AMC has just executed a lethal head shot on the first half of the network’s ninth — NINTH! — season of TV’s first and most successful zombie drama (Zomba? Drombie?) and unfortunately things continue to smell a little off.
The Walking Dead’s ninth season begins a year and a half after the defeat of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as series protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads an effort among the communities to cooperate and “restart society” as his late son Carl had wanted.
However, scant resources, residual loyalty to Negan by some of the Saviors, as well as an intense hatred directed back at Negan and his sympathizers by some members of the other communities – Maggie (Lauren Cohan) in particular – continue to make mending proverbial fences nearly impossible.
Moreover, after a storm damages a strategically important bridge, some literal mending must take place, but the tensions between groups make an already arduous task much more difficult. When things inevitably boil over and a riot ensues, the resultant noise draws an enormous herd of walkers toward an important camp near the bridge.
Meanwhile, we see Anne (Pollyanna McIntosh) communicating via walkie-talkie with a mysterious man in a helicopter with whom she’s apparently been trading people for supplies. After Rick is badly wounded trying to lead the walker herd away, he decides to sacrifice himself (during what was marketed as “Rick Grimes’ last episode”) by blowing up the bridge and the giant herd of flesh-eating bastards with it to spare the others the onslaught of the ravenous horde. However, Rick somehow survives the blast and is rescued by Anne and the aforementioned Mystery Pilot and whisked away through the air to Parts Unknown.
Next, we jump ahead six years into the future for the final three episodes where/when things have gotten really weird…like Walkers-Can-Talk sort of weird!
These episodes attempt to lay out the show’s trajectory post-Rick, but the unfortunate reasons for the writing room’s impulse to execute a time-jump in the first place and the Hail Mary of actually doing it are too difficult to overcome in a way that doesn’t at the very least take some of the luster off this whole operation. We’ll get back to that….
In the future, things are admittedly interesting: Carol (Melissa McBride) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) are a couple and they’re raising a teenaged Henry (Matt Lintz). Judith (Cailey Fleming) is some sort of badass amalgamation of Rick, Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carl, and even Shane (Jon Bernthal). And Maggie has left Hilltop under mysterious circumstances (well, she left for another show on another network, actually, but more on that later, too).
It all culminates in a midseason finale that features a weird amount of teenaged Henry, who could alternately be named Horny or perhaps Dummy, in a subplot that establishes him as the new and plot-friendlier Carl who will, in a single episode, do all the stupid teenager-shit that Chandler Riggs’s young Mr. Grimes wasn’t allowed to do during nearly eight full seasons of television that included all kinds of awkward onscreen puberty as well as the mildly ameliorating development of some pretty impressive acting chops along the way. Poor guy. But I digress.
The dilemma at hand is that Eugene (Josh McDermitt) is trapped outside the walls by one of the more talkative walkers and his many dead buddies. Daryl (Norman Reedus), Jesus (Tom Payne), and Aaron (Ross Marquand) have joined forces once again to rescue him. It’s like they got the proverbial band back together, but with a lot more zombies and sadness. Eventually, they find Eugene, but they become surrounded and we lose one of them along the way, as is expected during these finale episodes.
In the melee, our heroes manage to kill the walker who was flappin’ his yap and it turns out it was…SOME GUY WEARING A WALKER FACE, SURPRISE!!!
What’s clear is that The Walking Dead unfortunately continues its alarming slide toward relative irrelevance by way of paltry ratings. The cynically devised and carefully worded “Rick Grimes’ last episode” provided a modest episode-long bump in viewership, but post-Rick, TWD’s audience has fallen off a cliff.
This season has suffered from some of the same issues that have plagued the series over the past few years, namely the fact that the characters have grown static and as a result nothing much happens. It’s the television equivalent of running on a treadmill as our heroes continue to vacillate between standing up for themselves and not, depending on what’s expedient for the plot any given episode.
There are a few new problems too. This season’s new showrunner Angela Kang is super talented and ready to helm something big, but she’s also been handed an untenable situation. Nonetheless, she’s made an honest attempt to reset the table and solve these old maladies while simultaneously being forced to write our protagonist off the show. Unfortunately, she did it by arbitrarily jumping ahead six years where, of course, all our characters find themselves in much different circumstances. And just like that – presto! — each character has been beamed a significant time and distance toward the resolution of their respective character arcs.
The HUGE problem with that, of course, is that we’ve been made to watch these characters devolve into stagnant plot devices for three long seasons and when someone finally decides to get back to moving things along, it all occurs entirely off screen! That’s an egregious storytelling error that audiences should, and apparently do, resent. It feels lazy. At best it’s the path of least resistance. Either way, it smacks of desperation.
We’ve been with these characters for nearly a decade of nonstop peril and violence and now we’re expected to accept that after six additional years of chaos that we’re not privy to, everyone is just fine. It’s business as usual aside from some barely perceptible tweaks to our favorite characters’ haircuts. We shouldn’t have sweated the events of these past eight seasons so hard, I guess. Not only that, but Rick Grimes is alive and well, somewhere, yet he remains estranged from his family. That doesn’t ring true at all. In fact, it continues the disappointing trend of this series undermining years of its own well-written characterization for the sake of short-term plot conveniences.
Frankly, it’s a mess. The showrunner knows it and so do other prominent members of the production. This series has been an unprecedented cash cow for a lot of people. That’s why the attempts to save it, again, all smack of desperation and will likely only serve to prolong the inevitable as a few more dollars are squeezed out of what was once an exciting, thriving TV series – one about zombies of all things!
Don’t take my word for it. There’s an undeniable problem when top-billed cast members are jumping ship. Not only did Andrew Lincoln break out the tried and true excuse used by dirty politicians and CEOs since time immemorial – he wants to spend more time with his family – but Lauren Cohan has also left the show, as she’s slated to star in a new series called Whiskey Cavalier over on ABC. And we didn’t even get a “Maggie Greene’s last episode” out of the deal.
The bottom line is that The Walking Dead is Rick Grimes’s show, just like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid belongs to Butch Cassidy, Thelma and Louise is Thelma’s story, and Lethal Weapon is the Martin Riggs show. Now that Rick has been relegated to whatever movie-deal/coup de grâce AMC has planned (Andrew Lincoln will play Rick in three TWD movies AMC has in the works before riding off into the sunset for good), this series needs to figure out a way to execute a graceful curtain call.
Here’s a glimmer of hope: Not everything so far this season has been a disaster. Despite that this show is a big-picture style narrative, there are a few well-executed individual episodes and the midseason finale is the first episode in several seasons that’s legitimately and purposely scary. More of that please!
Thus far, the true saving grace – if there is such a thing — has been the new character Luke played very likably by Dan Fogler and the fact that Daryl has a dog and its name is Dog.
For better or for worse, bring on the next eight episodes….
Midterm Grade: C-