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'The Walking Dead' Returns With a Leap Forward
October 7, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) has noticeably longer hair as The Walking Dead ambles into Season 9 on AMC at 9 p.m. ET Sunday.

Eagle-eyed fans will quickly deduce that this means Season 9 begins with a time jump. The All-Out War of last season has been over for a while and the victorious colonies of Alexandria, Hilltop, and Sanctuary are working to rebuild a decent world while still surrounded by those pesky hordes of zombies.

Traditionally, a factoid like the length of Maggie’s hair would have been guarded as closely as nuclear launch codes in the Walking Dead universe. No detail was too tiny to merit its own shroud.

No more. Main guy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) will be leaving this season, and far from staying mum about that watershed moment, the producers have used it as their primary promotional hook.

Previews for the season talk about Rick’s final episodes the way Yankees fans counted down to Derek Jeter’s retirement. For his last scenes, we half expect a ceremony at Alexandria where they retire his sweat-soaked shirt and the gun from his hip.

Hype aside, the knowledge that Rick will leave gives his scenes a whole different feel as the season begins. Sunday’s opening, pastoral and serene, feels like a classic setup for future scenes that will be otherwise.   

Since The Walking Dead from the start has given no one an immunity card – its sister show Fear the Walking Dead recently killed off its own main character – Rick’s impending departure won’t be a stunner per se.  

What could startle us would be the circumstance of his departure. Most fans are probably hoping it won’t be at the hands of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the uber-villain whose life Rick spared after Negan’s team lost the All-Out War.  

The opening episode doesn’t overtly tip its hand about the fate of Rick, or Negan, though the same can’t be said for everyone.

Instead, the first episode begins by taking roll call. Within minutes, we’ve gotten reassuring glimpses of Rick, Maggie, Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), Jesus (Tom Payne), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and other survivors of the All-Out War.

Defeating Negan’s Saviors, however, did not save the world. Fully in keeping with real-life human behavior, the winners have begun quarreling among themselves, resuming rivalries and reviving grudges. That’s almost inevitable once we see the weasel Gregory (Xander Berkeley).

While gardens are blooming again, everyone is running low on refined resources like gasoline, and the three settlements are acutely aware of what someone else has and they don’t, or vice versa.

There are walkers, too, and we can’t forget that Negan wasn’t the only Savior to survive. So there’s plenty of potential for action, and the first episode, once it announces leaves time for conflict and conflict resolution.

One of the potentially most significant personnel matters with The Walking Dead this season, however, has nothing to do with the roster at Alexandria. It’s the arrival of Angela Kang as the new showrunner.

Scott Gimple, showrunner for the past five seasons, liked introspective episodes, sometimes focusing on single characters and featuring a lot of close-up shots and moody silence. When the show was building to action episodes, as it did with the All-Out War, it often seemed to take forever to get there.

It’s not unreasonable to think this is part of the reason viewership has fallen by almost half since it peaked in Season 5.

Gimple still remains at the top of the creative team, so no sea changes are likely. But Kang, who has written a number of episodes over the years, isn’t just overseeing Rick’s farewell tour. After two seasons in which the whole focus was war with Negan – who too often, frankly, was written as a disappointingly two-dimensional villain – the world, or at least the story, needs to reset and move forward.

Sunday’s opening episode pans around the field so we can see the new layout. The real answers will come when, and if, the action begins.

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