So far, The Walking Dead season 9’s episode titles have been a dead giveaway for each of their segmented stories. A New Beginning was, well, a new beginning in more ways than one, The Bridge was literally all about a bridge, and this week’s episode, Warning Signs, is one giant alarm bell for the impending chaos to come. It may have taken a while for episode 3’s tension to ratchet up to noteworthy levels but, by its end, enough happens to warrant sticking with the season for more.
But let's start at the beginning, which opened up with such normality that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an episode of Neighbours. Rick wakes up, checks his crops, and returns to bed with Michonne before deciding to take the day off to spend some quality time with her and Judith. The scenes in which the happy family are subsequently playing and having fun together is affecting stuff, made all the more touching given that Rick could well be saying goodbye to his partner and child within the next two episodes.
Credit should also be given to the show’s longtime composer Bear McCreary here too. The Walking Dead has never been particularly applauded for its original soundtrack, aside from that iconic theme tune, but McCreary has been given a rare opportunity to trade despondence for joy in his new score for season 9, and the resulting melodies are really noticeable for adding that extra drop of emotional resonance to the on-screen intimacy.
We know what you’re doing, AMC, giving Rick a heartwarming yet bittersweet send-off before ripping him away from us just like you did with Carl, but damn it, it’s working. Generally speaking, in fact, our survivors haven’t had it this good since the pre-apocalypse days, so seeing everyone in such good spirits makes for weirdly refreshing viewing material, even if we know the harmony can’t last for much longer.
Beyond the character moments, Warning Signs was essentially a murder mystery, exploring the potential suspects of the recent slate of Saviour murders, but the whodunnit was hardly as clever as it thought it was. AMC seems to think it has a dystopian episode of Poirot on its hands, with all the intrigue and thrill attached, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the culprit is probably not going to be Anne, Daryl, or Maggie, whom Warning Signals devotes a great deal of time to by trying to set them up as the potential perpetrators. Daryl and Maggie’s eventual discovery of Oceanside as the Saviour slaughterers does have a degree of dramatic impact (more on that later), but the revelation of the conspirators themselves doesn’t land as the kind of shock twist that I think the showrunners were aiming for.
Instead, the subplot works better as a structuring device for season 9’s ongoing case study on post-war leadership, putting yet more pressure on the battle of ideas between Rick, Michonne, and Carol against Maggie, Daryl, and now Oceanside. The clemency versus vengeance debate is beginning to rehash itself somewhat but, by ending on such a dark note for both Maggie and Daryl, who simply walk away after coming across Oceanside’s secret executions, the theme’s implications for nuanced character development continues to impress.
According to Cyndie, Maggie’s hanging of Gregory showed her that “Rick’s rules aren’t the only rules”, impling the inevitable revolt against Mr. Grimes could go well beyond the walls of Hilltop, while Maggie’s final four words (“It’s time to see Negan”) is a foreboding setup for episode 4, as it’s very clear that no good can come from that particular prison visit.
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In other developments, we finally get to hear the voice of the mysterious helicopter’s pilot, after Anne initiates radio contact with them back at her old Heapster stomping grounds. The conversation is cryptic enough to keep their identity hidden, but we learn that the former cult leader effectively traded humans with them for supplies.
Judging from the way she distinguishes an “A” from a “B”, some of those trafficked humans may even have been picked up by the helicopter voluntarily. But Gabriel is not one of those volunteers, and is now being forcefully smuggled to the “place far from here” that we’re so desperate to learn more about.
So, to recap, we have the beginning of a mini revolt, a kidnapped priest, and a bittersweet moment of calm before the storm for Rick and his new family. While episode 3 was hurt by pockets of bloat, it also avoided being as non-eventful as previous episodes of The Walking Dead often are.
By forcing viewers to pick sides between team Rick or team Maggie, AMC has introduced a compelling dichotomy that brings to mind the early days of the show at its very best, from the Shane saga of season 2, to the Lizzie incident of season 4.
What’s more, the fact that Warning Signals featured barely any zombies at all goes to show just how much more interesting The Walking Dead is when exploring the depravities of the living as much as the dead. With an ominous shot of Daryl and Maggie headed to Alexandria closing out the episode, season 9 is set and ready to double down on that focus.
Verdict: A sub-par murder mystery kept afloat by some of the best scenes of season 9 so far, Warning Signals leaves The Walking Dead in a strong place for next week.