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‘The Walking Dead’ Is No Longer Just a Zombie Kill Fest

The AMC series’ ninth season has largely eschewed bloodshed in favor of more pragmatic matters, like managing crops and creating trade routes. But will the show’s audience stick around to see this new society grow?

AMC/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The Walking Dead franchise may no longer be at the height of its powers, but the original series and its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, have never been hesitant to blow up their premises (sometimes literally) and start anew. The problem in the past for The Walking Dead is that these changes have only really been subtle variations of the same thing. For years, Rick Grimes and his group would find a new safe haven to put down roots; something catastrophic would happen, often the result of an overdramatized human conflict; a couple of core members would be killed off; and the cycle would repeat itself. Last year, The Ringer’s Katie Baker quoted what has become a frequent refrain from agitated viewers: The series is “the world’s most boring, manipulative addiction.” (Seeing that I still watch this show, this is depressingly accurate.) No wonder viewership finally began to bleed in its seventh season.

But just as Fear the Walking Dead underwent a massive thematic overhaul in its fourth season, killing off nearly its entire original cast in the process, The Walking Dead has made some crucial, genuine changes of its own. The ninth season is the first under new showrunner Angela Kang, a writer on the series since Season 2, and as with Fear, the regime change can be felt from the opening credits. The new animated opening has some stunning shots—including dozens of crows perched on the naked branches of a barren tree which suddenly sprouts leaves as the birds flee—and even “The Walking Dead” title at the end of the sequence has some greenish moss bleeding onto the letters.

The sequence imbues a sense of rebirth and reinvigoration, which parallels what is happening on The Walking Dead in its ninth season. Instead of continuing to wallow in the fallout of a zombie apocalypse and changing locales that are destined to get destroyed, the show is (finally!) considering what it might look like to grow a long-term society in this new world, what that might entail, and the inherent struggles that come with building it from scratch.

Perhaps you’ve thought about how you’d personally fare in a zombie apocalypse, or even taken an online quiz guesstimating how long you’d survive before becoming zombie chow. (Many quizzes suggest I am going to be super dead, super fast.) How long a character might survive remains a morbid curiosity watching The Walking Dead, despite the fact the series has often eschewed any logical considerations for what that life might be like in favor of chaotic gunfights and a leather-clad villain who carries around a baseball bat and only speaks in droll monologues.

The first two episodes of Season 9, however, feel like a postapocalyptic edition of the Civilization games, and it’s a nerdy delight. Leaders like Rick, Maggie Greene, and Daryl Dixon are preparing trade routes, developing infrastructure for Alexandria, Hilltop, the Sanctuary, and Oceanside, engaging in barter, and trying to establish common laws for their respective communities. We learn Maggie is the Hilltop leader because she defeated Gregory in an actual election. Have you ever wondered how everyone on the show has been able to drive huge, gas-guzzling vehicles with nary a concern about fuel shortages? Well, even if the show can’t explain why this was never an issue in the past, we now know that corn fuel is responsible for current automotive transportation. (Most characters are now going horseback to conserve fuel, anyway.)

It’s a fascinating detail-oriented approach, and one that extends to the stuff viewers are still clamoring for: action sequences with humans pitted against the undead. In the premiere, “A New Beginning,” the big set piece is a group excursion to Washington D.C., where Rick and Co. raid a seed vault in the Natural History Museum, along with collecting some old farming supplies and a wagon, to bolster their crop efforts. Of course, not everything goes as planned—a young man named Ken is attacked by zombies on the way home when one of the wagon’s wheels gets stuck. Normally, when a relatively anonymous character is killed off, the show moves on instantly like nothing happened. But The Walking Dead lets the reverberative effects of Ken’s death have serious effects on the narrative—Gregory attempts to weaponize Ken’s parents’ grief to try and get rid of Maggie and retake his spot as Hilltop leader. The result of the Ken subplot on viewers is twofold: It shows that death will pack a bigger emotional punch this season because the societies have begun to flourish, and that The Walking Dead won’t be as carefree and callous about its bloodshed.

Obviously, everything isn’t suddenly all rainbows and butterflies—Ken isn’t the only character to die in the first two weeks, and conflict remains between the communities. Tangible hostility resonates between the surviving Saviors—the group previously led by Negan, and who were responsible for many protagonists being killed—and the other communities, which in Sunday night’s second episode, “The Bridge,” led to a few physical confrontations. A lapse in communication thanks to a Savior’s incompetence resulted in Aaron losing his arm in an accident. Plus, as the Season 9 trailer already intimated, there is an external threat looming outside of the undead with The Whisperers, a group from the comics whose members disguise themselves as zombies by wearing their skin and are generally quite terrifying.

But these conflicts haven’t yet negated The Walking Dead’s optimistic gains. The ongoing issue with the show, especially once Negan and the Saviors were introduced at the end of Season 6, was the relentless nihilism that became the series’ ethos. Instead of trying to create something, The Walking Dead gave the impression that any aspirations of a better world were hopeless. If so—and once the show devolved into torture porn with the brutal deaths of fan favorites Glenn and Abraham—what the hell would be the point of watching this stuff? The viewers, or lack thereof, responded in kind.

But as the title of Season 9’s premiere foretold, this is a new beginning in earnest. Unfortunately, the fans have yet to jump onboard with the latest shake-up: The premiere was down to 6.1 million viewers, losing nearly half of its viewership from the start of Season 8. While those numbers are strong for any cable drama in 2018, The Walking Dead’s steady decline is troubling for its future—one which will soon be without its leading man.

Carl Grimes left the show in Season 8, and now Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes will be exiting the show after six episodes of Season 9. It’s also been confirmed that Lauren Cohan’s Maggie will be gone after six episodes, though she told Entertainment Weekly that her character’s exit is “open-ended,” allowing room to return down the road. But make no mistake: Losing Carl and Rick in consecutive half-seasons is a massive blow for The Walking Dead’s potential longevity. Perhaps the loss of viewership is already being felt, because, for once, a major character death has been revealed in advance. It certainly doesn’t help matters that audiences have spent nearly a decade growing attached to the the father-and-son tandem.

It’s possible Rick’s impending departure will disrupt the surprisingly optimistic atmosphere that currently envelops the show—stopping the impressive beginnings of this new, promising civilization dead in its tracks. God forbid Rick’s renewed sense of purpose and clemency doesn’t turn him into a martyr at the hands of characters who hope things could get back to the way they once were—as the Season 8 finale implied when Maggie, Daryl, and Jesus (the character, not the Messiah) decided they were against Rick sparing Negan’s life and keeping him as a prisoner.

As encouraging as The Walking Dead’s current run of form is, a relapse to its old, frustrating ways would be aggravatingly on-brand. Rick’s final episodes won’t just serve as an emotional coda for the series’ longtime anchor, but a crucial litmus test for what The Walking Dead wants to be moving forward. Hopefully, the show will cling to the optimism it has fostered and the fascinating insights into how society can be rebuilt from the ground up instead of succumbing to its worst vices. If The Walking Dead is going to lose some of its audience regardless of what it does, it might as well become a good show again.