How ‘The Walking Dead’ Is Changing, with or without Its Core Characters

     October 8, 2018

walking-dead-season-9-sliceThe Walking Dead seems tired. And who could blame it? Over eight seasons AMC’s zombie drama has invented more misery, mayhem, death, and destruction for its characters than any other series on TV. After an actual All Out War, the series returned for its ninth season premiere, “A New Beginning”, and everyone just seems so tired. Tired of living, tired of dying, tired of trying to make it work in the apocalypse, tired of being stupid enough to think everything’s going to be fine for once. Besides two deaths it’s a quiet episode, filled with more sighs than dialogue, especially from soon-to-be-departed Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, who feels happy for the first time in ages living with Michonne (Danai Gurira) and doesn’t know how to handle it, like an awkward person on camera who can’t figure out what to do with their hands.

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Image via AMC

It doesn’t make for the most exciting premiere but it is fascinating to watch, especially in a season that heralds so much change for AMC’s most popular series. Lincoln is on the way out, but so is Lauren Cohan‘s Maggie after 10 episodes. Season 9 is the first under new showrunner Angela Kang, who boldly ushers in that titular new beginning not by introducing the latest threat but by establishing a terrifying lack of one. The Season 9 premiere finds our core characters trying to hold together peace, not fight a bloody battle to establish it.

And again, everyone just feels so tired, so by extension The Walking Dead feels tired of being The Walking Dead it’s been for the past eight years. You can see it in the way these characters treat Walkers now. They’re a nuisance. Michonne and Daryl (Norman Reedus) dispatch the living dead with the same enthusiasm as I take my boxers to the laundromat. It’s something to be done. A necessary chore. Look at the premiere’s one death-by-Walker, in which plain, white-bread-boring character Ken (AJ Achinger) gets an equally boring bite while trying to save a horse. It’s an uninteresting moment, one we’ve seen a thousand times before. At this point, if you get bitten by a walker it’s 100% your fault. Most of them don’t even have working jaws! Walkers don’t present that palpable threat, because The Walking Dead is just not that show anymore.

Lincoln reflects this changing of the tides perfectly in his weary, beardless performance. The actor is essentially leaving the show because he’s tired of being Rick Grimes, just like Rick Grimes is tired of being Rick Grimes. The character is going through the motions when once he was passionately putting in the work. Watch Rick during the scene where Ezekiel (Khary Payton) almost crashes through a glass floor into the arms of walkers below. Carol (Melissa McBride) understandably freaks out, but Rick just sort of snaps into action. This shit again, his face screams. It’s a wonderfully over-it touch from Lincoln, whose every move this season will be touched by the knowledge his character is leaving.

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Image via AMC

Which makes Daryl’s subplot the most intriguing piece of the puzzle. Daryl Dixon has effectively become an audience surrogate for the fans who miss the old Walking Dead, who are tired of the big battles and massive communities and pine for the days of a small rag-tag crew of survivors just trying to make their way through a zombie-filled Atlanta. This line, delivered with a powerful lack of gusto by Reedus, is the most self-reflective The Walking Dead has ever been about the show it has become:

“Man there ain’t no us anymore. Everyone’s everywhere. That small group we had back in the beginning, we could do anything. That was right. That’s what I know.”

Rick’s follow-up might as well be a mission statement from Kang—”We’re not together because things have changed”—and Daryl comes right back with an argument you might find on a TWD message board: “The thing is, you changed them, Rick.”

It’s fascinating. The only war happening right now on The Walking Dead is the show’s war with itself and its own legacy. If you weren’t sure about all that, look at the premiere’s climactic death, where Maggie decides to hang trouble-maker and all-around asshole Gregory (Xander Berkeley). It’s a gruesome death, with a whole lot of wet gagging noises going on, because every Walking Dead premiere and finale needs a gruesome death. The conversation leading up to these episodes has morphed from “what’s going to happen?” to “who is going to die?” But again, this ain’t your 2010 self’s Walking Dead anymore. Maggie’s speech after Gregory’s death might as well be from Angela Kang’s mouth to the audience’s ears:

“I made this decision. But this is not the beginning of something,” Maggie says. “I don’t want to go through it again.”

Everyone on The Walking Dead is so tired. All the bloodshed and bullshit? They don’t want to go through that again.

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