The Walking Dead is reaching a point of being must-watch television status, once again. Season Nine of the popular AMC series was always going to be a pivotal year for the zombie world as it lost key cast members and gained a new showrunner. However, some of the changes made to the show are paying off in dividends as both fans and critics are praising the AMC series in recent months, and rightfully so.
Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season Nine follow. Major spoilers!
The first five episode of The Walking Dead Season Nine were burdened with sending Rick Grimes off in a satisfying manner. It seemed like an impossible task. Still, the original five episodes handled it brilliantly, crafting an unexpected story unique to the TV series, implementing only a few elements from Robert Kirkman's comic book source material. New showrunner Kang wisely put the longest-running characters at the forefront: Rick, Michonne, Daryl, Carol, and Maggie.
Episode 9x05 went on to be a masterpiece.
The Rick Grimes sendoff was a tribute to every fan (and person who worked on the show) who stuck with The Walking Dead through its first eight seasons, paying homage to many of the key moments involving Andrew Lincoln's lead character. Characters such as Shane, Hershel, and Sasha were all brought back for touching reunions with Rick before he departed for a series of films. The announcement of movies continuing Rick's story seemed to dampen the emotional sendoff given their immediate announcement following the episode's conclusion but the hour-long finale for Rick on the TV series was still enough.
More importantly, the ending of Rick's final episode catapulted The Walking Dead into a surprising future: six years later -- with an older, incredibly acted Judith (Cailey Fleming) delighting fans with her human approach to the apocalypse.
From Episode 9x06 on, the remaining key characters such as Daryl and Michonne have been given the most integral elements of the story. Norman Reedus appears to have stepped up his acting game, finally earning important chunks of dialogue, while Danai Gurira has offered up the most incredible performances of the year with each new beat given to Michonne.
That said, the newcomers are actually quite interesting as well, as the series bolstered the comic book narrative for the characters of Connie, Kelly, Yumiko, Magna, and Luke. In fact, these new characters are quickly adding one of the most intriguing elements to The Walking Dead in years: a deaf character. The AMC series hadn't previously addressed disabilities in the post-apocalyptic world. It could have easily shown such a trait to be a disadvantage but instead has shown off a tactical dynamic.
Plus, Connie's (Lauren Ridloff) disability offered up one of the most intense sequences in Episode 9x11 as she rescued a baby from the savage new villains, surrounded by walker threats she not only couldn't see coming in a treacherous corn field, but also couldn't hear.
It's as if the powers that be at The Walking Dead listened to almost everything the fans said over the past few years and made a concerted effort to right the ship. Such an action was probably necessary as ratings began to tank after the violent Episode 7x01. However, the violence wasn't the only thing which turned many viewers off of the show.
While a large portion of the audience has thoroughly enjoyed watching Jeffrey Dean Morgan bring Negan to life and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) trotting around with a tiger as very comic book-like King character, others found the show to be straying to far from its core. In the current season, both Ezekiel and Negan seem to have found more polished versions of themselves which their long-term fans can appreciate and the other portion of the audience won't mind.
Plus, the series finally wiped the unpopular "bottle episode" from its agenda. Poor Alanna Masterson and her Tara Chambler were stuck in the most infamous of the bunch back in Season Seven, telling a story which could have otherwise been interesting to the audience, but focusing on a story entirely distant from the main narrative. Season Nine has not dedicated an entire hour to one single character so far, only coming close with one which featured Alpha's early-apocalypse backstory, but also bringing in key characters which fans were already tuning in for.
The pacing was probably the biggest problem facing the series in recent years. Season Six dedicated an entire back half to introducing a villain who would only show up in cliffhanger form. Then, Rick would be pummeled and bullied for half of a season before bullets flying often replaced meaningful dialogue for about 24 episodes. Now, characters, conversation, and sensible decisions are at the forefront of the show providing an enjoyable and intense viewing experience, once again.
Topping off the nicely-layered cake that is The Walking Dead Season Nine is the addition of the Whisperers. Samantha Morton's Alpha and Ryan Hurst's Beta have sprung up to the highest ranks in terms of the fandom's villain preference. A rivalry between Beta (Ryan Hurst) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) has developed organically, providing a thrilling fight sequence, while Alpha has shown the barbaric path which post-apocalyptic survivors can follow which has been a compelling and refreshing path to explore.
Shock value has long been something The Walking Dead used -- intentionally or not -- to gain buzz and traction among social media and day to day conversations. Years ago, nearly everyone in their offices, classrooms, or in line at Starbucks could talk about Carol being forced to kill Lizzie or Shane being killed far earlier than expected. Now, Michonne is being forced to slice through children in Episode 9x14 for emotionally shocking moments and Alpha is beheading members of her own group for the weekly dose of violence. The conversation is back in a meaningful way as The Walking Dead became the number one trend on Twitter on Sunday night.
It's a truly incredible feat which Angela Kang has pulled off in her freshman year as The Walking Dead's showrunner. Love or hate the two seasons leading up to the ninth, there's no denying that the show is providing some of its most consistent run of high-quality, brilliantly-paced episodes and overall narratives in years. It is raising the bar.0comments
In fact, it's safe to say that those fans who abandoned the show would be delighted if they jumped back in with the current batch of episodes. This is the best complete season of The Walking Dead in years. The Walking Dead is on fire. If you had quit, start again. If you stuck around, enjoy the ride.
The Walking Dead TV series returns for the back half of its ninth season on February 10th at 9 pm ET. Fear the Walking Dead will return for its fifth season in 2019. For complete coverage and insider info all year long, follow @BrandonDavisBD on Twitter and watch ComicBook.com's After The Dead each Sunday night following new episodes.