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The Walking Dead’s season premiere offered a long-awaited glimmer of hope

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The show is now about rebuilding, not just surviving

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / AMC

Any television show that’s still airing after eight years is going to have some peaks and valleys. But it’s difficult to deny that over the past few seasons, AMC’s The Walking Dead has fallen off of a creative cliff. Under the stewardship of previous showrunner Scott Gimple, the series dragged out every skirmish into a multiseason arc, relied on emotional stunts to keep audiences engaged, and went out of its way to focus on Negan, a villain who never really became interesting enough to warrant more than 30 hours of programming dedicated to his introduction, reign, and eventual fall.

But with the show’s ninth season, the series is poised for a rebirth. Gimple has stepped away to focus on the big-picture expansion of the franchise, allowing new showrunner Angela Kang to offer her own perspective. The show is jumping 18 months into the future, catapulting away from the grim misery that’s characterized the last few seasons. And series star Andrew Lincoln is readying his exit, with AMC touting the coming half-season as “Rick Grimes’ final episodes.”

After too many years being stuck on repeat, The Walking Dead is changing, and the difference couldn’t have been more palpable in the season 9 premiere, “A New Beginning.” A show about surviving in a brutal, lawless world is now about rebuilding society, and for once, The Walking Dead feels filled with hope.

Rick, with thinner hair and a grayer beard, is raising a talkative Judith alongside Michonne, who has embraced her maternal role and is concerned that their fragile peace could be shattered by sudden violence or rebellion. She tells Rick that the next big step is to formulate a set of rules to govern conduct and enact punishment, before — and not after — an incident topples their communities. The couple, alongside their companions, established food, farming, trade, and transportation; it’s the foundations of a sustainable society, not just a handful of friends on the run out of desperation.

Even better: this hope is built on real, meaningful progress that acknowledges the work it takes to build a peaceful civilization. And for the first time in a while, The Walking Dead is concerned with grounded, true-to-life struggles, and time and effort has gone into making these struggles feel real, even if they may not be as dynamic as Mad Max deathmatch with a zombie in a junkyard.

Everyone now travels mostly by horseback, for example, because fuel is hard to come by. A bridge between Alexandria and the Hilltop has fallen into disrepair, cutting off the two communities from trading vital supplies to one another. These developments, though standard post-apocalyptic fare, stand in contrast to the more ludicrous challenges the show has engineered for its characters in the past. In the new Walking Dead, the hurdles feel like ones people who’ve reverted to an agrarian society might actually find themselves facing.

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / AMC

That kind of grounded world-building is on display throughout “A New Beginning.” After years of watching characters struggle and fight and bicker about who’s in charge, the show has moved on to the real business of civilizing humanity, something that it has shied away from even while the topic has ostensibly been top of mind for years now. With Negan finally out of the way — a character who dominated both the narrative and the focus of the show — Rick, Maggie, Michonne, and the others are able to begin expanding outward. It truly feels like progress has been made.

Of course, time jumps are a convenient way to advance storylines without having to do any laborious narrative legwork, and by leaping forward 18 months, Kang is able to make some big changes. But the advancements being made, which the show attributes to Maggie following a guidebook that was given to her last season by the helicopter-traveling Georgie, feel hard-earned and believable. The closest we’ve gotten to this moment in past seasons is the introduction of Alexandria when Rick and the others stumbled upon an almost impossibly intact gated community with running water and electricity. But that always felt too convenient, and here, the show’s characters are able to make these advances without requiring a suspension of disbelief.

Even in the subtle moments, the episode gave viewers anecdotes that emphasized hope and fresh starts. Ezekiel proposed to Carol — the two are now a couple — after nearly dying at the hands of a zombie horde. Rick and Maggie discussed their new responsibilities overseeing trade and transportation networks between Alexandria and the Hilltop, while Rick holds Glenn and Maggie’s child on his lap. Daryl and Carol reminiscence about the old days at the Sanctuary, which Daryl now begrudgingly runs alongside Eugene. The characters are at a point where they view their previous trials with a combination of weariness, fondness, and relief, knowing that the work that actually matters still lies ahead, and they’re reluctant to miss taking advantage of even a moment.

The writers make sure to inject enough skepticism and uneasy tension into each scene, however. Following Ezekiel’s proposal, a young man trying to free a horse from the mud is bitten by a zombie, and Maggie is forced to deliver the news to his distraught parents. Later, Rick acknowledges to Maggie that his philosophy on leadership may be at odds with hers, and nowhere is that more evident than in how the specter of Negan, who lives in a jail cell at Alexandria, hangs over the conversation between the two. And Daryl, restless and longing for the days where all he had to worry about was keeping everyone else alive, learns of a growing underground movement at the Sanctuary to reestablish the Saviors.

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / AMC

Of course, fresh starts don’t preclude a reliance on old habits, and several Walking Dead-isms were still prevalent throughout the episode. Ezekiel puts himself in harm’s way to take a wagon from a museum full of zombies, but wouldn’t it be safer to just build a new one? Gregory, upset that he lost an election to Maggie for the leadership of Hilltop, orchestrates a hairbrained assassination attempt that seems designed solely to give the end of the episode an overwrought, awkward punch-up. And nearly a decade after this series began, why aren’t there better protections against zombie bites, anyway?

Despite the obvious flaws, for the first time in several years, it feels like TWD has shifted to an altogether different point of view. It’s not that the show is shot any differently; it still feels and looks the same, and lapsed viewers could find themselves right at home sinking back in now. Instead, it’s the soul of TWD — what it’s about and where it’s going — that have been reset in a way that’s so bold that it often feels provocative. The show spent eight seasons toiling in a world that was constantly trying to devolve into chaos. Focusing on hope and possibility instead doesn’t just make for a new start; it makes for a drastically improved piece of television that leaves one wondering why The Walking Dead spent so much time stubbornly wandering in the darkness in the first place.

It’s worth acknowledging that TWD has always been adept at setting the stage and wrapping things up. It’s the stretches in between where the show suffers the most, whether it’s killing time with bottle episodes or endlessly teasing the arrival of characters that never live up to the anticipation. It’s still far too early to determine whether those are the kinds of tactics Kang will be utilizing this season, and it’s quite clear from many of the marketing materials that the show is still following the narrative tracks laid by creator Robert Kirkman’s comics. But if the season premiere is any indication of what kind of show TWD is now trying to be, there’s not only a reason for the characters to feel a sense of hope — the audience can, too.