This post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 premiere.
The Walking Dead Season 9 has more to prove than, perhaps, any premiere this month besides The Conners. The zombie drama has chugged along for nearly a decade, and in the past few years it has soured a good portion of its longtime fan base. Ratings hit rock bottom with Season 8, making new show-runner Angela Kang’s mission as dire as can be this season—especially as stars Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan prepare for their exits.
AMC, which has marketed this season largely with an eye toward Lincoln’s impending farewell, clearly knows what’s at stake; critics were given not one, but three episodes to review before the season began. Fortunately, in that handful of installments, the series does appear to begin turning a corner—though of course, it remains to be seen if it will stick the landing.
Sunday’s premiere was shaky—prone to some of the franchise’s worst and most common mistakes. (And it did not need to be nearly 90 minutes long.) Sequences dragged on forever; we spent an entire two minutes watching the death of a red shirt, just to set up a miniature rebellion that could have originated more efficiently. And there was clunky dialogue aplenty, though it was nice to see Daryl prove he can still speak in full sentences.
Speaking of Norman Reedus’s raspy tones: although it’s jarring to see Daryl back in the fold, his sudden return to the center of The Walking Dead is one more reminder of the grand exits to come, and of Reedus’s role as Lincoln’s heir apparent. Like Carol and the King abruptly jumping from casual flirtation to full-on love, the shift is sudden and unearned—but will probably make things more interesting in the long run.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the premiere, though, is Maggie’s newfound confidence. Thanks to a convenient time jump, Maggie has given birth and is now the proud mother of an adorable baby son named Hershel. She’s also in charge of the Hilltop—and ready to let Rick know that she won’t always follow his lead. Last season, Maggie made very clear that she was not O.K. with Rick’s decision to keep Negan alive. (Daryl, too, was unsatisfied with that arrangement.) This time, she reminded Rick of his promise to follow her one day; where Hilltop is concerned, that time is apparently now.
Maggie’s most telling decision in the premiere was her choice to execute Gregory, a cowardly scoundrel and her longtime nemesis at Hilltop, while imprisoning her would-be assassin. A season ago, it could have taken her weeks to make a decision like this; Gregory, after all, has already had more chances than we can count. But as Season 9 began, Maggie took charge and did not ask Rick for approval; he did stand by, though, content to let Maggie execute Gregory.
In this season, relationships that were once black-and-white—like Maggie and Rick’s—are growing richer with nuance. There’s mutual respect, but there’s also increased friction between several of our longest-running characters. Having moved on from its “All Out War” phase, The Walking Dead is settling into a new mode: trying to build a real, interconnected network of societies. This is not The Prison vs. Woodbury, or Rick and the Gang Versus Terminus. And it’s not an endlessly nomadic parade of death. Instead, it’s a natural evolution of what once made this series fascinating.
In its early installments, The Walking Dead posed a simple but fascinating question: what parts of our humanity survive when society itself collapses? In its ninth season, this drama has finally begun asking the next logical question: once everyone discovers what humanity means at the end of the world, how do they rebuild society—and preserve the notion that such organization even has value at all?
As Maggie seizes control of Hilltop, Carol has taken charge of the Sanctuary, and Michonne is already Rick’s closest adviser—setting Danai Gurira up for an interesting role whenever and however Lincoln leaves the show. That does, however, leave an interesting question unanswered: as Daryl takes his place at the center of this series, what, exactly will he bring to the table? What even drives Daryl? The Walking Dead has left this character on the margins for so long that it’s hard to imagine the answers. Perhaps, like Fear the Walking Dead, the flagship series will shift into a completely ensemble-driven approach, making Daryl’s role as the central character more nominal than meaningful.
Either way, as shakily as some of these new conflicts and plotlines have been established, I am, for the first time in several seasons, curious to see how things turn out on The Walking Dead. That might not be much, but as those of us who have stuck it out through so many bloated, sluggish seasons know, it’s about all we can ask for. But hey—maybe this season will finally bring the bar back up a little higher.