Who’d have thought that The Walking Dead season 9’s wildest, most surprising episode isn’t the one where Rick Grimes leaves, but its twisty turny follow up, Who Are You Now? That title is a pertinent question for The Walking Dead, which must now redefine itself in the void where Andrew Lincoln once stood but, if episode 6 is any inclination of its retconned identity, I’m already on board. But where to begin? That six year time jump teased at the end of The Walking Dead season 9 episode 5 means everything’s changed, and not just the haircuts.
Michonne is not only head of security to a thriving Alexandria but mother to both Judith Grimes and the newly introduced infant R.J. (Rick Junior?), Carol is Queen of The Kingdom (Caroleesi!) with her nuclear family of Ezekiel and a teenage Henry (now known as “The Prince”, and 25% less annoying than his younger self), Daryl is a wandering hermit living alone and catching raw fish like a bipedal Gollum, a happier, less villainous Negan is still in prison and bonding with Judith over math homework, all three communities seem to be angry with each other over some undisclosed horror story, the Saviours are almost entirely dead, the Whisperers appear in the creepiest episode ending since Rick shot Sophia in the head, and, in possibly the most WTF moment of them all, Gabriel and Rosita (yes, that Gabriel and that Rosita) are together now. Aaand, exhale.
While we’re yet to see whether any of these plot threads will inspire The Walking Dead to cough up better viewing material, this kind of ambitious, purposeful storytelling where things actually happen is exactly what we’ve been asking from the show for years, and I’m mightily impressed by all the surprises AMC has laid out on the table so far.
The six year hop has given season 9’s writers an opportunity to explore both sides of the timeline, foreboding future threats from the Whisperers while dripping out information on the mysterious gaps from the past that viewers are now wondering about. It’s a potent cocktail of mystery, horror, and unexpected character development that gives the show room to grow and evolve in interesting ways, compared to previous season arcs that felt like they were stuck on repeat for 16 episodes straight.
There’s so much to talk about, in fact, that I really can’t go into everything in detail within a single review, but suffice to say that all the big highlights are welcome, well executed notes of pathos amidst a handful of less engaging scenes of exposition and action. Let’s start with the new survivors Judith saved at the end of episode 5. Having lost quite a few characters since the beginning of The Walking Dead season 8, the show was in need of some fresh faces to the roster, and so far, this foursome seem like an amiable lot.
I’m particularly taken to Dan Fogler’s Luke and the ASL-communicating sisters Connie and Kelly, whose affable innocence bounces off well against the battle hardened world weariness of Alexandria’s council (yes, there’s a council now). Michonne’s decision to take them to Hilltop also sets up a notable continuation point for episode 7, as this will hopefully shed light on what’s happened to Maggie now that Lauren Cohen has left. Michonne makes reference to a female leader who may be willing to take them under her wing but, for all we know, that could be a fully grown Enid by now.
So we haven’t yet seen how Hilltop is doing six years down the line, but we do get a better look at The Kingdom, which brings us to Carol, and that scene with the last contingent of The Saviours. While I’m glad season 9 won’t be turning Jed into a major villain (though his macabre idea to use Walkers as makeshift horses is a nice splash of black comedy), and it’s great to see The Walking Dead close the curtain on the pathetic last remnants of the Saviours once and for all, watching Carol set the entire group on fire just because they stole her wedding ring was… well, talk about overkill.
We know the boss lady is more than capable of cold-blooded murder, but this feels out of character for someone who’s been trying to stay on the high road since season 8. If the Queen of The Kingdom is so comfortable lighting up dozens of survivors in their sleep, someone might have to prompt to look at the flowers like she did with Lizzie. She, too, is heading to Hilltop with Henry, alongside a hitchhiking Daryl, which sets up a nice little reunion between several OG characters for episode 7.
And then there’s the Whisperers. The iconic comic book baddies are introduced rather cleverly in Who Are You Now?, first hinted at when Eugene questions how a local herd pivoted from its main course so quickly, before being horrifically confirmed when a eerie, hoarse whisper emerges from the horde itself; “Don’t let them get away”.
Yeesh. For fans of the comics, this moment has been a long time coming but, for those unfamiliar with the Walker-dwelling group, get ready for your skin to start crawling in a whole new way. After the shallow villainy of Negan, The Walking Dead is ready for an element as freakish and unpredictable as The Whisperers, and I’m excited to see how AMC translates their comic book story arc to the small screen.
Last week, I was left wondering if Rick Grimes’ exit would be the final nail in the coffin for The Walking Dead, and whether the show could survive without his magnetic presence. Truth is, I had barely noticed Rick was gone by the end credits of episode 6, as everything else in his place was so boldly executed and powerfully performed. It’s almost inevitable that The Walking Dead season 9 may regress into the familiarity of monotony over time, but the fact that it’s no longer playing it so safe and slow makes Who Are You Now? yet another highlight of the show so far.
Verdict: A non-stop slew of small surprises and big twists makes Who Are You Now? a worthy follow up to Rick’s final episode.