NOTE: Spoilers from throughout the ninth season of, “The Walking Dead” are present in this review
After a few seasons of sagging ratings, The Walking Dead attempted a massive creative shift with its recently-wrapped ninth season. AMC brought in a new showrunner, Angela Kang, just in time for two of the series’ lead actors, Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan, to decide on leaving the series, forcing lead characters, Rick Grimes and Maggie Greene to be written out of the show. The Walking Dead still has at least a few veteran leads to keep the old character arcs going, most notably Daryl Dixon and Carol Peletier, but it’s nonetheless clear that the series is moving quite far away from its original premise by Season Nine.
Fortunately, Season Nine of The Walking Dead, despite its dramatic shifts for the series’ cast and world-building, stands as a very noticeable improvement over the past few seasons of the show. This doesn’t seem to have helped the show’s ratings, mind you, with The Walking Dead still bleeding viewers to a very blatant extent, but those that are continuing to stand by the series can at least enjoy some improved quality throughout Season Nine, despite the show’s occasionally bizarre story structuring within its latest batch of episodes. The season incorporates not one, but two major time jumps, most notably, with the first occurring right at the beginning, jumping about sixteen months after the conclusion of the war against the Saviors that spanned Season Eight, and the second occurring after Rick is written out of the show, jumping a whole six years after Rick’s disappearance!
Yes, Rick doesn’t die, but is simply whisked away in a mysterious helicopter, alongside Anne/Jadis, with Pollyanna McIntosh also effectively leaving the show at that point. This leads to Daryl and Michonne most frequently succeeding Rick in The Walking Dead’s central character role, despite most of the season’s back half instead providing much more focus on Hilltop over Alexandria. This is because it’s Hilltop that ends up provoking the season’s eventual major threat, the Whisperers, led by Samantha Morton’s monstrous and intimidating Alpha. When Hilltop captures, and later takes in Alpha’s daughter, Lydia, the Hilltop survivors provoke open war with Alpha’s group, who prove to be terrifying and unpredictable villains, somehow even making the Saviors look tame in comparison! The menace of the Whisperers was cemented early on as well, when the midseason finale sees their first proper appearance result in the death of Jesus, leaving Hilltop without critical leadership, right when it needs it most.
With Maggie gone on a missionary trip with the record-seeking nuns that the series teased before, and Jesus now dead, Hilltop duties end up falling to Tara, though it’s The Kingdom that’s apparently struggling to make ends meet after the season’s second time jump. The season really gets interesting during this latter portion, despite it clearly pushing Alexandria into the background for the most part, between the Hilltop facing down the Whisperers, and the Kingdom running critically short of vital resources. The early stretches of the season meanwhile mostly exist to simply force Rick and co. to try and quell infighting between Alexandria and the newly-reformed Saviors, with the initial establishment of the show’s new world order being a lot more interesting than the petty squabbling between Alexandria and their former enemies. This early season conflict will probably just make you long for the eventual coming of the Whisperers, since the survivors trying to build a bridge loses narrative momentum after a short while, despite it being used as a device for Rick’s grand sacrifice, which leads to the communities believing that he’s dead, even if viewers know that Rick is alive, and out there somewhere.
Once the obligatory exit for Rick and Maggie is made, the new creative spark that’s been given to The Walking Dead is really allowed to shine. The survivors can no longer use guns and cars by this point most notably, instead having to rely on forging melee weapons and pulling horse-drawn buggies, essentially sending the show’s characters back to the Middle Ages. This helps to nicely re-balance the series and its threats, since Rick’s and Negan’s crews both seemed so heavily armed during Season Eight that the show barely felt like it was taking place in a post-apocalyptic world at all! Speaking of Negan, he also had a standout role in Season Nine, feeling more fleshed-out and interesting than he has since his very first appearance on the show, when he first bludgeoned Abraham and Glenn to death. With Rick gone, Negan ends up becoming something of a surrogate father figure to Judith, even being the one to save her during a major blizzard that unfolds during the season finale! It may not be enough to make Negan a proper citizen of Alexandria, but it was very fulfilling to see Negan be broken down by his lengthy prison stint, then escape, then return, then find his way to a path of legitimate redemption through Judith. With Danai Gurira also apparently leaving the series next season, perhaps it would feel satisfying to have Negan fill Michonne’s role as a reformed leader, or at least a co-leader, to Alexandria?
Truthfully though, it was definitely the Whisperers that stole this season and ran away with it, with the Whisperer storylines in Season Nine being pretty much universally awesome! Both Alpha and her imposing enforcer, Beta made for great, complex new villains for the show, with their twisted psychology eventually culminating in a brutal border drawing, once the communities successfully unite for a fair at The Kingdom. The border is naturally drawn in blood, with Alpha placing the heads of ten recognizable characters to divide the barrier between the protagonists’ territory and the Whisperers’ territory, in a grisly and traumatic moment ripped directly from the source comics! Obviously though, the victims of Alpha’s border drawing are different in the TV canon, with some throwaways like the new Highwaymen survivors (who don’t currently exist in the comics), and a couple of unlikable Hilltop teens among the dead, though a couple of heartfelt innocents, namely Frankie and Tammy Rose, were also among the victims, with Tammy Rose being the one character to meet her end in the exact same way within the comics’ canon. Arguably the most heartbreaking deaths here were those of Enid, Henry and Tara, with Tara’s death leaving The Hilltop without leadership for the third time in one season! Hell, it would almost make more sense to have Hilltop being the struggling community, rather than The Kingdom, considering how many leaders it chews through in Season Nine!
The Whisperers will remain a clear and present danger during this Fall’s upcoming tenth season for The Walking Dead as well, since The Kingdom’s survivors have no choice but to cross into Whisperer territory during the season finale’s big blizzard, predictably provoking Alpha and Beta to once again strike back at them. The front half of Season Nine may have been noticeably less consistent in terms of quality and engagement, but the season’s back half, which brought in some likable new comic-adapted survivors, namely Magna, Connie, Luke, Kelly and Yumiko, and introduced fan-favourite comic villains, the Whisperers to the TV series at long last, made some of the early hiccups well worth putting up with. The necessity of getting around exiting lead actors still hurt some of the writing here and there though, especially when this big change leads to two separate time jumps, resulting in a lot of bizarre narrative structuring in the season’s front half. Overall though, it’s been years since The Walking Dead has been this entertaining and exciting! It seems like a change in showrunners, and a few character shuffles, are exactly what the show needed. It’s still easy to get the impression that The Walking Dead’s best TV days are well behind it now, but those who still haven’t jumped ship will at least find some renewed creativity and engagement to look forward to for at least the short-term future, if Season Nine is any indication!
- World changes make the walker apocalypse feel fresh and interesting again
- Rick's dramatic and impactful exit
- The Whisperers are terrifying, psychologically complex new villains
- Front half storylines are less interesting and less consistent
- Multiple time jumps lead to some confusing narrative structure