I’ve tried to be patient, to reserve my judgment, because I’ve been burned before. I’ve been very afraid that season nine’s streak of good episodes was an anomaly, or just seemed better since the Negan War was safely behind us. Four episodes in—25 percent of the entire season—and The Walking Dead hasn’t been bad at all. In fact, it’s been pretty damned good.
I may be dooming the show by saying it, and goodness knows the upcoming loss of Andrew Lincoln will be difficult (if not impossible) to handle well, but the last time I truly enjoyed four episodes of The Walking Dead in a row was before the godawful season six finale cliffhanger, which marked the show’s decline from ratings juggernaut to…non-juggernaut. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so excited for next week’s episodes.
It’s amazing how different the show feels now. There are more storylines happening simultaneously, but they all have their own momentum, and very little time is spent dawdling. These stories are working together to keep not only each episode exciting, but the entirety of the season, too, since if one plotline ebbs, others flow to maintain the excitement. I’m not saying it’s perfect, or that it doesn’t stumble occasionally, but that’s a hell of a lot better than the show has managed for years, when it would regularly trip, fall to the ground, and just lie there for hours at a time, assuming that everyone was fascinated.
Case in point: Michonne gets her own spotlight in “The Obliged,” but the episode still has plenty of time for everything else going on—which is great, because Michonne’s storyline is probably the weakest part of the episode. (It’s still not bad, though!) It begins with a montage of Michonne’s life as a mother of Judith, a leader of Alexandria, a researcher and drafter of laws, an arbiter of fights, and more, all during the day—but at night her restless nature causes her to leave the colony and start hacking apart zombies with her katana. At one point she’s blindsided by a zombie and has to bludgeon it with a nearby baseball bat, which she looks at with horror, because it was Negan’s weapon of choice.
This little incident is supposed to have us feeling like there’s some sort of kinship, or at least something equivalent, about Michonne and Negan, an allusion made incredibly explicit when Michonne visits the prisoner after she hears Negan’s started a hunger strike. It turns out he just wants to have a conversation with her, in which Negan literally starts talking about how they’re alike and really killers who need the freedom of the post-apocalypse, and how it’s good their former loved ones are dead because they were a weakness.
This dark side of Michonne isn’t something that’s been substantiated through the last several years of the show, but I’m not going to hold the sins of the past against season nine. However, the real reason I’m okay with this is because the on-the-nose conversation contains two revelations—or, rather, one revelation and one stunning reminder, the latter of which is that Michonne used to have kids. This is something that the show hasn’t talked about for five years, and that I—and I bet a lot of you—had completely forgotten. Suddenly, her relationship with Rick and Judith is cast in an entirely new and much more interesting light. It gives, or rather, gives back to Michonne some much-needed depth, lacking since she was relegated to Rick’s love interest and lieutenant.
The other moment is Negan’s, and that’s when, after his lengthy and only slightly smug attempt to form a connection with Michonne, he asks if he can see Lucille, his bat. When Michonne says it was left on the battlefield, Negan says “No”—but when he does he sounds like a four-year-old, about to throw a temper tantrum. He is upset to the point where he denies that Mchonne is telling the truth, because doesn’t want it to be the truth. It’s a shocking vulnerability we haven’t seen in Negan before—I mean, I know he’s been freaked out before when he can’t find Lucille, but this…this is a regression. It’s something beyond a weakness, because Negan gets so devastated that he starts beating his head against the stone wall, completely with splorchy blood noises. I hope that The Walking Dead takes the time to explore this more, and I’m actually a bit optimistic that it will.
Meanwhile, the bridge-as-metaphor-for-civilization is still working overtime, even if the bridge itself (as well as what it’s representing) is in bad shape. Progress has been made but the rising river threatens to wash all the work away. Two zombie herds are approaching, which will make everything more difficult, too. Meanwhile, Maggie is secretly headed to Alexandria to murder Negan, but a concerned Jesus sends Jerry to Rick with a note warning him about it.
Rick uses his walkie-talkie relay line to contact Alexandria to make sure Michonne doesn’t let her in, and hops on Daryl’s bike for a fast ride back—only for Daryl to drive him away from Alexandria (since he’d plotted with Maggie previously), and tells Rick that his message never made it to the colony, as apparently he and Maggie found a recruit or two. We’ll return to them in a second, but the last problem that faces the bridge and the people working on it is the ex-Saviors, who 1) took Alden’s gun from him; 2) discovered that Oceanside had been killing them; and 3) came back to the bridge for more guns in order to enact revenge for Oceanside’s revenge. A gunfight ensues, causing enough noise that Rick realizes it’s going to draw the herd and make everything worse.
At this point, Rick and Daryl are in a hole—a large, inexplicable pit that exists only so they can fall into it after one of their brief tussles, and be stuck in for a while. Yet again, I found myself okay with this because it led to yet another great, no-bullshit conversation, and this time I’d say Daryl wins. When Rick talks about how keeping Negan alive makes sure things won’t revert to the way they were, Daryl counters that keeping Negan alive is actually giving people hope that things will return to how they were (speaking of the ex-Saviors). A genuinely upset, tearful Rick explains how if Negan died everyone’s sacrifices will have been for nothing, but Daryl gives what is surely the strongest counter-argument possible: “Do you really think we really couldn’t handle [Negan’s death], after all we’ve been through?”
One of my biggest problems with The Walking Dead over the past several years is how no one has ever called Rick out his bullshit. No matter how awful his acts, no matter how much trouble his actions caused, no one ever has told him he was wrong for doing any of it. In season nine, people aren’t only questioning whether Rick’s plan for the future is feasible, but here’s Daryl, saying that maybe letting Negan live is actually one of the biggest impediments to people coming together—that keeping him alive is a constant reminder of what people lost, and what Negan and his people did. All through this conversation, Daryl is unusually calm and collected, not at all hot under the collar, and his words have extra weight because of them, as does the scene.
