Quick show of hands: How many of you Walking Dead viewers remember the way that season 8 of the show ended?
However many hands are raised: That’s roughly how many people seem to remember the season ending better than the writers of tonight’s first episode of Season 9. “A New Beginning” is accurately titled in the sense that it opens up plenty of new possibilities as the zombie serial skips forward in time by roughly 18 months, but simultaneously frustrating in the way it would like to forget what the audience has already been shown.
Namely, the meeting between Maggie, Daryl and Jesus that closed out the previous season of The Walking Dead, in which the three openly seemed to be discussing (or at least heavily implying) an open rebellion or outright assassination of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. At the time, the ending seemed like an incredibly strange, out-of-character swerve for everyone involved. Maggie and Daryl? They’ve fought and bled with Rick for every ounce of happiness they’ve ever enjoyed since the zombie epidemic started. He’s personally saved both of them on more occasions than one could possibly count. And Jesus? Well, he’s a really nice guy, and pretty much the last character who could reasonably be expected to rationalize making a move against Rick. That moment, which closed out season 8, was a poorly calculated bit of writing that telegraphed what should have been slow, complex character development in season 9.
That’s the irony, because this is actually what “A New Beginning” delivers pretty competently. We’re seeing some new power dynamics here, and they’re fascinating. Maggie has been through hell and emerged as a hardened leader on the other side, and a considerably more hard line one than Rick, or so it would seem. Carol and Ezekiel have finally cemented their budding romance. Jadis seemingly abandoned the junkyard and joined the group—although it isn’t really clear whose group. And Father Gabriel, well … he acquired a really great Lee Van Cleef hat, so I guess the last year and a half hasn’t been wasted. It’s refreshing and novel to see so many characters from different groups interacting on missions such as their raid of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. ... even if it means watching them attempt incredibly boneheaded maneuvers such as rolling a Conestoga wagon over a fragile glass pane that everyone and their mother knows is going to crack from the moment we first witness it.
Of those characters, it’s clearly Maggie who is the most important to “A New Beginning,” and this episode attempts to sow some seeds of the various conflicts and differences in philosophy she’s developed as opposed to Rick … which would be far more effective if we hadn’t already seen her secretly plotting against him. Maggie is also in the strange philosophical position of believing that Negan should have died for his crimes, while having spared the ever-squirrelly Gregory after multiple attempts to sell out The Hillside. It’s a classic double standard; one that is only solved by Gregory’s profound incompetence when he tries to have her killed in the least effective of ways and ends up sentenced to death via hanging. But it at least serves to illustrate Maggie’s increasingly isolationist mindset, as she listens to Hilltoppers who argue (in poorly reasoned fashion) that the community should only fend for itself. Nevermind the fact that all the communities will be far weaker when separated—I’m sure that will become quite clear to everyone involved by the time we reach the midpoint of the season.
“Hey Maggie, do you have a minute to participate in the world’s sloppiest assassination attempt?
These are examples of the things that more or less work in “A New Beginning.” The multi-group dynamic is fresh, as is a state of being that is something other than war. The audience here is likely ready for some new stories and themes on the struggles of governance, and the complications of living together. It’s a different set of challenges than the easy choice of uniting against a single common enemy such as Negan. Without a scapegoat to rally against, governance gets a whole lot harder.
What doesn’t work in this episode is the same kind of stuff that The Walking Dead can probably always be expected to struggle with, such as “basic logic” and characters who don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences. To cite a few examples:
— Much is made by Daryl of the plight of the former Saviors still living at The Sanctuary. If “nothing will grow here,” and the community is too far from Alexandria, The Hilltop and The Kingdom in an increasingly fuel-sparse reality, then what exactly is the reason to stay at The Sanctuary? The building has no tactical or practical significance—it doesn’t even have any glass in its windows after the Grimes Gang shot them all up during the war. It can’t produce food for itself. It doesn’t seem to manufacture. Its population lived via extorting other communities before the war because their community doesn’t produce anything. So why do they all stay there? For shelter? There’s got to be some other building in this universe that would be closer to Alexandria and in a more favorable area for farming, right? Why rebuild bridges to a far-away destination when you can all move to a place that can sustain life?
— Carol is running away from a good thing YET AGAIN, to volunteer to become the new leader of The Sanctuary. She once had a good thing with Tobin and ran away from it to be a hermit, ultimately regretting it. She seemingly learned nothing from that experience, even when she returned to society. Now she’s doing the exact same thing to Ezekiel, and seemingly doesn’t even realize she’s doing it.
— I really can’t overstate exactly how stupid Gregory’s plan was to have Maggie killed. After 18 months of secret plotting, his grand stroke is to convince a grieving, drunken, senior citizen-looking father to dress up in a hood like the stalker from Hot Fuzz and attack Maggie in the graveyard, one on one? How does he think this is going to play out, exactly? She’s going to be quickly and silently dispatched, and then the body will be hidden? How does he think he’s going to be able to take over The Hilltop afterward, when the vast majority of the people support Maggie? What does he think is going to happen when the other communities find out that Maggie is dead? His plan is so stupid, on so many levels, that you’d think he was actively trying to get killed.
Ultimately, I am intrigued with certain aspects of The Walking Dead, season 9, but I wish I had far less information than I already do. It’s truly strange to be watching a series and already know that the two biggest characters have exactly five more episodes to live before leaving in the middle of a season, as has been widely reported of both Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan, but here we are. Will that leaked information lead to curiosity for their final episodes? Sure. But what about afterward? Who’s even going to be getting the lion’s share of screen time in the second half of this season, anyway?
It’s a scenario so strange that we can’t help but be curious to find out.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter.