine, the history and losses the survivors share are primed and used for emotional impacts.

Still, it is an odd feeling to watch The Walking Dead and not see Rick Grimes and his people building towards an immediate goal. One surfaces, an effort to rebuild a bridge which appears to be symbolic of the survivors' future (something like the Saviors and Alexandrians needing to repair a bridge between their relationship) but it is not the same as a constant need to get ready for war. It is as though someone lifted a brick from The Walking Dead's chest and said, "Breathe!" for the first time in years.

As a result, the show returns to two of its original core values: horror and leadership clashes. While walkers are not as present with the show moving at a break-neck pace through its second and third episodes, the returning episode offers a terrifying and creepy look at the zombie world. One specific moment involving relative-newcomer Avi Nash's Siddiq shows how much fun executive producer Greg Nicotero's effects team is still having when coming up with horrifying moments and executing them on screen.

As teased in the Season Eight finale, Rick and Maggie are not seeing eye to eye after Negan's life was preserved. A leadership clash is in order between Alexandria and the Hilltop and by the time Episode 9x01 concludes, it's clear their styles are drastically different. This doesn't mean they are going to go for each others' throats, though. Instead, Kang wisely presents a new type of feud, one involving politics and reason, as the characters with a long-running history disagree. Characters argue and there is no feeling of the audience being smarter than them. Instead, it's a debate of what is right, what is logical, and what is safe but each element is actually thought through and discussed rather than brushed over to continue a battle.

Speaking of history, the AMC series has eight years of it, and it's on display. References to the show's earliest days are on display in Season Nine, both in reflective moments recreating scenes or feelings (like riding on horseback through a major city or clearing long, dark hallways of walkers) and in outright callbacks. Perhaps it's a service to fans who have stuck with Lincoln since his debut as Rick Grimes on Halloween of 2010 but an interrogation scene in which he mentions having done this in the past while simultaneously referencing a rooftop in Atlanta is enough to leave a smile on the biggest fan's face.

Though The Walking Dead only has Andrew Lincoln for a short period of time in Season Nine, it may be some of the best story, performances, and excitement in years. Kang is making good use of his final days while wisely building the characters who will continue in his wake.

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The Walking Dead returns to the series fans fell in love with in 2010. For some, it may be too little too late. For others, they'll stick around through Rick's departure and certainly turn their TV off on Sunday nights. However, Kang is loading the show with quality character, relationships, and mystery (including that helicopter everyone wants to know about) right off the bat. Quality beyond Rick's exit remains a mystery but if Episode 9x02 and Episode 9x03's nostalgia, mystery, and heart aren't enough to hook people in for another round, there's simply nothing more she can do.

Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC. The Walking Dead returns for its ninth season on Oct. 7, 2018. For more updates and insider info all year long, follow @BrandonDavisBD on Twitter!