Angela Kang inherited a slumping The Walking Dead on the heels of a divisively met couple of seasons where viewers were leaving live broadcasts by the million. On top of that, she had to deal with several massive cast exits. Departing the show: Andrew Lincoln, Lennie James, Lauren Cohan and Danai Gurira. Much of the show's top talent was on its way out the door while Kang was just stepping in, burdened with crafting a story viewers could remain invested in without some of their favorite characters. Yet, here we are. Half way through her sophomore season, Kang can boast that The Walking Dead is still a force to be reckoned with its story, hitting a home run in Sunday night's Episode 10x10 (Stalker), the standout episode of an already impressive batch of hours in Season 10.
In her debut year, Kang masterfully crafted an exit story for Lincoln and his Rick Grimes character. Having already lost Carl a year before, the heart of the show was seemingly gone as the Grimes family was the central driver of this juggernaut of a vehicle. The only things she knew: he had to fly in off in a helicopter and she had Lincoln for five episodes. Those five episodes ended up being the strongest consistent run in years, culminating with a twist where the story jumps six years into the future to a world that has been void of Rick Grimes.
Surely, when the lead actor left the show, it was doomed, right? Wrong. But, Maggie actress Cohan quietly went with him, so this thing is surely done? Wrong, again.
The void left by Lincoln's absence allowed Kang to bring other beloved characters into the mix. The show had become so focused on Rick and Negan that Daryl's words were reduced to grunts and yelling at Rick during battles. Michonne was not getting the focus the actress and character deserved. Tom Payne was so frustrated by the lack of other characters being in focus that he willingly bowed out of his role as Jesus, another exit Kang had to deal with and handled magnificently. Payne's Jesus went out in a truly scary episode masterfully directed by veteran Michael Satrazemis midway through Season 9. It was a necessary moment reminding fans that villains can fit into the horror genre, the show can be haunting, and the pace of the story can move at high speeds with high stakes to match.
Enter: the Whisperers.
Casting the Whisperers was executed tremendously. Samantha Morton has gone above and beyond all expectations as the menacing Alpha, leader of this barbaric pack of villains. Her second in command is also spot on as Beta is played by already beloved by the audience Ryan Hurst, known best for his role as Opie in Sons of Anarchy. While human to human conflict is nothing new to The Walking Dead, Kang and her writing team have managed to bring the show back to its best days - not be recreating stories or threads which worked before but by bringing back a feeling of freshness. Each week, the villains are unpredictable and bring something to the show which the audience has not seen before. Sunday night's are as exciting as the days where Rick was battling the Governor, only this time is the likes of Daryl, Carol, and Connie being pitted against a barbaric horde who want to embrace the apocalypse.
Surely, the likes of Ross Marquand or Khary Payton could be a bit frustrated as their respective Aaron and Ezekiel characters have not been as integral to the story as their talent might warrant. However, the show is a massive ensemble, so when new faces like Luke (Dan Fogler), Magna (Nadia Hilker), and Connie (Lauren Ridloff) are so quickly made integral to the story, it's a show of impressive balance by the creative powers of the show. Admittedly, the introduction of a group called "The Highway Men" in Season 9 as a means to have more named heads on pikes was cheap but Kang likely recognized the show's inability to bleed anymore long-running characters.
If the series still created the mass buzz it did years ago, the Season 10 twist involving Dante and Siddiq would have been the most talked about subject in offices on Monday morning. Juan Javier Cardenas and Avi Nash would have been the talk of the town as one character turned out to be a mole for the barbaric Whisperers, ultimately killing the other, when both were very much liked -- and still new to the show. This is where Kang succeeds perhaps the best, in developing characters in a short amount of time. Look at the resurgence of Father Gabriel, as he is solidified fan-favorite now, especially after his swift actions in Sunday night's Stalker.
Now, facing the departure of Gurira (who has earned the right to bow out, giving years to the show and breaking out as a Marvel star in Black Panther), Kang has managed to make the story more interesting as a whole than suffering from catering to departures. Gurira has not yet appeared in the back half of the show's tenth season, a production which shot its episodes out of order to accommodate the availability the actress offered. While viewers are rightfully eager to see her sendoff, the story has not suffered from the absence of Michonne. Such an ability is about to be tested, yet again, as Connie actress Ridloff jetted off to film Marvel's Eternals -- another puzzle Kang had to piece together as Connie has become wildly popular.
The building up of the others who are sticking around (or will be brutally sent off in the Whisperer War) has been the supplement the show needed to survive the many obstacles it faced when Kang took over.
Perhaps the best accomplishment of Kang was making Negan the best character on the show. Jeffrey Dean Morgan never once failed at impressively portraying the character exactly as he was asked to. However, in the early years of the character, the menacing leader of the Saviors was not as popular as AMC would have hoped as his relentless tactics did not give him the same pop as was seen in Robert Kirkman's comics. Kang's use of the character seems to be better calculated, calling for a change in his presence justified by a prison stint, and ultimately bringing out the more morally correct sides of the character a bit more strongly than in years prior, all the while maintaining the grey area where he best operates.
The cards were undoubtedly stacked against Kang when she stepped into the role of show runner for The Walking Dead ahead of its ninth season. None of that is not going to stop her. Jumping through each of those hoops has been made to look easy as The Walking Dead is returning to its peak days, substituting characters into other stories where necessary and creating new story threads to sustain the demand of its still considerably large audience.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9pm ET on AMC.