The Walking Dead returned with Season Nine Sunday, bringing with it an early casualty that will have far-reaching consequences.
When returning from the National Museum of Natural History in nearby Washington, D.C. under the stewardship of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), former Savior Alden (Callan McAuliffe) and new faces Ken (AJ Achinger) and Marco (Gustavo Gomez) are trailing on horseback and discussing Marco taking up an apprenticeship under Ken's blacksmith father.
Ken, tasked with shoeing horses, has an obvious bond with the wagon-hauling creatures. When a busted bridge slows the group's forward progress, Ken pushes for giving the horses a rest.
Hilltop leader Maggie (Lauren Cohan) suggests leaving the supplies and sending a group back to retrieve them in a day or two, but Michonne says that risks a herd running through and destroying their prized haul.
Rick has the horses swapped out and placed in the clearing, where they can rest while Rick and company turn an eye towards freeing the wagons from inches-deep mud.
Rick, Michonne, Marco, Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) attempt to wrestle the wagon free when a pack of walkers emerge from the woods. As the undead grow larger and closer, the group yanks the wagon out of the mud and Michonne and Daryl swiftly eliminate walkers.
Ken's horse is spooked, but an overwhelming number of quickly approaching walkers forces Rick to order the wagon be left behind. "I have to free her," Ken says, ignoring Rick's orders to halt.
As he uses his blade to slice the horse free from its constraints, a walker grabs hold of Ken, sinking its teeth into his upper arm. As the walker tears Ken's flesh, the panicking horse kicks him in the chest.
Ken regains consciousness to chaos. Rick and the others tend to a sobbing Ken while medic know-all Siddiq (Avi Nash) does his best to save the boy's life.
Rick, Michonne, Daryl, Ezekiel and Alden combat the walkers while Siddiq, Maggie, and nurse-in-training Enid (Katelyn Nacon) try to prevent Ken from slipping away.
Despite their efforts, Ken dies. An upset Maggie puts her blade into the back of his head.
Back at the Hilltop, Maggie has broken the news to Ken's devastated parents: Earl (John Finn) and Tammy (Brett Butler).
"She took our boy out there, and for what? My son is dead, Earl. And what do we have to show for it? Nothing but a broke plough," a furious and distraught Tammy says.
Maggie tells Tammy the run was "really important for the future," but she refuses to hear it.
"Don't you dare talk to me about no future right now. I know where all that shit went, Maggie, the Saviors got it! Didn't they? He didn't even die helping Hilltop!"
An emotional Tammy makes her point: she says it "ain't right" for the Hilltop to be lending a hand to the Sanctuary, who surrendered and made a deal to act as a friendly camp following the defeat and imprisonment of leader Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
The growing dissension only worsens when Tammy says former Hilltop leader Gregory (Xander Berkeley) is a "damn scoundrel," but he had the community's best interests in mind.0comments
A similar situation played out in Robert Kirkman's comics, where Tammy was married to Morton Rose instead of Hilltop blacksmith Earl. There it was son Brandon, not Ken, who was at the center of Tammy's antagonism towards Maggie. Ken's death will continue to play out as the controversy fuels drama at the Hilltop.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.