The Walking Dead isn’t necessarily known for its nuanced handling of moral complexity. It’s ostensibly concerned with the choices we make and the people we become in a world where law and order no longer exist, but the zombie drama has often treated its right-or-wrong dilemmas as shallow plot contrivances. Characters like Rick or Carl might bemoan their lost humanity in one episode, only to casually slip into killing machine mode in the next, simply because it’s convenient for them to have a sudden change of heart. That’s why it’s often hard to take anything The Walking Dead tries to say about human nature seriously: all too often, it eschews actual consequences or character development in the name of adding some surprise twist or plot turn dictated by the comic book.
But in the second episode of season 9, “The Bridge,” nuance and depth slowly begin to creep into TWD’s handling of morality. Just as its characters have moved on from more trivial questions about what’s right or wrong in the post-apocalypse, so has the show. Rather than debate whether murder is appropriate or whether some people deserve more than others, Rick and his fellow survivors largely treat those notions as settled matters. Instead, the leaders of these communities are now struggling with how to codify morality in a world that’s constantly on the brink of collapsing all over again.
“The Bridge” revolves around building a better trade route between Alexandria and the Hilltop, and the titular structure takes on a symbolic importance for Rick and Maggie. The underlying tension of the episode comes from two interwoven storylines. In one, Maggie deliberates over the fate of an assassin who attempted to take her life on Gregory’s orders in the previous episode. In the other, Rick and Daryl have a philosophical disagreement over how to deal with the bad apples left over from Negan’s reign.
The thread that connects the two storylines is Michonne’s diplomatic plea that the different communities establish rules about how to punish bad behavior and how to deem people worthy of reintegration into the community after committing a crime. No longer can they exile or simply just kill the people who disobey orders or threaten the safety of others. They now need laws and consequences for breaking them.
Rick has Negan in a jail cell as a show of restraint and civility — a model for how crimes against the community should be dealt with going forward. Maggie defies that model when she executes Gregory for the assassination attempt, but she chooses to imprison, rather than kill, the assassin. Elsewhere, Rick breaks up a fistfight between Daryl and a Savior, but he lets the latter off with a warning. It’s a break from how these kinds of things were previously handled. Daryl makes it clear that, in years past, he would have resorted to violence to send a message.
In season 9, it appears that Rick doesn’t want to resort to violence without exhausting all other options, making the show — and its characters — feel like they’ve progressed beyond the savagery that marked the series’s earlier explorations of moral decay.
But there’s a downside to that as well. It seems like Rick is now too willing to give others the benefit of the doubt — too committed to his dead son Carl’s idea that people can come together again to restore the lofty ideals of a lost world — and there are consequences that come from that. Later in “The Bridge,” the Savior that Rick let go ends up being responsible for a zombie attack. In the aftermath, Daryl beats the man in front of a crowd of disturbed onlookers, stopping only when Carol grabs hold of him. Rick’s only non-violent solution is to exile the man, even though he knows that the former Savior will likely meet up with a renegade band of Negan devotees that decided not to join Alexandria. It’s a decision that may come back to haunt Rick and prove Daryl right.
Contrasting with the encounter is how Maggie deals with her would-be murderer. She finally agrees to let the man work to pay for his crimes; his skills as a blacksmith are necessary to repair wagons for carrying supplies to and from the Hilltop. Michonne, who’s fast becoming the moral center of the show, is impressed with Maggie’s decision-making, but she’s still critical of the Gregory execution, telling Maggie that no one person has the right to decide whether others live or die.
It’s clear that the audience is supposed to see Rick and Maggie as foils, approaching the same problems from different perspectives with varying results. That said, it’s not exactly clear what the show is trying to say about Rick’s vision for the future. If it eventually just says that his vision is too naïve to actually work, resulting in the character’s death later this season, it will be a big disappointment and represent a return to familiar themes and payoffs that the show wore out years ago. But the interplay between the two characters and their leadership styles is a strong thematic pillar of the season so far, and its success will likely hinge on what the show is able to say about this and whether it can deliver the message without dragging viewers through too much drudgery or falling back on old tricks.
Either way, the relative stability seen in this season thus far is short-lived. “The Bridge” concludes with the inevitable Negan cameo, as Rick reflects on the day’s events and uses it as a teachable moment for his captive nemesis. Of course, Rick isn’t telling the whole story — one quick scene shows the former Savior he exiled running into some unseen threat on the road in the middle of the night, and it’s clearly not of the zombie variety. But Negan appears to recognize that what Rick is building is too fragile. “You’re just getting it ready for me,” Negan tells him. How that plays out, and whether Negan becomes an antagonist or more of an antihero member of the current crew when he’s inevitably let out of the jail cell, is one of the more interesting subplots brewing on TWD. At the same time, it also threatens to be a return to the very same kind of tired conflicts, ideas, and circuitous character development that have caused viewer interest to plummet in recent years.
For now, The Walking Dead is holding its own, still charting a course for a more nuanced, smarter version of its former self. It could all go off the rails, of course, bogging itself down in some multi-episode story arc about some new omnipresent threat that ends up serving as little more than filler. In that sense, showrunner Angela Kang’s new version of the show is a little like the new and improved Rick Grimes: it’s trying to be a little more thoughtful and attempting to dig a little deeper but with the ever-present knowledge that — no matter how good the intentions — one day, it all might come crashing down.