The Walking Dead S9.01 review: "This is something different. Something new. Something better"

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A New Beginning. It has a certain allure to it, don’t you think? Along with that self-aware title, a revamped credits sequence, and a host of other visual changes, The Walking Dead season 9’s premiere episode (for which there are major story spoilers beyond this point) is making a very clear statement. This isn’t The Walking Dead you know of recent years. This is something different. Something new. Something better. And, after all the empty warring of The Walking Dead season 8, it’s been a long time coming. 

18 months have passed since Negan’s defeat in The Walking Dead season 8 ending, but don’t expect A New Beginning to fill in the details of everything that’s happened in-between. The episode doesn’t even relay the fact that there’s been a time jump at all but, in a new first for the show, rightly assumes the audience is smart enough to work it out for themselves. Eugene and Jadis (who now goes by Anne) are rehabilitated members of team Rick. Judith is walking and talking. Even Maggie’s had her baby (it only took three seasons)!

But despite the post-war peacetime, the wounds left by last season’s bloody conflict have yet to completely heal over. There’s a palpable, unspoken tension not just between the Saviours and their new masters, but amongst Rick, Maggie, Daryl, and others who still disagree on the values and conduct that should shape a recovering society. It’s here where A New Beginning deals in the kind of ambiguous shades of grey that The Walking Dead hasn’t effectively evoked since season 4. 

Indeed, there’s a generally more composed serenity to season 9’s hour-long premiere, which can only be attributed to the work of Angela Kang, The Walking Dead’s new showrunner, who’s also behind this week’s script as episode 1’s lead writer. Where previous episodes would often fall on either side of laughable melodrama or nonplussed monotony, this one calmly walks the line between, with moderately paced substories, which still manage to hold our attention through strong atmosphere and relatable dialogue. 

That’s in big part thanks to the total absence of Negan, who doesn’t get a single minute of screen time this episode, with the show all the better for it. His braggadocious machismo and incessant deployment of dink jokes were already vexing in season 8, but they would have completely undermined the maturer tone manifested here. That said, the fact that Negan’s tacitly referred to throughout the episode almost makes him scarier than he’s even been before, like a looming, unseen presence still casting a corruptive shadow upon his former victims. I’m sure it won’t be long until we see Jeffrey Dean Morgan monologuing from his prison cell like a Shakespearean villain again, but I’m happy for AMC to keep him at bay for as long as possible in the meantime. 

With Negan out of the picture, A New Beginning takes the time to enjoy some heartwarming and, dare I say it, happy moments shared between Carol and Ezekiel (props to The King for what must be the most casual proposal in zombie apocalypse history), Rick and Michonne, and everyone’s favourite platonic couple, Daryl and Carol. After a whole season of fighting, war talk, and bloodshed, it’s nice to see these characters just hanging out with each other, enjoying what they can of the precarious peace, and acting like normal, relatable people again. 

That said, Hilltop, The Kingdom, and Alexandria are hardly one big, happy family, but more like separate body-politics with their own way of life and governing values. You can see it in the way Rick tries to negotiate a trade deal with Maggie not as friends on the same team, but as two leaders of separate tribes. We also learn that Maggie hasn’t even visited Alexandria since the war’s end, which tells you all you need to know about whether she’s still angry over Rick’s decision to keep Negan alive.

To add extra pressure to the cooker, A New Beginning’s second half focuses on the internal divisions bubbling within Hilltop, after its revealed that Gregory officially lost leadership of the community to Maggie in a landslide election. Like a poor man's Littlefinger, the deposed ruler elaborates an assassination attempt on Maggie that goes about as well as you’d expect, and Hilltop’s hardened leader decides to return the kindness with a good ol’ fashioned hanging. It’s a satisfying and powerful death to end the episode with, not just because the character had outrun his usefulness to the show, but because you feel like a part of Maggie is dying at the gallows along with Gregory himself. 

Of course, he wasn’t the only one to get the chop in A New Beginning. How could we forget about Kim, the character introduced and killed off within a couple of minutes during the gang’s trip back from Washington? Yep, it happened again. Despite the soft reboot, it’s disappointing to see The Walking Dead still leaning on the same bag of cheap tricks for eliciting a hollow sense of emotional impact, made even worse by the fact that Kim’s death could have totally been avoided had he taken a split second to think before acting (dumb character deaths being another classic Walking Dead trope to have survived season 9’s creative refresh). 

Another moot point is the “new” location of Washington D.C., which only features for about 15 minutes before Rick and co get what they need and take off back to Georgia, presumably to never return. While I appreciate a more cinematic season opener, a larger role for the new location could have really emphasised season 9’s fresh direction, and AMC’s heavy promotion of the capitol across its recent slate of trailers and posters now feels somewhat misleading. Instead, D.C. is reduced to a brief cameo, albeit one with some nice scares, tension, and thrills to kick off the season with. 

Kim’s death and Washington’s blink and you’ll miss it appearance, however, were two sour notes in an otherwise pleasurable medley of Walking Dead storytelling, which bodes well not just for season 9, but for the future of the show at large. If there really is another decade of The Walking Dead to come (which, full disclosure, is something I strongly disagree with), A New Beginning at least suggests that AMC is finally starting to understand what a good zombie show can look like.

Verdict: A New Beginning is exactly what is says it is, marking a confident start for what promises to be a renaissance season for The Walking Dead.