Last week, The Walking Dead snared millions of viewers in a colossal version of what has become the show’s signature move: The bait and switch. For almost a year, we were told that Andrew Lincoln would be departing the AMC series in which he was the de facto main character as Rick Grimes, never to return. For weeks, “Rick Grimes’ last episode” was blared across AMC’s commercial airtime. For 60 minutes, Rick marched grimly toward his very obvious and very noble death. Everything was unfolding as you would expect for a goodbye episode to a primary protagonist after 9 seasons of TV.
... and then AMC pulled the rug out from under everyone, and Rick was helicoptered off into the land of forthcoming TV movies, the scripts of which are still apparently being written. It was some Obi Wan-level dancing around the truth—actually, it’s probably even more of an outright lie for Rick to not die than for Obi Wan to handwave his lies as coming from “a certain point of view.” It left a distinctly sour taste in our mouths, and we weren’t shy about saying so.
Lost in the shuffle of our discontent with “Rick’s last episode,” however, was our simultaneous fascination with the gambit of time-jumping The Walking Dead into the future for a second time in the same season—this time by a whopping six years. It’s a move that allows for sweet little Judith Grimes, a nothing character through almost 7 seasons of TV, to suddenly spring into the forefront. She’s now portrayed by a young actress by the name of Cailey Fleming, who does an admirable job portraying a young girl who has literally never known a life before the zombie apocalypse. She’s at least smart enough to not take Negan’s advice (even on math homework) without a grain of salt, which means that there might just be hope for Judith yet.
The crux of “Who Are You Now?” revolves around a new group of survivors who are brought by Judith to Alexandria: Yumiko, Luke, Connie, Kelly and leader Magna, who immediately earns the ire and suspicion of Michonne for not disclosing everything about her pre-apocalypse self, along with a seeming obsession with hiding weapons on her person. I’d love to ruminate on how these characters might come to fit in amongst the Walking Dead regulars, but we know so little about them at this point that it would be fruitless. Their main purpose in the screenplay is to reinforce just how suspicious and unreasonable Michonne has apparently become in the six years since Rick’s “death.” Her tendency to carry on conversations with Dead Rick and Dead Carl can’t help but remind viewers of Rick in season 3—remember when he was seeing visions of Ghost Lori? Hey folks, remember Lori in general? That woman who didn’t get mentioned at any point in “Rick’s Last Episode?”
Regardless, here are some other things that have changed (or not) in the six year time gap:
— Everyone got aesthetic upgrades. Eugene took off a lot of weight and grew a horrendous looking braid. Carol grew her hair out to absurdly impractical lengths, perhaps to look more “queenly.” Aaron built himself what appears to be a freaking cyborg arm, straight out of Army of Darkness.
— Henry grew into a teenager and kept up with his Morgan stick-fu lessons. He appears to be at the exact age where volunteering to die seems more reasonable than surrendering a ring off your finger.
— The idiotic, scruffy former Savior known as Jed has apparently been just hanging around for six years since the events of “The Obliged” earlier this season, when he started a firefight with Carol’s group that the show never bothered to return to or explain. Never fear: That loose end gets tied up immediately when Carol burns his entire crew to death for essentially no reason, at great personal risk to herself. Mental note: Carol is once again in psychopath territory. Thankfully, that’s our favorite Carol.
— Negan has gotten over his existential crisis and just hangs out by his prison cell window (why does he have a window to the outside?), chatting with the people who pass by.
— Birds have been replaced by horrifying CGI abominations. No, seriously, the CGI bird in the beginning of “Who Are You Now?” is easily the worst looking bit of computer-generated effects that has ever appeared on The Walking Dead. It absolutely puts the CGI deer to shame.
— Oh, and one more thing … Rick and Michonne HAD ANOTHER KID! Yes, Michonne was apparently pregnant when Rick “died” on the bridge, and so they now have a small, mixed-race child living in the Grimes household. Rick’s success rate at actually being the biological father of his post-apocalypse children rises from 0% to 50%. If it seems like I buried the lede on that important information, it’s only because this TWD episode also buried that information way down there.
Does any of this stuff really matter? Well, it’s hard to say, looking at only “Who Are You Now?” As an adaptation of The Walking Dead comic, this show has always been fond of taking one comic character’s story and transferring it onto another character, which could actually lead to some interesting possibilities in season 9. In particular, the story of Carl Grimes in the comic seems now like it might be split in season 9 between Judith and Henry—just a hunch, but if Henry inherits one of the major parts of Carl’s story from here on out, it will certainly entail him being promoted to “main character” status.
What can we expect from the final two episodes before the mid-season break, “Stradivarius” and “Evolution”? Well, from the last title it seems clear that we’ll be getting around to finally making all of the characters aware of the existence of The Whisperers, who will no doubt serve as main antagonists for the second half of season 9 at least. To this, I can only say good luck: It will be difficult to pull off this particular bit of comics adaptation in a way that doesn’t seem patently ridiculous—not to mention a considerably less serious threat than the Grimes Gang (I’m glad I can keep typing that) has faced in the past. Perhaps The Whisperers will only bridge us to the end of season 9, and our focus will then become the considerably more interesting Helicopter People?
Let’s hope that little Judith Grimes is up for the challenge.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.