As it heads into its ninth season the zombie smash should be losing its bite. But with some drastic changes and the addition of Samantha Morton it could be reanimated.
How do you whip up excitement for the ninth season of a TV drama? That was the conundrum facing The Walking Dead before its return last night, a series that even its staunchest apologists would concede has not been firing on all cylinders for about four years now.
Last year’s finale achieved the lowest end-of-season ratings since season one, and you can hardly blame the viewing public for jumping ship. A general throb of ennui is an understandable reaction to the show’s endless cycle of mud, moaning and misery – a cycle that looks set to continue without resolution for another lucrative decade, if the producers get their way.
In calling the season premiere A New Beginning, it appears the programme-makers are acutely aware of this. It represents one of many new beginnings, not least of which is the installation of a new showrunner, Angela Kang, to oversee all things undead from here on out. It is also the first time in a couple of seasons that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan isn’t wedged front-and-centre as the primary antagonist – great news for anyone for whom his backwards-leaning, Foghorn Leghorn shtick wore thin. There has also been a year-and-a-half time jump, meaning Rick has got a new haircut, Gabriel has got a new hat, Pollyanna Mcintosh has got a new vocabulary, cute romances between central characters have bloomed, and the gang has generally been busy building things out of wood and not being eaten, bludgeoned or shot. To top it all off, there are some new, whizzy, graphic novel-esque opening credits.
But is this premiere enough to keep viewers from abandoning it in their hordes? Sadly, I do not think it is.
Things started promisingly enough. Much has been made in the producers’ pre-season hubbub about the group visiting the crumbling ruins of Washington DC, providing welcome visual respite from the dreary trees and fields of Georgia. And, yes, they do go there, but not for very long, and the reason behind the trip, in true Walking Dead style, is so idiotic you can feel your brain cells explode. They are there to purloin pre-industrial farming machinery – ploughs and horse-drawn carts and whatnot – from a museum. Yes, they have traveled halfway across the country to nick hoes and stuff. It makes no sense at all.
Nevertheless, as an opening salvo, these early scenes do offer whiffs of a show renewed. They are exciting, and at least it feels as if our band of survivors is actually doing something.
Soon, focus returns to the complex politics required to keep the Hilltop, Alexandria and the Sanctuary running in harmony, allowing for plenty of knotty disagreements between our main players. By the end of the second episode there have been some gruesome kills, some superbly tense action, one profoundly unpleasant injury and Daryl has punched the bloke who played Charles Vane in Black Sails right in the middle of the face. All in all, it is really not too bad.
Crucially, we are permitted to witness a smidgen of what these characters have been fighting for. They laugh with each other, indulging in actual chats that are not stuffed with dialogue so ripe it sounds as if it has been lifted from Pearl Harbor’s deleted scenes. They struggle with day-to-day issues such as food supplies, justice and forgiveness, all of which come laden with their own complicated admin. They are thinking about the future. No evil, snarling baddie has yet reared its evil, snarling head. It is calmer. Instead of the bombastic season openers of years gone by, the show seems as if it is settling into the soap opera-with-zombies it has always threatened to be.
That, for many people, will be the problem. The show has never purported to have a “they are looking for a world-saving cure” arc bubbling away in the background. Ending the apocalypse is not what the show is about, and for better or worse it never has been. What The Walking Dead has always done is busy itself with mini-arcs: the group finds a new home, it turns out the home is not as safe as they thought, some violence occurs, someone dies, they move on, and repeat. This cookie-cutter pattern has grown tiresome over nine years, but at least it was something to invest in. Here, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new, nascent mini-arc. As such, if you were looking for an opportunity to quit and do something else with the extra 16 hours a year, you will be hard pressed to find a better one.
We have not even touched on the elephant in the room, either. The impending exit of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes has been the major talking point between seasons, and perhaps some will keep watching simply to see how this comes about, like unhinged, morbid rubberneckers. But, like the moments of panic before the dentist sticks a giant needle into you, waiting for the inevitable is never fun. Knowing Rick is leaving is bad enough, but The Walking Dead’s time-old pattern of saving big events for season openers and finales means we also have a fair idea of when it is coming. Hanging around simply to see something we have been told is going to happen feels like a chore.
It is not all doom and gloom. If you have always preferred the show when the narrative has concerned itself more with the ins-and-outs of survival as opposed to battling some big bad, then this may be your favourite opener in years. You might also think the show has earned a fair crack before you pass judgment and abandon it. Again, entirely fair enough. Plus, Samantha Morton’s joining the cast soon and, lest it need pointing out, Samantha Morton is brilliant.
There is a colossal amount of good TV available at the moment, and a distressingly finite number of hours to cram it into. A decade-old zombie show that, in recent years, has plopped out as many appalling episodes as good ones might not be considered by some to be the best use of that time. You could be watching Killing Eve instead. Or Wynonna Earp – that’s a lot of fun. Ozark, maybe. How about Bosch? Bosch is good.
So is The Walking Dead, I suppose. But with so many alternatives, is it good enough? After eight years, it is with a heavy heart that I say: no, it isn’t.