When a long-running series loses its biggest star, it’s often an indicator that the show is on its last legs. But with the departure of Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead hardly staggered through its ninth season like a zombie. In all fairness to Lincoln and his character Rick Grimes, the jump in quality since his departure probably has nothing to do with him directly. It’s more likely that showrunner Angela Kang brought fresh energy to the production when she took over the reins. Season 9 was the show’s strongest in years, emerging from the dumpster fire that was the Savior War with new characters, new villains, and a fresh outlook.
With Season 10 set to premiere this Sunday, here are a few reasons The Walking Dead is enjoying a renaissance.
The Walking Dead has always been a bit cagey about exactly how many days have elapsed between various events, but — with the exception of a tiny leap forward here and there — it’s often crept forward at a glacial pace. The span of time from the heroes’ first arrival at Alexandria to their first face-to-face encounter with Negan was allegedly two months, and from there to the end of the Savior War was another 30 days by even the most conservative fan estimates — but it took the show nearly four years to get there.
That’s why it was particularly refreshing when we were given roughly half an episode to mourn Rick's loss, before the show decided to yada-yada an entire 18 months, pause for a few episodes, then jump ahead another six years. If things had continued at the previous pace, we would have never recovered from his departure. The time jump effectively hit a reset button and opened the door for a new story arc to begin without having to contend with Rick’s lingering ghost.
While Seasons 7 and 8 hit most of the high points of the Savior War as they were outlined in the comics, they often lost the thread, going off on inexplicable, multi-episode tangents in the name of fleshing out the Saviors and assigning side quests to various characters. By the time Negan was captured and the Sanctuary fell, the show had hemorrhaged viewers, pulling in barely half the audience it had enjoyed at its peak.
With Negan’s threat contained, the next chapter in the story finds a group of newcomers, led by Magna (Nadia Hilker) encountering the settlement at Alexandria and quickly finding their lots thrown in with the main cast as another band of newcomers, nicknamed “The Whisperers,” emerges to threaten them all. The first appearance of the Whisperers, while already deeply creepy and surprising in the comics, was downright chilling when brought to life for television.
For readers of the comics that inspired the show, there’s plenty of joy in watching a memorable tableau from the comic brought to life on the screen, but it would be extremely unsatisfying if the show delivered every plot point from the source material exactly as written. While not every attempt to stray from the comic path is successful, the series kept viewers on their toes throughout Season 9 by twisting and riffing on the source material (as opposed to just packing it with filler as it has frequently done in recent seasons).
One of the most effective tactics was to assign a major death from the comics to an entirely different character on the show, and there was no better place to do this, narratively speaking, than the end of Season 9. As Season 9 built to the crushing, gory climax, every comic reader knew what to expect, everyone was on the edge of their seats whether they knew what was coming or not, and the reveal at the end of the penultimate episode (depicting just who would fall victim to the Whisperers) was beautifully shot and even more shocking than it had been in the comics. The fallout from The Whisperers’ final, chaotic statement sets things up for further confrontations between their group and our heroes in Season 10.
The Walking Dead has always been an ensemble show with something of a revolving door, which may be one reason it was able to withstand the loss of Rick so well. Of the original first-season cast, only Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) remain. Throughout Season 9, standout moments from old favorites like Aaron (Ross Marquand), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and Rosita (Christian Serratos) were mixed in with a surprisingly likable influx of newcomers, including Connie (Lauren Ridloff) and Lydia (Cassady McClincy). The bulk of the leadership duties now seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of Michonne (Danai Guirira), who’s proven she is more than up for the challenge. (And given that this is Guirira’s own final season on the show, it’s nice that she doesn’t have to hog the spotlight for her final days.)
And while your college drama professor might find some of Samantha Morton’s choices as Alpha a little questionable, you have to admit that no TV villain anywhere is having more fun. Watching the Oscar-nominated actress tear into this strange, brutal role with unparalleled gusto has been one of the highlights of the entire series so far. Even Jeffrey Dean Morgan doesn’t savor his role half as much. Perhaps the most anticipated and speculated-on moment of Season 10 is what will happen when the two biggest villains of the series finally meet face to face.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday October 6th at 9:00 PM ET on AMC
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.