“This is gonna work,” Maggie beams during The Walking Dead season 9 detour to a museum just outside Washington D.C. She’s not far wrong. The days of Rick Grimes as the moral (and sometimes not so moral) centre of the show are numbered – and the fantastic field trip of a scene during the season’s opening episode proves that the show is not only going to survive without Andrew Lincoln, it could potentially thrive. After all, who doesn’t want to see The Walking Dead return to its golden days?
The scene in question, all 11 minutes and 48 seconds of it at the beginning of The Walking Dead season 9 premiere, is a case study in just how the show should move forward without Rick. And it all starts at the beginning. Rick does something so simple, yet lays the groundwork for months, and possibly years to come for the show. He opens the door and lets everyone in first. Sure, the metaphor is heavy-handed, but the intention is clear: This is their show now – and they’re finally being given room to breathe.
Seriously. Nearly everyone gets a chance to shine here. Daryl and the de facto Oceanside leader (Cyndie, whose name I had to Google, which says a lot about the Walking Dead’s complete lack of care when it comes to secondary characters) share a scene so layered with complex meaning and fraught with emotional dialogue that to reduce it into a mere descriptive sentence here would do it a great disservice. Go and watch it. Then watch it again. It’s the best thing the show has done since Negan rocked up with Lucille in tow. It was also hard to believe it’s from the same show that brought us a 45-minute gunfight with no rhyme and reason just a season ago.
Steppin' into the spotlight
For the first time in a long time, too, Daryl begins to open up and becomes less sneering badass and more secret softie. Crucially, this is with a person he has barely looked at, let alone shared two words with prior to this. We see a crumbling Daryl, haunted by his brother and the loss of the family, including Beth, who still wants to fight on regardless.
He’s met in the middle by Cyndie’s recollection about how she and her brother used to fight over a canoe. It’s so basic, yet so grounded in what came before, that it is a considerable jolt to the system. No longer is the show overly concerned with the here and now. Instead, there is a reminder that things happened before – and the fractures still remain, and still hurt. This is something that was tossed to the wayside thanks Rick’s seasons-long battle with Negan, but now it’s back in full force.
It’s pushed to the next level, later on, in a series of almost wordless sequences involving Michonne staring at a Civil War display – and all the connotations that come with that – and Father Gabriel’s wry quip at the “intelligent design” of the (D)evolution of Man. The show, once so comfortable in serving up machismo is now coming back to what it does best – approaching serious topics in a seriously fucked up world. We’ve had religion, racism, trauma, fragile masculinity, and more… in 10 minutes. That’s genuinely impressive.
And it does it all through silence for the most part. Rick isn’t gunning people down here, nor is he getting in a dick-measuring contest with Negan in a melodramatic walkie-talkie wankfest. This, again, is simple and straightforward: these are a bunch of hurt people, just trying to survive. By getting Rick out of the picture for much of the extended sequence, almost everyone is allowed to grow as characters. This isn’t a coincidence. It helps, too, that Rick says all of 50 words throughout the entire sequence, but there’s so much more here than a main protagonist being effectively silenced.
A fresh start
For one thing, it’s also legitimately scary. The Walkers, once fearsome, flesh-eating monsters, have recently been relegated to cannon fodder. Not so here. The spider-infested walker and the thin, bloated pale flesh of a long-dead woman sends shivers down the spine. Knowing that Rick is leaving also adds an extra sense of dread to proceedings; if he can go, why can’t the Kingdom be left without a King, and we’re sat asking ourselves if Daryl could be bumped off at any moment. Each scene, which is shared essentially equally among the ensemble cast, carries the weight of that tension, and it’s all the more effective for it.
But it’s the setting that manages to stick out most here. Gone are the decaying landscapes of the South, and the dreary settings and plotlines of Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Sanctuary (at least temporarily). In its place there’s brightly-lit halls, and shadows of a former civilization. By moving towards new locations, The Walking Dead can cast off the shackles of the many, many plot contrivances that have burdened the show in the past couple of seasons. Here’s hoping this isn’t a one-off, the producers merely keen to splurge on a dramatic opening episode in the hopes of artificially manufacturing a change of pace.
As hard as it may be to stomach, The Walking Dead season 9 doesn’t need Rick to succeed. This scene, which serves as a pseudo-backdoor pilot to an Andrew Lincoln-less show, couldn’t have achieved much more in the time they were given. Roll-call: Daryl is already a better, more fully-rounded character now; Cyndie actually functions as something more than a plot convenience; Carol and Ezekiel’s relationship has been cemented, and Rick? Well, Rick almost fades into the background – which is a good thing. We’re getting ready to say goodbye, after all.
All in all, A New Beginning (a little too on-the-nose as an episode title if you ask me, but it just about works) is as about a positive of a return as you could hope for, whether you’re a jaded Walking Dead fan or otherwise. Sure, some of the other parts of the episode fell into familiar trappings, but this scene in particular dominated the opening act of the episode and, hopefully, sets the scene for what’s to come. Rick may soon be leaving, and it’ll be a sad event, but thanks to the magic of the museum scene, the prognosis for the show’s future isn’t terminal. In fact, it might just be at its most promising in a long, long time. And that’s exciting.