This review is spoiler-free.
9.1 A New Beginning
We’ve been here before: The Walking Dead is back, promising a new beginning and a shift in the status quo in the aftermath of a big conflict that left the characters’ lives forever altered. Rick Grimes and his cast of friends have settled into their new lives and are rebuilding the communities they worked so hard to protect from their enemies. The new world, which has been on its way for at least five seasons, has finally arrived and all of its inhabitants are at peace. Right?
It’s impossible to escape how painfully paint-by-the-numbers The Walking Dead season nine opener, A New Beginning, feels at times, as if going down a checklist of the show’s most tired tropes. But the premiere commits an even greater sin than that: it’s kind of boring. The extended episode (which The Walking Dead should never do) never really builds any momentum. Only after introducing its version of a redshirt does the episode kind of get going, but even then, the drama feels unearned.
A New Beginning is less a fresh start and more a reminder of the problems that have plagued the show for the last few years. After nine seasons, how much can The Walking Dead actually change? Every season since at least the sixth has consisted of trickle-down storytelling, a slow slog until the next major character death. Yes, there have been some highlights along the way, moments that have partially redeemed the show, but The Walking Dead always inevitably falls back into the same exact rhythm as before, and the clock begins again.
That clock is louder than ever this season as we prepare to say goodbye to Rick Grimes and Maggie Rhee, both of whom will exit the show by midseason. While we don’t know that Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan’s characters are necessarily doomed to a gruesome fate, we do know that they only have weeks left in their respective roles. That most of the worthwhile drama in the episode revolves around Rick and Maggie doesn’t exactly inspire hope. What will be left to watch after they’re both gone? Why does this show even matter anymore?
At the very least, A New Beginning tries to address the elephant in the room, making the case for Daryl and Carol as successors to Rick and Maggie. While the show is up to its usual tricks with broody Daryl, who continues to struggle with his place in a civilised society, the premiere does a fine job of giving Carol (still my favourite Walking Dead character) her first interesting bit of material since season six. She’s settled back into a life surrounded by her friends and has even taken up a new role within the communities that should excite fans. At one point, Carol finds herself in an unexpected predicament and Melissa McBride plays the scene with nuance and surprising comedic timing. Needless to say, Carol is definitely a highlight of the episode.
Danai Gurira, fresh off the Marvel wagon, gets the most screen time she’s had in at least a season, but most of it involves Michonne supporting Rick and building him up as the de facto leader of a small nation-state of survivors. Michonne acts more as a political advisor to Rick, although it’s already clear she’s capable of leading. Hopefully, that’s the direction the show will take with the character after so much time spent on the sideline.
Cohan is better than ever as Maggie, who has embraced her role as the Hilltop’s leader. No longer content with being Rick’s follower, Maggie is cunning and at one point even challenges Rick’s decision-making. It’s a tense moment that sets the stage for a potential conflict between the two leaders. We know that trouble is already brewing between Alexandria and the Hilltop after Rick spared Negan in the season eight finale and the premiere is happy to stir the pot a bit more.
The Maggie-centric portion of A New Beginning also delivers the most significant moment of the episode, which doesn’t quite pack a punch but at least ties up a loose end from last season. Along the way, the characters have an all-too-brief adventure in Washington D.C., as a postapocalyptic Capitol Building looms in the background, a stark reminder of what’s been lost but could be regained again. The scenes are a nice teaser for potential future zombie shenanigans in the capital, but it’s a real bummer that we don’t spend more time there.
In general, the interesting moments are few and far between in the season nine premiere, which offered new showrunner Angela Kang, who’s written some of my favourite episodes of the series, a bit of a blank slate but ultimately feels like more of the same. My only hope is that A New Beginning is not a sign of things to come.
The Walking Dead season 9 starts on Sunday the 7th of October on AMC in the US and on Monday the 8th of October on FOX in the UK.