The Walking Dead has suffered in recent seasons. The characters have suffered, fans have suffered, but most notably, the ratings have suffered. Season 9 wants to change that, shifting the series away from the perpetual bleakness that saw so many tuning out, and injecting The Walking Dead with a little bit of hope for these dark times.
In its season 9 premiere, 'A New Beginning' - written by newly appointed showrunner, Angela Kang, directed by Greg Nicotero - that message of hope and the potential for future prosperity is apparent from the very start. It's been roughly two years since the war, and in that time, Alexandria has rebuilt, the Hilltop and Kingdom continue to prosper, and the Sanctuary - having surrendered following Negan's defeat - is growing into a stable, more egalitarian community. The survivors have started down the road towards civilization - but it's a long road with its own obstacles, ones that can't always be solved with a bullet or a blade.
When Kang took over as showrunner of The Walking Dead for season 9, she promised a "fresh look and feel" for the series and a stronger focus on the "core character relationships." Thus far, with the premiere, season 9 seems to be delivering on that promise, kicking off the new season with an episode that finds interesting ways to create tense moments, but also makes room for those quiet, one-on-one scenes between our favorite characters.
The early scenes of 'A New Beginning' see Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Maggie (Lauren Cohen), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride) and most of the core cast travel to Washington, D.C. in search of the materials necessary to build the civilization they're striving for. Specifically, the group visits a museum and collects farming equipment, tools, and heirloom seeds that they can use to sustain their growing agricultural endeavors. As Rick later explains: "We're looking to the past to help us with the future."
The trip itself is a different, more forward-thinking approach to The Walking Dead's usual scavenging missions, but it's how the scenario is used to create a couple of intense moments that is most refreshing. For some time now, the zombies haven't felt as threatening or overwhelming as they really should, but as the survivors slowly and quietly creep through a derelict and deserted museum, it's impossible not to feel the very real danger the dead still pose. It's another page taken out of The Walking Dead's past, only here, these gripping moments are presented in an inventive manner that helps them avoid feeling stale.
There's also a real effort to include a little more humor into this season opener. Which isn't at all to say the episode strives to be comedic, but there are certainly a fair number of one-liners and funny exchanges that give the episode a lighter touch. Again, season 9 wants to shake off that cloud of doom and gloom which hung over previous seasons (at least for a little while), and laughing - even in the face of danger - is a good way to go about it.
Of course, being The Walking Dead, every success comes at a cost and their trip to D.C. is no different. This blow to their morale works to highlight the already existing tensions between communities as well as the people within those communities - whether it's Maggie and the residents of the Hilltop, or Daryl and those looking to him for guidance at the Sanctuary. These may be peaceful times, but for many it's an uneasy alliance, and hostilities are still simmering just beneath the surface.
Discussing how they feel about the current situation as well as what the future may hold is what comprises many of the heart-to-hearts between the core cast. These scenes are the strongest in the premiere, allowing for the relationships that have been forged across the seasons - and often through terrible hardships - to be given the attention their due. The relatively newer characters have their moments too, but it's really those who've been around the longest that get the chance to air their grievances, their desires, and address each other's concerns. It's a nice change of pace, showing characters that actually communicate with one another - and especially after seasons that so often had people make hasty and dumb decisions without even talking to their friends and allies.
As should be expected, 'A New Beginning' leaves off on a dramatic note that will undoubtedly have repercussions as the season progresses. It's an ending that while violent and a tad disturbing, feels appropriate for the direction season 9 is taking. With major characters exiting this season, others will need to step forward to take up those positions of power. There are tough choices on the horizon, and only those willing to make them will be left standing long enough face what comes after. It won't be an easy transition, but it's a necessary one - and seeing as AMC wants to grow The Walking Dead franchise into an ever larger shared universe, a savvy business decision to boot.
The Walking Dead season 9 premiere feels like the fresh start the series so desperately needs, trading grim wartime for a more peaceful period of growth and reflection. Then again, season 8 also had a strong opener that quickly led to episodes where the narrative stalled or became almost nonsensical, so one strong episode isn't necessarily enough to right the course of a whole season. Still, for the first time in a long time, The Walking Dead may actually have something of a bright future ahead of it.
The Walking Dead season 9 premieres October 7th at 9:00pm/8c on AMC.