Critic's Notebook: 'Walking Dead' Season 9 Improvement Is Too Little, Too Late

The Walking Dead - Season 9, Episode 3 - Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

[To some degree this article contains spoilers through the Sunday, Nov. 18, episode of The Walking Dead. But seriously, there's basically nothing that can be spoiled about this show anymore.]

Watching The Walking Dead on Sunday, something I've been doing on pure autopilot for four or five seasons now, an odd thought struck me: Dating back probably to the very end of last season, but certainly through this new fall arc, this is the least bad The Walking Dead has been in a long, long time.

Phrased a more complimentary way, the version of The Walking Dead that will cap off its half-season this weekend (the first half of season nine) is the closest the show has been to the show I've wanted it to be probably since the start of the Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) arc or maybe the start of the Governor (David Morrissey) arc or the start of the prison arc or possibly even start of the arc on Hershel's (Scott Wilson) farm.

Under the watch of new showrunner Angela Kang — who started as a writer back in season two — AMC's The Walking Dead has put aside its recent string of sadistic, weakly motivated bad guys and consolidated its storylines to only a pair of primary geographical locations. The show has also generally de-emphasized the walkers/zombies of its title, or maybe it just feels that way? In seven episodes this fall, the number of zombie interactions that have stuck with me even briefly, in terms of either scares or general disgust, has been limited to the opening museum scene in the premiere and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) on the Bridge on the River Kwai scene in the eventful "What Comes After," which I'll surely discuss a bit later.

For the most part, this period of Walking Dead has been dominated by people talking. The main drama this season has been the conflict in political ideology between the Alexandria survivor group, featuring basically everybody old-school fans of the show care about, and the Hilltop gang, featuring Lauren Cohan's Maggie and a bunch of characters whose names I don't remember other than Jesus (Tom Payne), whose name I only remember because he shares a name with a character from The Big Lebowski. The two camps have approached the task of rebuilding society from different perspectives, especially when it comes to things like welcoming new members and meting out justice against adversaries like Negan, whose death would have pleased Maggie and whose ongoing incarceration satisfied Rick as punishment enough.

The aspect of Walking Dead that has always interested me most is the one focusing on variations of civility in a postapocalyptic society, with occasional interjections from exec producer Greg Nicotero's effects work. As you may have guessed from the number of times "the start of" appeared in my list of favorite Walking Dead storylines, I've often enjoyed the introduction of different settings and communities. I've been less enamored with the show's ability to follow up. I can easily think of a half-dozen major plotlines that Walking Dead introduced well. I can't think of many that wrapped up in both a timely fashion and in a way I found even slightly satisfying. So even though I know that this season is only an episode or two away from introducing an inevitably disappointing Big Bad and that wherever the season goes in Sunday's fall finale and the spring half of season nine will probably frustrate me, at this second this is a quieter, more thoughtful, more character-driven Walking Dead than we've seen for a while.

And yet, to quote Diana from A Chorus Line, I'm feeling nothing. Kang and the show's writers have given me something resembling what I thought I wanted and it turns out that it's too late.

The tip of the problem iceberg is that Walking Dead blundered in what should have been its season-defining episode. The departure of star Andrew Lincoln broke so early that AMC and the show had no choice other than to exhaustively hype the final episodes of Rick Grimes, right up to his actual exit in "What Comes After." You had all of the elements in place for what should have been a hugely emotional episode, starting with the unquestioned top-of-the-call-sheet lead leaving one of TV's highest-rated shows, a character who began the episode with a piece of rebar in his gut, plus a slew of cameos from beloved former stars — RIP, Scott Wilson — and a fiery climax. Rather than playing Rick's fate with tragic finality or open-ended uncertainty, the episode had a deus ex machina helicopter rescue and the immediate announcement of future Rick Grimes telefilms. There was no way to feel happy for Lincoln, sad about Rick or much of anything. The show and the AMC PR machine practically demanded that you not take anything in the episode seriously. And I did not.

As bad as Lincoln/Rick's farewell was handled, the way Walking Dead handled Lauren Cohan/Maggie was even worse. Basically, Cohan — unhappy after a series of contract negotiations gone bad — left to do an ABC midseason drama, but ABC midseason dramas fail all the time, so Maggie just kinda ceased to be around. In this week's episode, it was mentioned that Maggie had left with Georgie to help found a settlement of survivors, a placeholder excuse so shoddy that somebody might as well have just said, "Oh, Maggie's off on a spy mission with Scott Foley. She'll be back when her hiatus schedule allows her to be or when her new show tanks."

These were two of the show's central characters, Rick from the beginning and Maggie from the second season. They follow in a string of major cast sendoffs that have sometimes been effective, sometimes infuriating and more generally just depleting. It's bad timing that the show had to lose Rick and Maggie at exactly the moment at which the few remaining long-term characters are being bizarrely misused. Carol's (Melissa McBride) now a dull wife who sometimes wreaks vengeance. Daryl's (Norman Reedus) living in the woods like a feral beast holding out hope that Rick is alive, a position that makes him look like an idiot because we know exactly how and inexactly where Rick is.

Take those people away on top of Carl (Chandler Riggs), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Morgan (Lennie James, who moved to AMC spinoff Fear the Walking Dead) and the dozen other deceased or decamped regulars, and you're left with Michonne (Danai Gurira) as the only long-standing character I'm invested in. The show has introduced wave after wave of characters in the past four or five seasons and my affection for them ranges from limited (Josh McDermitt's Eugene amuses me sometimes and Alanna Masterson's Tara sometimes can earn compassion) to nonexistent. One of the show's many consistent faults over the second half of its run has been half-introducing characters who then somehow become less interesting when we get to learn more about them. How is it that every character detail the show provides for Ezekiel (Khary Payton) makes him less and less compelling than when he was just "That guy with the tiger"? Rosita (Christian Serratos)? Aaron (Ross Marquand)? Enid (Katelyn Nacon)? Jesus? The show has become a sea of semifamiliar faces and characters whose names I would never remember without the help of a wiki.

I read the comic for a long time, but the show moved past me several seasons ago and every once in a while I hear somebody point to one of the new characters and say, "Comic fans love them!" and with the exception of Ezekiel, my reaction is always, "Huh? Why?" and the tiger is/was the only reason I was interested in Ezekiel. It's been the strangest thing to watch past castmembers like Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) or Corey Hawkins (whose Heath is technically still alive and out there somewhere) prove to be charismatic and interesting elsewhere and ponder how they were so ill-served on Walking Dead. When the latest Avengers movie came out this summer and the clickbait headlines wanted to tease that a star of Walking Dead was the actor under the Red Skull makeup, it took a long period to determine if I could remember anything about said star's work on Walking Dead, much less if I'd call him a star.

Put simply, the version of Walking Dead I want is one that seems to have some of the things on its mind that this season has had. I just can't get invested in characters talking about civilization, justice and survival if I no longer care if any of them form civilization, find justice or survive. And I don't think there's any way to fix that at this point.

Ratings have plummeted this season, though they remain at a level that probably makes AMC steadily happy, even if they're not really at a level that can justify the decision to embark on these Rick-centric telefilms and the potential spinoffs that former showrunner Scott M. Gimple has been entrusted with generating. It's too late for this show to produce any heat at all anymore and, as I've been sad to realize, it's too late for a minor creative resurgence to make any difference.