The post-apocalyptic zombie world will go on even after Rick Grimes -- the character played by Andrew Lincoln -- exits this season, at the star's request. But since "The Walking Dead" stumbled through the past two seasons, season nine opens in prove-it-to-me mode, at least for those who see Rick's departure as a good time to consider closing the books on this AMC hit.
Happily, the latest producer to slide into the showrunner seat, Angela Kang, appears to have put the series on firmer footing -- rediscovering key relationships, developing some promising new ones and capitalizing on the core characters, while establishing what amounts to a running mystery. Perhaps foremost, the show moves from a war footing to the more interesting question of sustaining a community, and how to impose order in a lawless world without ceding the moral high ground.
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Without giving too much away, a chunk of time has elapsed since the bloody battle that decided the Negan war, and Rick's controversial act of mercy at its conclusion. Now, however, the various bands of survivors must find a way to maintain that harmony, even as some of its constituencies begin chafing at the process.
"We're making a new beginning -- getting back a piece of how we used to be," says Rick, seeking to honor those he's lost with a renewed sense of optimism. "Every life counts now," he later adds.
Still, making peace with the Saviors hasn't sat well with everybody, creating friction with some old allies, including Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus). The first three episodes also incorporate a genuine moral dilemma, which has always been the show's primary strength: Here, finding the resolve to forgive your enemies, for the sake of a larger purpose.
AMC has leaned into the promotional benefits of Lincoln leaving -- the season is being heavily promoted as "Rick Grimes' Final Episodes" -- ratcheting up the pressure to craft a meaningful, satisfying sendoff.
The more formidable issue, however, is making the case that there's life after him -- hardly an academic exercise for an expensive show, whose ratings have slipped sharply from their heyday, about to lose its most tangible connection that remains to what set the whole story in motion.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Kang pointed to the benefits of Lincoln's departure, citing the "very rich" storylines that the shakeup creates for other players. "As our characters navigate 'a Rick-less world,' we get to see who they become in the aftermath of that," she said.
To its credit, these episodes do feel like the series is back on track, and it's true that change in any creative endeavor can help energize a long-running franchise, at least temporarily. That said, there's a nagging feeling that the whole enterprise has moved into a brand-management phase, including the wholesale makeover of spinoff "Fear the Walking Dead" and a host of licensing offshoots.
Even with this promising start, then, "The Walking Dead" still has several hurdles to clear before fully making the case that keeping a "Rick-less" show alive won't turn the series into the TV facsimile of its title.
"The Walking Dead" returns Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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