Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 8 below.
This season of The Walking Dead has had its own meta storyline, complete with ups, downs, and breathtaking cliffhangers. After several seasons of declining ratings, it was announced earlier this year that showrunner Scott Gimple was leaving the show, with Angela Kang set to take over for season 9. The idea was that Kang’s new vision for the show could revitalize The Walking Dead, starting with a reimagined title sequence.
At first, it seemed to work. The pending departure of Andrew Lincoln, who plays series star Rick Grimes, kept viewership numbers afloat. At one point, it seemed that the show was upending viewer expectations by dispatching Rick earlier than expected. It was a gimmick, however, like the departure itself rather than killing Rick off, The Walking Dead just put him on ice, in anticipation of a trilogy of films that will land on AMC at some point in the future. The non-death of Rick Grimes seemed like the final nail in the coffin, the moment when audiences realized that no matter how much they root for The Walking Dead to turn its game-playing ways around, it just isn’t in the cards.
Then, something funny happened. Over the last few episodes, a new vision for The Walking Dead began to emerge — one interested in small character moments and new conflicts that felt very much like The Walking Dead of earlier seasons before the show got weighed down with its comic book-influenced stunts. The midseason finale, “Evolution,” completed that transition. And while the two of us have been frustrated with The Walking Dead at times, we’re now in what feels like an entirely new position: invigorated by the show’s new approach, excited about where it’s going, and eager to find out how the characters get there. Of course, we sat down to talk about it.
How did they do it?
Bryan: I will be completely honest here and say I didn’t think The Walking Dead could pull it off. I’ve obviously had issues with the show for quite some time, and I stopped watching altogether when Glenn died. But I kept tabs on the show’s bigger plot movements, and I eventually came back. Now, I could not be more pleased with how excited I am about the show again.
How did The Walking Dead pull that off? There are a lot of elements to look at, but for me, it comes down a philosophical approach. Over the last few episodes, the show has become much more interested in character-driven storylines and the emotional consequences these characters are all grappling with. In “Evolution,” some big moments with the Whisperers are expertly underplayed, but for me, the most telling example in the entire episode is Henry’s storyline.
In “Evolution,” the audience learns that Henry decided to go to Hilltop not to become a blacksmith, but because he’s still harboring a major crush on Enid. When he learns she already has a boyfriend, he does what any teenager would do: he gets self-destructive and parties with a bunch of other teenagers. They drink, they act obnoxiously, and the other teens torture a walker — which Henry vigorously rejects.
That turn is a good example of Henry’s moral compass, but the fact that The Walking Dead actually took the time to explore what growing up as a teenager would be like in that community is what really struck me. These kids know they are in a dangerous zombie world, but they’ve got just enough stability for traditional adolescent tendencies to take hold. After literally years of debate about various moral high grounds, it was refreshing for the show to look at something beyond The Big Bad Guy Negan and The Big Good Guy Rick. Once upon a time, Carl was used to explore some of these ideas, and it actually seems like Carl’s comic book storyline is being grafted onto Henry here. But this kind of relatable situation has been sorely lacking in The Walking Dead lately. If this is the direction the series is now headed, sign me up.
Nick: Going into season 9, I was worried that Rick’s impending departure would dominate all 16 episodes and overshadow any of the promised turnaround work Kang was hired to pull off. And while the season started off strong, realizing the eventual stunt at play did not have me hopeful the show would much improve post-Rick. The emotional whiplash of “Maybe it’s good again?” and “Oh no, it’s back to its old nonsense” was exhausting. And the show having to shoulder the departure of two major characters (Lauren Cohan’s Maggie left this season, too) made it feel like the writing was on the wall.
But then, multiple time jumps accomplished something miraculous: with Rick gone and the weight lifted off of the show’s writers, The Walking Dead has slowly become the show Kang promised. I think refocusing on characters — how they deal with tragedy and new experiences, and what binds them together — has made it feel revitalized and less like the struggling comic book adaptation it had become. “Evolution” is the best of the last three episodes because it emphasizes all of those changes and really drives home how effectively Kang and the writing team have used Rick’s departure and the six-year jump, which were narrative moves we were both highly skeptical of at first.
I was particularly struck by a scene featuring Gabriel and Negan, in which the reformed pastor tries to help the captive criminal talk through his issues and why he chose to become the man he did in the post-apocalypse. Over the past few seasons, these kinds of vignettes were typically fun, creative detours — The Walking Dead loves a good musical montage — designed mostly to fill time and add some much-needed color. But they rarely said anything profound or contributed to the overall plot.
