The Walking Dead has put together its best half-season in years, quite possibly since Rick and Shane's relationship spiraled out of control leading to walkers overrunning Hershel's barn. It ended as something tremendously different than it started as, but The Walking Dead is at its best in Season Nine.
Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9A follow. Major spoilers!
The Walking Dead underwent major changes with Season Nine. Before it began, Angela Kang stepped in as showrunner. Kang was immediately preparing to bring a very character-driven saga to the AMC series, opposing the preceding seasons helmed by Scott Gimple. The 32 most recent episodes had replaced meaningful dialogue with bullets flying and several inconsequential deaths, except Carl's which still doesn't seem to make much sense unless it was in preparation for the next big exit.
That big exit would be Andrew Lincoln. Not only would Kang have to combat losing the actor who has portrayed Rick Grimes since the show's earliest days (after the news broke far ahead of schedule, too) but she would also say a temporary "goodbye" to Maggie actress Lauren Cohan. So, Kang's The Walking Dead would start with what was essentially a five-episode mini-season to send both major characters off. Then it would transition into The Walking Dead's new era, a quite different series with some of the same characters from its early days, but mostly new faces who, on average, have been around for three years or less.
Season Nine of The Walking Dead started with a premiere episode more calm than in previous years. Episodes which usually launch with a break-neck pace, villainous introductions, and/or a couple of shocking character deaths. Episode 9x01, however, launched as more of an update to the surviving characters' status quo more than one year beyond the Negan war having been resolved. The communities were working well together and Negan was locked away in jail but he didn't even pop up in the episode. In fact, Kang made a conscious decision to take the focus off of Negan and some of the new character to allow originals like Rick, Maggie, Carol, and Daryl to be centerpieces.
Then something major happened: Maggie execute Gregory. Xander Berkeley's character was never a fan-favorite, constantly pestering Maggie's leadership. Within the first hour-and-a-half of Season Nine of Kang's rule, she proved that pace won't be an issue. A story which might have been drawn out across several episodes or an entire half-season in previous years was introduced and resolved all within one episode.
From there, The Walking Dead did not squander its last episodes with Lincoln and Cohan. An intriguing mystery of Saviors being killed off was introduced in a welcome fashion, also offering a surprising and rewarding resolve in a well-timed manner! As the show proceeded to address its questions or morality, it dodged the "this is how it is now" trope and showed different points of view. In Oceanside's Savior case, a memory of Glenn's death was enough to have Maggie turn away and allow it to go down.
In fact, moments like Maggie and Daryl allowing Cyndie to kill Arat in Episode 9x03's concluding moments go to show how well Kang is handling characters. Difficult decisions are being discussed outright, rather than grunts and grimaces with conversations ending in ellipsis to be resolved later for the sake of preserving a particular problem for more episodes.
None of the added conversation, character-driven dialogue, or logical tension between characters with opposing perspectives were an accident. "Now we're getting the chance to see these people really interact with each other," executive producer Greg Nicotero said. "They care about each other. I loved it. It reminded me of Season Two. Everybody always says, 'Oh, Season Two. It was really boring. Hershel's farm.' I'm like, 'F--- you guys! Season Two, that's when we fell in love with Daryl! That's when we fell in love with Carol because we took the time, and Hershel for God's sakes!' I really feel like we're at that time when we're really allowing those scenes."
When it came time for Rick's final episode, The Walking Dead wasn't exactly at a make or break point. The live ratings had already slipped, so a botched sendoff for the character couldn't have done too much damage, but a well-executed conclusion could keep the five million viewers around in the following weeks. Thanks to Angela Kang (and some expansive universe planning with Scott Gimple), Rick's final episode was a emotional roller coaster, a tribute for fans who have been with the series since 2010, and a true spectacle of what The Walking Dead is capable of.
Lincoln's Rick Grimes went on an emotional trip down memory lane, temporarily meeting dead characters like Hershel, Sasha and Shane in his close-to-death mind. In brilliant fashion, the Easter-egg-riddled hour focused not only on Rick's final journey within the TV series but also packed tremendous character interactions between Maggie and Michonne before Maggie and Negan into the episode.
Then came the hook. Possibly in a move of desperation to say, "Please keep watching even though Rick is gone," the show wisely put an unexpected tag on the end of Rick's last episode. Baby Judith was all grown up after Rick had flown away in a helicopter to his movie trilogy, rescuing a group of new characters from the comics, and launching the show into its narrative future taking place six-years later.
One week later, The Walking Dead was brand new in Episode 9x06. Rick Grimes was a thing of the past, as was Maggie (though Lauren Cohan will probably return). The only characters from Season Three or earlier are Michonne, Carol, and Daryl -- and each would play key roles in the final three episodes of Season Nine's first half.
While the originals got plenty of spotlight, newcomers like Nadia Hilker's Magna and Dan Fogler's Luke began to stand out. Seth Gilliam's Father Gabriel built on fan interest after playing a key role in the early episode, even developing a pair of romantic relationships in the same season. Not-so-little Judith became a centerpiece for one episode, before the next big threat was introduced.
Heading into the season, The Walking Dead had provided audiences with a bit of villain fatigue. Over the years, the survivors encounter plenty of human threats, dating back to Season Two's Nebraska episode. Two men walked into a bar and human-to-human conflict was presented from an outsider to the group for the first time. From there, the Governor would come and go, Terminus and its cannibals were blown to bits, the Atlanta hospital's jerks would be laid to rest, the Wolves howled at the moon, and Negan's Saviors were defeated.
The new villains, while human, are tremendously different from previous enemies. While this new group is still being explored, their nature is truly haunting. Whereas Negan's group offered a claustrophobic sense of control over the world, the Whisperers are already haunting fans.
The Walking Dead is certainly a different show now. Newer characters like Aaron, Magna, Luke, Connie, Henry, Judith, Alden, Ezekiel, Jerry, Yumiko, Negan, Rosita and Eugene are primed to lead the show behind only Carol, Daryl, and Michonne. However, the villains might just steal the show as the transition towards being a brand new series within the same world and title is carried out.
With the Mid-Season Nine finale, The Walking Dead proved itself to be true to its roots. Perfectly setting its culminating scene in a foggy graveyard, a true sense of the horror genre was on display as Jesus whisked his sword through zombies in every direction. As if to meet a cliché of the horror genre, the writing was on the wall for the cocky Jesus character when he sent the group ahead and stayed behind for some more kills.
When he swung his sword toward a walker and it ducked, dodging his deadly blow only to counter it with a kill shot of his own, The Walking Dead was cemented as being truly back. A death both shocking a terrifying, reminiscent of the earliest days of the series, took out a major character who fans had become considerably invested in. Had the series allowed more of his iconic comic book moments to be carried out in previous years as Tom Payne and many fans had wished, this may have all gone down differently, but Angela Kang made great work of a situation which had been developing both behind-the-scenes and organically within the narrative.
There was no hype of "Tune in to witness a mid-season finale death!" or "You can't miss Jesus' last episode!" Instead, the moment was shocking and true to The Walking Dead's roots -- and genuinely scary -- proving the AMC show has just delivered its best eight-episode run in years. In fact, despite losing its core characters, welcome new developments have shown The Walking Dead could be on its way to having its best season, ever.