It’s great, but I think we all know what the show’s remaining viewers will remember this episode for is the end. After Rick and Daryl hear the gunfire at the bridge and climb out of the hole (which takes much too long, but at least gives us the treat of watching Daryl stack zombie corpses to make a set of stairs), they discover the herds are approaching. Luckily, randomly, a horse has happened by, and Rick tells Daryl to go help the bridge while he leads the herd away on the horse. Daryl tells Rick they can lead the herd to the water and then destroy the dam, which would admittedly destroy the bridge, but the torrent would also take care of the zombies. “I’m not giving up on the bridge!” Rick yells. Again, the metaphor—the bridge = Rick’s vision for forging a single community—is still alive and well, as Rick is obsessed with preserving both despite the dangers, unwilling to admit the grim reality that they’re both probably doomed.
Rick getting on a white horse is a clear callback to the very beginning of the series, almost as if Rick’s journey was being bookended or something. But when he suddenly encounters the second herd, his horse rears, throwing him off…directly onto a rebar which completely pierces his gut. Rick passes out in pain as several hundred zombies shamble directly at him.
Of course, Rick isn’t going to die here—although he may get bitten—since Lincoln still has two more episodes to go, and I bet there’s a goodbye-scene with Michonne in his (limited) future at the very least. But I actually like the idea of Rick just dying because of a random accident, mainly because I don’t like any of the other options. If he gets eaten by zombies, that’s too gruesome and sudden an end for a main character we’ve been watching for nearly a decade; if he just gets bitten it would be too much like Carl’s death to mean anything. Rick getting assassinated by an ex-Savior or getting killed trying to stop a fight between the ex-Saviors and the others would mean Rick would die knowing he failed completely, which is too tragic, even for TWD. Here, Rick is inadvertently sacrificing himself in an attempt to keep everything he’s built together, so he can die thinking he’s achieved something—or at least started something that can continue past his death, giving him and the audience some measure of peace when he’s gone (even if/when it all completely goes to hell later).
I sincerely hope The Walking Dead can stay good past Rick’s death as well, but after four episodes of consistent quality, I feel optimistic—and I also think this is also going to be enough for me to miss Rick when he goes, which I’m kind of shocked by. Forget the bridge metaphor—thanks to season nine, both Rick and The Walking Dead have managed to turn themselves around after years of awfulness, which is an astounding feat (and again, let’s thank new showrunner Angela Kang and her team for both). Except while we know Rick’s time is limited, this good version of The Walking Dead may actually live on.
- In helicopter news, Anne has tied Gabriel to a gurney and wheeled out the dolly with the zombie with the bucket on its head tied to it; she lowers the zombie to chomp on Gabe, just as she was going to do with Negan last season. Gabriel apologizes to her for making her do this, and forgives her, and hopes one day she forgives him—the full religion guilt trip—and Anne decides to let Gabe live. When he wakes up later, she’s gone. So I assume the helicopter mystery is back on pause, but that’s okay, because…
- Maggie is getting letters from Georgie?! Georgie of “Here’s a Key to the Future, my new best-selling post-apocalyptic how-to guide” fame?! What are those letters about? Does Maggie know more about Georgie and her people? Are they connected with the helicopter people? Because of course they must have some kind of secret sinister agenda.
- Speaking of, does anyone have any ideas on what an “A” or “B” is yet? Gabriel’s an “A,” which somehow means he needs to get infected—but why would the helicopter want a zombie? I guess they specifically want fresh zombies, since otherwise Anne could have just wheeled bucket-head zombie onto the chopper, right?
- Daryl’s assertion that Rick may have screwed up his own plan for peace is brought up earlier in the episode by Jesus, who tells Maggie that “Rick was wrong [to spare Negan] because he made a call that wasn’t his to make,” which is an absolutely true statement. If he wanted people to work together, then people would need to move on from the past—and that means giving them the power to control Negan’s fate. Things would be a lot more peaceful if Rick had held a vote or something, whether Negan lived or died. This is good stuff, people.
- I absolutely love Eugene’s decision to name zombie herds after dead Shakespeare characters, in this case Tybalt of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear’s Cordelia. I pray for a future where meteorologist-esque zombie forecasters talk about herd movements and their potential destructive impact like hurricanes.
- Rick’s praising of Eugene and Carol really felt like the show was giving the character a farewell tour. Additionally, Rick’s “Brother, take my hand” to Daryl was just ridiculously hokey and trite, and I still kind of liked it.
- If it seems weird that the ex-Saviors would somehow learn off-camera that Oceanside was responsible for the killings, this is because Walking Dead finally enough interesting things to cover that it no longer needs to waste time seeing people relearn things we the audience already know. Which is amazing and wonderful.
- Rick to Carol: “If anything gives me hope, it’s you,” he says, talking about her turn from nihilist murder machine to someone willing to put themselves out there for a greater good.
- Chances of Negan’s bat still lying on the battlefield and not having been picked up by someone for a big reveal in a future episode: Maybe… two percent?
- Lesson: Taking a gun away from Carol makes her about zero percent less likely to kick your ass. Speaking of, anyone else laugh out loud when Jed called Carol a “weak little woman”? Ha ha, you imbecile.
- I don’t think I’ve said this in years, but here’s a reminder that I named the “Assorted Musings” section of my recaps as a jokingly obvious rip-off of the AV Club’s “Stay Observations.” This was a lot funnier to me before the AV Club became our sister site, but after six years I’m not going to bother to change it now.