In this scene, though, when Gabriel accosts Negan for yet again pulling up his tough guy exterior, I was shocked at how clever it all was. Negan, realizing how exhausting he is, pushes Gabriel to open up about Rosita’s injuries and the impending threat they all seem to face. It was as if the writers were acknowledging how poorly they handled Negan’s character by forcing the man to drop his tired schtick. Later on, when Negan discovers his cell door is left open, he walks out with a sinister smile on his face. But the audience knows now not to expect him to become the same old villain. Gabriel’s conversation has smartly set up Negan as a potential ally in the upcoming fight, albeit a wild card with his own intentions. That kind of narrative setup makes even the smallest scenes in the post-Rick world carry so much more weight.
What were the high points?
Bryan: Let’s talk about that Negan escape for a moment longer because it actually is one of my favorite things in the season. Negan has always been such a comical bad guy, capable of only extremes, that I stopped caring ages ago about what did or didn’t happen to him. But that one moment when he discovers the cell door is unlocked defines him more than a year’s worth of monologues.
The door was probably only unlocked recently, but the show doesn’t explicitly state that either way. Instead, what we have is Negan realizing that he may have turned himself into a captive for an unknown length of time because he never bothered to check the door. It calls back to the season 6 episode, “Here’s Not Here,” when Morgan had a similar revelation. In that case, it was part of Morgan’s evolution from murder machine to contemplative man of peace. And while I highly doubt that is where The Walking Dead will go with Negan, I love how the moment so quietly undermines his own sense of bravado. Yes, he does get loose and gives a knowing grin as he walks away, but I still feel like it’s also one of the only times Negan has had an actual moment of self-realization.
I also have to highlight the all-too-short storyline between Jesus and Aaron. It is a textbook example of how Kang’s Walking Dead is doing things in a more satisfying way than in previous seasons.
In the comics, Jesus and Aaron are a couple. In the show, however, we learned an episode ago that they have established some sort of private backchannel communication between their two communities. It’s unclear whether they’re just friends or if there’s a romantic component to their relationship — it could really play as either — but it ends up not really mattering because late in “Evolution,” Jesus is stabbed by one of the Whisperers.
So what we have is a storyline from the comics that is partially adapted by the show in a way that lets comic viewers think they know where things are going, only to have the rug pulled out, giving Jesus’ death more impact. And for everybody else watching the show, it simply plays as a relationship cut tragically short.
There are no games played. No cliffhangers. No nudging-and-winking with marketing materials. The show simply lets the relationship, characters, and events speak for themselves. It’s brutally effective, and it demonstrates a level of restraint I haven’t seen from the show in quite some time. I’ll admit it’s a little odd to include this as a high point, given how legitimately upset I was by Jesus’ death, but that’s also the exact reason I’m including it. The Walking Dead has trained audiences to care about nothing and take nothing seriously. And yet here, almost as a grace note, the show delivers an emotional hit that cannot be denied, as if it wants to let us know what it can do. I watch TV shows to feel something, and this death did just that.
Nick: This is a good opportunity to talk about what I think is one of the best improvements this season: the handling of elements from the Robert Kirkman comics this series is loosely adapting. The Walking Dead has always charted its own course, grabbing what it needed from the source material while introducing new characters like Daryl and playing a smart game of mixing and matching storylines and plot arcs to make it all work. (Rick famously never lost his hand in the show, but poor Aaron has taken up that burden in his absence.) But with the fake Glenn death scene and the eventual introduction of Negan, it felt like the show was becoming far too beholden to its source material. AMC hung big moments from the comics over viewers’ heads as tantalizing teases, and it messed with audience expectations in ways that felt cheap or undeserved.
Season 9 feels different. It’s not just that we’ve said farewell to Rick, Carl, and Maggie, all of whom are still major players in the comics. It’s more that the show now uses its source material in a more seamless way, much like how the show handled big comic arcs in seasons 3, 4, and 5. Why is so much attention being paid to Henry? He’s taking up Carl’s role from the comics. What about Negan’s escape from the jail cell? It’s a major moment in his story arc. The villains who disguise themselves as walkers? That’s the next big comic book saga.
I agree that the handling of the Whisperers, those chatty walkers who seem to have mystical control over large zombie herds, is really well done. It’s a clear departure from how former showrunner Scott Gimple played the Saviors arc. It feels more organic, better written, and less gimmicky. There haven’t been any time-wasting filler episodes dedicated to making the audience believe the zombies were evolving. That becomes a throwaway suggestion from a scared Eugene in “Evolution,” with the group grasping for explanations as to how they’re being followed by seemingly intelligent walkers. Instead, we get a powerful payoff in the form of Jesus’ surprise stabbing, and the immediate reveal of the Whisperers as a profound, cultish threat that the characters now face.
What were the low points?
Bryan: It’s so satisfying that they made goofy Eugene, blathering out of panic and fear, the person to float the talking walkers theory. It’s almost as if the show is mocking itself for hewing too closely to the comics before as a way to distance itself from the tactic.
