For the second time in a single season, The Walking Dead has jumped forward in time, established a new state of affairs, and hoped fans would go along for the ride. The first time it pulled this stunt, in the season premiere, it was refreshing and sharp. The second time? Less so.
To some degree, this may be a case of diminishing returns. We were just settling in to the new world order set up by “A New Beginning” when the series ignominiously sent Rick Grimes off to that giant helicopter in the sky, never to return (to his flagship series, anyway, not that I should believe a damn thing this show tells me at this point). It was a sensible move to flash-forward in time following the conclusion of last year’s war against Negan and the Saviors, and the show looked like it had found a creative resurgence in that transition, crafting compelling stories about the tenuous society shared among Alexandria, Hilltop, the Kingdom, Oceanside, and the rapidly crumbling Sanctuary. But we barely had time to accept the situation when last week’s clumsy and poorly done farewell to Rick led the series to refresh itself yet again—and this time, we’re expected to care about a brand new group of characters in the process. It’s a case of too much too soon, and it unfolds like a tiresome morality play.
There’s a lot of changes to our post-apocalyptic world, so let’s address them one at a time. It’s been roughly six years since the events of “What Comes After,” and both Alexandria and the Kingdom have been flourishing in the interim. Well-fortified walls, crops, routine, security...the society that Rick and Carl envisioned is coming to pass, slowly but steadily, with an elected council of leaders and bylaws to boot. Carol and Ezekiel are a married couple, running things in the Kingdom and playing parents to teenage Henry. Michonne, head of security (and pretty clearly the unofficial leader of all of Alexandria, to a degree) and mother to both Judith and RJ, has a full but emotionally hermetic existence, still talking to Rick’s spirit and reassuring him that she hasn’t given up—“...and I never will,” she asserts with steely determination.
Really, Danai Gurira’s opening monologue could double as a direct plea to Walking Dead viewers, who have been abandoning the show at a steady clip over the past couple of years. “I know you’re here...I’m still here, too,” she begins, before informing us that the “world keeps spinning, while you try to make sense of it all.” Michonne may as well try to reach through the screen and hold each of our hands individually as she delivers her state of the union speech, the show is so deliberately working to remind us of the characters and stories we’ve invested so much time in over the years. But a six-year jump is no small thing, and rather than really give us time to absorb it and get a handle on things, we’re given a new group of survivors to fuss over, and the latest iteration of “do we kick out the newbies and keep to ourselves, or do we rise above and show mercy, welcoming them in?” debate is just as plodding and predictable as you would expect. Michonne wants them to leave, has a change of heart after a brief late-night bonding session with the new group’s most aggressive member, Magna, and then invites them all to take up residence at an unnamed safe location to which she’ll lead them. (Is anyone expecting it be be somewhere besides Hilltop?) It’s paint-by-numbers plotting for this series, and a disappointing rebound from last week’s debacle.
The new survivors get wafer-thin sketches of personalities laid out during the hearing to decide if they stay or go: there’s impulsive ex-con Magna; music teacher Dan Fogler—er, sorry, “Luke”; observant deaf survivor Connie; and reasonable young kid Kelly. Their tale of woe is indistinguishable from countless ones we’ve heard before, the main difference being most people aren’t stupid enough to try and creep into Michonne’s house at night to...kill her? Take her hostage? It’s unclear just what Magna’s dumb plan was, but it might be even dumber to see her back off the idea just because she sees Michonne with a kid, leading to the new survivor handing over her knife and having a short heart-to-heart with the Alexandrian instead. It’s then left to Judith and RJ to remind Michonne that Rick would want the new people to stay, which, how the hell would you know what Rick would do, Judith.
At least Carol’s story gives us some of that classic Carol badassery. Is anyone as annoying as teenage Henry? (Judith Grimes comes close when she stands there among the adults and says it was her call to bring the survivors back to Alexandria. Shut up, kid.) Sure, teenagers are supposed to be obnoxious, but Henry is especially dumb, running off half-cocked straight into a trap set by ex-Sanctuary folks, including the guy Carol apparently let live during last week’s showdown in the bridge camp. Either no one has told him it’s dangerous out there, or he’s an idiot. I’m leaning toward the latter, because no sooner does Carol convince them to spare the kid’s life than he attacks her for not “standing up for what’s right,” as though keeping his moronic ass alive was the moral equivalent of murdering baby dolphins. Luckily, his adopted mom is Carol, so rather than slapping some sense into him she goes off and burns the Sanctuary folks alive in the middle of the night, like Carol does. When she drives them up to meet Daryl (who is living off on his own, though it’s unclear what his deal is thus far), even her long hair can’t disguise the fact that it’s still Carol underneath all that soft-hearted talk.
Ezekiel appears to be masterminding some sort of community fair, with his stated hope that it will “bring the communities back together.” It’s left unsaid why our various locales had a falling out in the first place, though maybe it’s because no one else wanted to hang out with Henry. Whatever the cause, no one else is talking about this fair, so it may not be much of a success. Rosita and Eugene decide to head out and try to boost their strength of the radio Gabriel is working on, and once you get over the extremely weird romantic pairing of Rosita and Gabriel, the two old friends spend most of their time together trying to pretend Eugene isn’t looking for a way to tell her he’s in love with her.
Luckily a horde of walkers interrupt their work, Eugene injures his knee, and the two of them go on the run, leading to the only intriguingly bonkers plot twist of the episode, one that’s been teased for awhile now: talking zombies! “Wherrrrrre arrrrre theyyyyyy,” we hear uttered in a low undead growl, as Rosita and Eugene hide under layers of mud and do their best to communicate “uh, what the shit?!” with only their eyes. It’s a huge left turn, narratively speaking, and while it’s a much sillier twist than the smart and thoughtful human drama we saw play out during the first four episodes of the year, it’s at least a huge blow to the status quo.
The show seems to be casting about for a way to get its creative juices flowing again following the loss of its main character (and one of the other biggest names, in Lauren Cohan’s Maggie), and unfortunately this depiction of the trial of the newcomers didn’t do much to help matters. If you’re going to leap so many years forward in time, there needs to be a better way to help reconnect with the characters, especially in the middle of the season. If The Walking Dead can get the focus back on the interpersonal relationships that gave the first half of season nine such electric frisson, there’s still hope for this soft reboot of the long-running show.
- We’re going to ignore the scene of Judith hanging out and doing math homework with a still-jailed Negan, as should everyone, because that is just ridiculous. Judith speaks less like a human child and more like a sentient bad-screenwriting 101 class, spouting hoary koans about how numbers don’t care if you’re good or bad.
- There are a lot of stories to catch the audience up on, which the show now presumably has the option of doling out, Lost-like, in flashbacks. Maybe we start with how Michonne got a scar that looks like someone removed her kidney?
- Walking Dead Hair Update: Carol has long hippie-mom hair. Eugene has a damn rat tail, though he makes up for it somewhat by having transformed into a zombie-killing badass in the past six years. Rosita has braids. Michonne has shifted her dreads into an admittedly cool-looking side ‘do. Negan sports a buzz cut. Aaron’s facial hair game is solid. And Daryl...well, he looks like Daryl, only more so.
- Seriously, Gabriel and Rosita as a couple is so odd.
- “You’ll understand someday”: the common refrain of parents to their adopted kids this episode.
- Aw, Gracie is old enough to run into Aaron’s arm with a bright “Daddy!”
- The show still looks great, with solid direction from Larry Teng.
- Best line of the episode: Magna, to a rapidly departing Michonne—“Can I ask you a question?” “No.”