In a relationship, when one partner loses interest, the other can resort to acts of desperation. They might shut their eyes and squeeze harder, willing their partner to stay—in the process, cementing the other’s desire to get the hell out. So it went with The Walking Dead Season 8, in which Rick and Negan’s dick-swinging contest (Negan’s phallus-obsessed phrasing, not mine) devolved into “all-out war.” Or so I’d heard. Like an increasingly fatigued contingent of Walking Dead viewers, I’d gotten the seven-year itch. I needed space. The show and I, together since our perfect first outing on Halloween in 2010, went on a season-long break.
I heard things, in passing, from mutual friends. Something about old man Rick and a flash-forward. Another mid-season cliffhanger? Shit, Carl got bit? But I knew the show too well—the bad habits it refused to break, its inane ideas and often superficial character work, its relentless nihilism. That and the bleakness of real American life in the first year of Trump’s presidency made the show’s pleas from afar—“tune in to watch this child die!”—less than enticing.
But call it nostalgia, loneliness, or the petty temptation to tune in to a society somehow more dysfunctional than ours: In a moment of weakness in the off-season, I binged.
And, OK, Season 8 is largely a disaster. I expected that. But wedged under the rot, I found bits of pure gold, too. Have you ever seen a bunch of zombies roll helplessly down a hill? It is hilarious. Or watched a guy get axed clean in half, bone and organs and all? It’s a gore-lover’s thrill. The show can be funny, even self-aware sometimes. Narrative wheels still spin uselessly for too long at a time. But Carl’s death, more than any character’s in years, was actually pulled off beautifully. More than that, it mattered! It directly impacted what the show looks like now, challenging it to entertain new ideas. To change. This show has burned me before, and it may not follow through again. But like a sucker in love, I’m giving it another chance.
Rather than spin a thousand more conflicts from staid moral quandaries (“us vs. them” and “kill or be killed,” the foundations of nearly every season arc since Woodbury), Season 9, which premiered Sunday, finds Rick trying something new: to forgive his enemies and live beside them. The Sanctuary, the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and Alexandria (plus Jadis and the women of Oceanside) now exist in uneasy harmony. Bands of allies scavenge the museums of Washington, D.C.—the starkest, most exciting visual departure from the show’s rural aesthetic since Season 5’s jaunt through Atlanta—for tools to restart a society: a plow, a canoe, a wagon. Food is stretched thin, but crops are growing. Some ex-Saviors regard Rick as a hero; others still furtively profess loyalty to Negan. Not all is well, but there is tenuous peace.
That’s nothing radical in itself. Peace existed before at the prison, among other locales. But there are two miraculous differences in the set-up this time: one, for the first time, characters are willingly adopting some semblance of real democracy. Maggie ran against Gregory in an election—an election!—for leadership of the Hilltop, a fact she recounts to Michonne, fittingly, in America’s fallen capital. Even Rick, who has always led either by force or default, confesses the need for a written charter (he stops short at “constitution,” tellingly) to define the rules and privileges of this burgeoning society. That is huge for these people. It raises nitty-gritty questions about the politics of ruling a civilized society that require complex, nuanced decisions. Nuance! In The Walking Dead! A new world, indeed.
The second major difference between this and seasons past, however, is especially promising. Where Rick’s every attempt to rebuild has been foiled from the outside by a never-ending parade of Big Bads (Shane in Season 2 stands as the only memorable exception), this time, strife is bubbling up from within. Maggie resents Rick and Michonne for letting Negan live, and has resolved with Jesus and Daryl to make things right, by her definition. There is tantalizing potential in that conflict, the way there was between Rick and Shane—the most compelling villain the show has ever mustered, in part because he was a friend. Maggie is not a psychopath like Shane. But as her bloodlust toward Negan festers and Rick demands more sacrifices for the sake of peace with the people who helped kill her husband, a breaking point feels inevitable.
In the meantime, the show is gesturing at the thousand little human quirks that unravel functioning societies—hints of ambition, paranoia, mistrust and deep-seated resentment. We see it in Maggie, in the Saviors, in Gregory, and among civilians who don’t think they should have to live beside people who wanted them dead. That’s all great, ominous stuff, worthy of exploration in this new, Reconstruction-like era the characters live in. (The show nods to historical precedent at the museum, where Michonne gazes up at a Civil War exhibit.) But rather than let the interplay of these forces develop naturally, the episode soon overplays its hand. It’s a groaner. And for a show known for moving like molasses from one major plot point to another, weirdly out of character.
Gregory stages a goddamn coup attempt. It’s a hare-brained plot, as unfortunate in its prematurity as it is in the way it cheapens the episode’s most affecting scene. The parents of a boy slain on the mission to D.C. face Maggie with convincingly raw grief, placing the blame for his death squarely on her shoulders. It’s a moment of startling consequence that reasserts the value of a human life, especially necessary after a season of watching extras mowed down by the dozen. But the couple’s anger soon becomes just a tool for Gregory, to use in a plot seemingly concocted by Elmer Fudd. He rattles off a line as transparent as air to Maggie about someone defacing Glenn’s grave, clearly to get her to check out the area. Then she’s attacked by a masked assailant soon revealed to be the mourning husband. Ta-da. Genius. Maggie’s fine, by the way.
It’s hard to believe that Gregory, a conniving, natural-born politician gifted at sowing resentment and ingratiating himself among others, would blow his wad so soon on such a haphazard plan. It gets him executed in an Old West-style town square hanging as Rick and Michonne look on. Presumably, Maggie’s style of justice will become a sticking point between them down the line, or something. But isn’t it annoying that Gregory lived long enough to whine and wheedle and harangue incessantly through an entire bleeding war, just for this?
Still, apart from Gregory’s asinine last hurrah, “A New Beginning” lives up to its name, both for the show and its characters. Carol and Ezekiel have begun a new, endearingly squabbly romance—an especially bright glimmer of joy in a mercifully lightened-up season. And characters’ established histories are weighing more prominently on their minds and in their dialogue, making them feel a little more like real people. (Carol calls Daryl “pookie!” When’s the last time those two shared a good scene together?) The show is making an effort. And with a new showrunner (Angela Kang, who’s written many of the show’s best episodes, including one of my personal favorites), and Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan’s runs drawing to a close, its future holds more possibility than it has in years.
The Walking Dead and I may have fallen out of touch for a while, but for now, we’re back together. There are still things I hate about it. But there’s enough to love, too. Wish us luck.