That said, this wasn’t a clean sweep of reimagined episodes. It feels like season 9 only hit its stride in these last few episodes, and there were a lot of problems along the way. The biggest low point for me is still the Rick Grimes Death Fake-Out™. It was so gleeful, so disrespectful to its audience, so unapologetically cheap that I still can’t believe the show went down that route. And it only diminished any interest I would possibly have in the new Rick Grimes movies. It’s sad to say, but the way the whole scenario was executed turned Rick into the symbol for all the show’s bad tendencies, whereas the new characters and new conflicts represent the way forward. What about you? What stands out the most, as you’re looking back at everything?
Nick: I’m still on the fence about the handling of Rick. I’ve come around to agreeing that it did feel too much like a cheap trick to warrant all the time, effort, and marketing put into making us think he really was going to die. At first, I recognized it as a well-executed trick, one that acknowledges that, at least on a show like this, you can throw the audience a bone (few fans seemed to really want Rick to die) and get away with playing fast and loose with expectations, so long as you reward the audience later on. Whether the trilogy of Rick movies do that, or whether he’s brought back into the show in some way down the line, remains to be seen. And as much I would love to see Rick make a cameo next season or to reveal to the other characters that he’s still alive, perhaps it’s better for the show to move on.
Honestly, what I take the most issue with this season is the handling of Lauren Cohan’s departure. Not only did the show make her the person most singularly responsible for Rick’s sacrifice at the bridge in a contrived way, but they also wrote her out of the show offscreen, using the time-skip to conveniently gloss over the events leading to Maggie’s departure. It feels unfair. I admittedly don’t know the behind-the-scenes workings at AMC that may have resulted in Cohan not shooting more than five episodes this season. Still, I’m desperately hoping we get at least some clarity around that situation, and that Maggie doesn’t just fade away after the long-simmering feud between the Hilltop members and Michonne is exhausted as a plot device.
What do you want to see next?
Nick: My biggest hope for the second half of season 9 is that it doesn’t take its time and drag out the next big conflict. I’m honestly surprised we got a Whisperers reveal so quickly this season, and it has me genuinely excited about how much action and plot mileage the writers can get out of the remaining eight episodes. I’ve long been a huge critic of The Walking Dead’s 16-episode seasons. They’re simply too long and too stuffed with filler to not drag down the show’s quality.
In the Saviors saga, the 32-episode focus on Negan was excruciating, and knowing the season length is historically a product of the show’s massive ratings made it even less defensible since those ratings have plummeted. So hopefully the show will keep up the newly brisk pace it’s established over the last three episodes. I’d also love to see an introduction of the Whisperers as a formal antagonist sooner rather than later, especially since their leader in the comics is one of the series’s all-time best villains.
On the other hand, and I know this is me coming off as contradictory, I would like to see some type of exploration of what happened in the six years between the bridge explosion when Rick “died” and where we are now. AMC has been hinting in social media replies and forum posts that viewers are going to learn about Daryl and Michonne’s mysterious “X” scars, and I think it’s an invaluable and creatively imperative bit of narrative the show needs to explore to help all of these character conflicts come to a meaningful resolution, if that’s going to happen before the communities unify to fight the Whisperers. How Maggie plays into those flashbacks will be interesting, too.
And last but not least, I want to see more Negan. His character was readymade to be an antihero. The moment he stops being the boogeyman in the jail cell and starts to become a vital player in the main ensemble could be hugely gratifying for his character and for viewers who suffered his shallow antics as a villain.
Bryan: I’m not familiar with the comics, so I don’t have a specific wish list of story arcs. I’m just looking forward to learning more about the creative approach this revamped Walking Dead takes. How does a big arc like the Whisperers play out when the show is executing these storylines with such efficiency? What new emotional territory can these characters explore that they’ve never been allowed to before? What does Negan look like in this context, and how does his character change and evolve? (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but yes… I’m excited about Negan, too.)
And plenty of hooks have been dropped in these last few episodes that I’m eager to learn more about: Daryl and Michonne’s scars, what happened to these communities to make them so resistant to collaboration, and how the show uses the threat of the Whisperers to unify them.
I’m also excited to see what happens to Henry and his new possible romantic interest. The Walking Dead used to be really interested in the impact of the extraordinary on the ordinary machinations of life, and for me, that was the show’s most compelling aspect. It hasn’t been focused in that direction for quite some time, but if it goes back to those basics, it stands a chance of overcoming not just this series’s malaise, but the same-old-same-old sensation that now surrounds zombies in general. The post-apocalypse as a story trend has come and gone and come again, but stories with relatable themes and characters are always fresh and appealing. Maybe this new Walking Dead can find them.