With Angela Kang having replaced Scott Gimple as Showrunner, and Andrew Lincoln‘s much-publicised exit imminent, Season 9 of The Walking Dead is entering a new era, and a shift of focus was immediately apparent in this year’s opening episode.
Set eighteen months after the end of the war, “A New Beginning” depicted a more harmonious way of life, with the various communities striving to establish a civilised society with agriculture, laws, and infrastructure. With Maggie running Hilltop, having won an election and given birth to baby Hershel in the interim, Michonne was also leaning into motherhood, taking care of (the now very vocal) Judith and looking out for Alexandria with Rick. Carol and Ezekiel had taken their relationship to a new level at The Kingdom, although Carol was still resisting making it official despite Zeke’s best efforts to put a ring on her finger. And Eugene and Daryl were in charge of The Sanctuary, leading Negan’s people following his defeat and incarceration. But while there was a glimmer of hope for the future, there was also the inevitable tensions and terrors inherent to post-apocalypse life, and whispers of dissent and treachery from various quarters of this brave new world…
The ever-present threat from the undead was made apparent from the outset when an attempt to liberate a wagon and some blacksmith’s machinery from the Smithsonian resulted in Ezekiel nearly becoming zombie chow. There were some nice touches in these scenes, particularly the reminders of a time when art and culture would have been an everyday part of the survivors’ lives, and the darkly comic visual of Gabe skewering a walker against The March of Progress (although this gag didn’t need the explanatory dialogue between Gabriel and Anne.) The Capitol Building not only served to reinforce the notion of everything that has been lost, but also teased a brighter future.
But while things had clearly progressed in some ways since Maggie was handed blueprints by the mysterious Georgie, and Negan was neutralised, the cracks were definitely showing. This episode was probably the first time the problem of dwindling resources has been explicitly addressed. But as Daryl made clear to Rick, it’s not only the lack of crops at The Sanctuary which is a potential powder keg, but the lack of fuel, medicine, and the last vestiges of mod cons. The fact that the bridge between Alexandria is crumbling, making transportation between the two sites increasingly difficult is clearly a metaphor for the growing divide between Rick and Maggie, which was palpable in this episode. While Rick and Carol seemed intent on preserving the fragile peace, Maggie was becoming resentful of providing food to The Saviors, and Daryl felt the burden of ruling a group who’d once been sworn enemies, and some of whom were actively stirring pro-Negan rebellion. I suspect Daryl’s wistful longing for a simpler time when the action centered on a small band of survivors out on the road, echoed the feeling of a lot of TWD fans who yearn for a return to the glory days of the show.
The pivotal moment of this episode hinged on the death of a young Hilltopper called Ken, who died after the Smithsonian looters were ambushed by walkers on the way back from Washington. Sweet-natured Ken was bitten trying to rescue some horses, and although we’d never met his character until this point, his demise proved to be the inciting incident which lead to Gregory’s attempt on Maggie’s life. Gregory, still smarting from Maggie beating him in the vote to lead Hilltop, managed to manipulate Ken’s grieving father into a drunken assassination attempt on his rival, a plan which predictably failed and resulted in Maggie deciding enough was enough. After several seasons of his machinations and schemes, Gregory finally met an ignominious end, dangling from a rope.
“A New Beginning” certainly looked different to anything we’ve seen over the last few seasons, and overall it felt like a step in the right direction. The dialogue was better, and we spent more time with the characters we care about. Daryl was given more to do in this one episode than in the entirety of last season. References to the past made the show feel rooted in its history in a way it hasn’t for a long time, and the politics of peace time made for more subtle and nuanced conflict than the relentless slaughter we’ve been subjected to for the last two years. However, in all honestly, as far as season premieres go, this was a little dull, and didn’t manage to avoid all the mistakes which have plagued the latter seasons and seen ratings plummet. Ezekiel’s jeopardy was as a result of sheer, contrived stupidity, and introducing a new character only to kill them immediately to drive a plot forward felt lazy. Let’s hope The Walking Dead can build on the promising foundations laid here, and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Final Grade: C
+ Carol and Daryl’s heart to heart was genuinely moving.
+ The spider-infested zombie was a whole new level of gross. I’m amazed it’s taken them so long to come up with that!
+ More variety in locations gave an old-school feel, and the cinematography felt more ambitious that it’s been for a while.
– Jadis’ metamorphosis into Anne just served to highlight how ridiculous the whole Trash People thing was.
– The bloated run time made this episode lag in places.
– With tension bubbling between Maggie and Rick, it’s hard to imagine who the key players will be with the departure of these two stalwarts.
Extra Thought: How pretty is the new opening title sequence?
What did you think? Was this the fresh start we all needed, or was it the beginning of the end? Sound off in the comments, or over on Twitter!