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The Walking Dead wants to reinvent itself, but it keeps falling back on old tricks

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Blazing a new trail is hard to do when you’re a slow-moving sinking ship

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

This season, The Walking Dead has been taking the opportunity to reinvent itself. New showrunner Angela Kang has streamlined the pacing, cut down on the filler, and focused the plot on grounded issues like governance, punishment, and the necessary work required to rebuild a functioning society. Minor characters have been given well-written moments to take on more of the spotlight, while the main cast truly feels like they’ve earned their stations as high-ranking leaders and decision-makers.

Rather than focusing on the grim nature of the zombie apocalypse, this new and improved TWD has been interested in hope and rebuilding society. But in last night’s episode, “Warning Signs,” the show felt like it could all too easily tumble backward into the B movie-style circus that exemplified its last few seasons. The show’s Achilles’ heel appears to be major character deaths, and with the exit of Rick Grimes just two weeks away, The Walking Dead is in danger of reverting back to its worst tendencies.

Whenever the show sends a character off, it tends to fall into one of two buckets: it can be a fitting and emotional send-off (Hershel’s death and subsequent flashbacks in season 4; Carl’s departure in season 8), or it can be an over-hyped marketing stunt seemingly designed to boost ratings (the many fake-outs and eventual death of Glenn Rhee). Three episodes into season 9, we’re starting to see a rough outline for Rick’s fate emerge, and it’s not looking great.

In the final moments of “Warning Signs,” Daryl and Maggie discover that the women of Oceanside were the culprits behind an extrajudicial killing of a former Savior, and they have since taken another hostage. Instead of stopping the second execution, the duo lets it proceed. Maggie seems to see it as an opportunity to buck Rick’s more measured approach and to justify getting the revenge she’s long craved. “We gave Rick’s way a chance,” she tells Daryl. “It’s time to see Negan.”

While it is logical that Maggie would still want to deal with Negan in a more definitive way given what he did to Glenn, in context, the transition feels forced, like a blatantly manufactured twist to justify two of the show’s most beloved characters hopping over to the dark side. These same characters spent nearly two years building peace, so to have them toss it aside so casually comes across as conflict for conflict’s sake.

Practically speaking, it may simply be a matter of the show preparing itself for the coming casting changes. The actress who plays Maggie, Lauren Cohan, is also expected to depart during season 9, so putting Maggie and Rick at odds could make sense, particularly if she has some hand in Rick’s death. (Cohan reportedly could return to the show at a later date, though Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon is expected to step in as the new lead of the show following the death of Rick Grimes.)

What makes it frustrating is just how familiar it all seems, with Maggie seemingly taking on the mantle of the new villain just in time for a death that AMC has been telegraphing for months. This is a time when TWD could truly become something new — it’s killing its main character off, after all — but the playbook is the same one it’s been running since Negan became the focus and the show’s ratings started to decline. No matter how noble the intentions of the season were in the beginning, TWD still seems utterly beholden to its big twists and supposedly shocking character deaths in a way that undermines any other ideas it’s trying to explore. When every subplot, surprise, and cliffhanger is in service of an event we all know is coming, all the tension and surprise is lost.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

It’s not exactly clear why this is happening. It should be expected that the show will make a big deal of Rick Grimes’ death from a promotional perspective, but the fact that it keeps resorting to the same patterns — even with the fresh start of season 9 — seems to imply that TWD is simply too big to deviate from its own formula. AMC has signaled that it could keep the property going for another decade by rebooting it or spinning off side stories, and because the comic book is released in bite-sized installments every month, it will likely continue for years to come. (Creator Robert Kirkman said earlier this year that he sees its ending as “very far off.”)

Take those different factors together, and it makes it unlikely that the show will ever break free of its source material. Some viewers are now theorizing how the TV show’s characters can adapt future storylines from the comics, suggesting that Aaron will become the new Rick, while young Henry will take on more of Carl’s plot lines from the comics. And AMC has already confirmed the Whisperers, the next antagonist group from the comics to arrive after Negan, as the eventual big-picture villain this season.

Either way, the result is that the show already seems to be veering back toward the habits that required a fresh start in the first place. Of course, there is still a chance TWD will surprise its audience. Perhaps Rick won’t be killed (unlikely), and he’ll be the one who departs on the mysterious helicopter to join another larger community as the Jadis subplot seems to be foreshadowing (unlikelier still). Or maybe there’s a shocking twist to how Maggie’s showdown with Negan transpires. But the way it’s moving right now doesn’t instill confidence that it’ll be anything but predictable, with the unfortunate side effect of spoiling two of the show’s most interesting characters.

Perhaps this is just housekeeping. Perhaps once the business of Rick Grimes’ demise is done, The Walking Dead will finally move on to bigger and better things. But that’s a trap fans of the show have fallen into before as they wait for one unpleasant chapter to end and for another, hopefully better one, to begin. At a certain point, people will stop watching and walk away — many have already; ratings are at season 1 levels — and there are only so many characters they can kill off before it stops functioning as a reason to tune in every week.