*This is a non-spoiler look at Season Nine of The Walking Dead. That said, if you don´t know that something very big happened to Rick, stop reading now.
For two long seasons (four if you count bits of seasons 5 and 6), everyone’s favourite Zombie-show saw a steady decline in quality and ratings. I was one of the ones who stuck around simply because I am invested enough in these characters and curious as to how some comic book arcs will play out on screen. I was also one of the ones who complained and trashed the show a lot over the last two years.
Then we got the news. Angela Kang would be taking over the show (replacing Scott M. Gimple) and with her would come a new direction, a different tone, and even a “reset” time jump.
The Walking Dead was going for the old reboot. This strategy can make or break a show that is already floundering.
So what do I think of the “new and improved” version of cable’s number one series? I am happy to say that through the first eight episodes of season 9 of The Walking Dead, it looks like a show that could go on for another five seasons! It’s absolutely got new life.
So what has Kang and company brewed up to make this show great again? Here are five of my takeaways.
1. Tone it Down!!!
The most noticeable change right from the first seconds of episode one is the colour scheme. The show has opted for a dimmer camera filter and the costuming is darker too. This paints a drearier and more serious canvas compared to the last few seasons.
The characters have also been brought down to earth and tweaked just enough to match this gloomier exterior. There are fewer smiles and scowls and more brood this season.
There is a sense of great loss and less hope. The survivors are intent on keeping what they have instead of grasping for what isn’t there. This is a mature cast who has been through a lot and it shows. The cartoon-action-hero style from seasons 7 and 8 has been replaced with reality (or as much reality as a zombie-show can offer).
Even Ezekiel and Negan, who were the two biggest “straight out of loony tunes” characters (with heavy competition from Simon and Jadis) have been grounded. Ezekiel feels more like an aged and mature leader and Negan (though stuck in a cell through most of this season) feels layered and more threatening than at any time in his two-season run.
Instead of waiting five episodes for a story or character arc to develop, we get from point A to point B in just one episode, and in a satisfying manner.
Remember how long it took Carol and Morgan to decide that being outcasts was not the way to go? Or how long it took for Rick and Company to decide that being Negan’s lapdog was not going to cut it? Or how long it took Oceanside to stop hiding out in the forest even though they were heavily armed and ready for battle?
In the first half of season 9, we have already had Rick’s story resolved, new survivors are vetted and taken in, and it took exactly one episode for Daryl to get his head back in the game and Carol´s boy, Henry, to realize he wasn’t cut out to be a “bad boy”.
This is the sort of pace that makes a show that is built on season-long arcs really entertaining.
16 episodes is a lot when we think of modern television’s truncated binge-watchable 10 to 12 episode style. But, it doesn’t have to feel long if the writers can manage to start and end episodes with resolutions to plot points and present clear themes. This season has excelled at this so far. Instead of leaving us with dangling plot lines at the 40-minute-mark, we have gotten bottled episodes which accentuate the longer arcs that are brewing in the background.
3. Scary Shit!!!
When spiders popped out of the head of a zombie in the season opener, I jumped for the first time in a long time while watching The Walking Dead. For many years, it seems the writers had forgotten that The Walking Dead is a zombie-show and for that reason alone it should be scary.
Yes, the idea that humans are the real Walking Dead (as Rick famously put it) and the true threat is cool and smart. That said, “It’s Still a Zombie Show!!!!” I want to feel the fear as our heroes escape inescapable circumstances with a horde of the undead surrounding them.
This season has remedied that.
From zombies on a bridge to zombies in an old house to zombies being led by The Whisperers, season 9 has brought the undead out from wherever they were hiding during All Out War and made them stars again.
And since we mentioned them, the brief intro we got to The Whisperers was more chilling and intense than anything it took a five-minute monologue from Negan to produce. The survivors escaping a horde of zombies through a graveyard on a foggy night only to find out there was more to these zombies than meets the eye was straight out of 70s and 80s horror and had my heart racing.
The Walking Dead seems to have remembered that while it has the task of showing our human character’s trials and tribulations, that can easily run into soap-opera-land and be very boring. When the show shamelessly recognizes that it´s a popcorn-thriller horror show at heart, it usually excels beyond measure.
4. Real Drama
The Walking Dead gave us two seasons where it spoon-fed us “drama”. We were supposed to be scared of The Saviors because every chance the writers got they told us how horrid they were. If it wasn’t Rick reiterating the point, it was Tara and the Oceanside people, or The Hilltop and Kingdom folk, or Negan and The Saviors themselves.
What’s that cardinal rule for film? “Show don’t tell”.
In season nine we have a time jump that shows our characters with different visuals and different attitudes. It is not fully explained to us why they are like this but our imaginations are made to work to figure it out.
The bad blood is seething through the screen thus creating a real dramatic effect that sticks with the viewer long after the episode ends.
The Walking Dead will never have premium-level television writing, but that doesn’t mean it has to be High School level in the dramatic department either. This is pulp fiction. Whenever the show accepts this, it flourishes. When it tries to take itself too seriously it flounders.
So far this season, the show has understood that its best drama comes from keeping it simple and straightforward, while not insulting the audience’s intelligence.
5. Trim the Fat
Although some of the side characters on The Walking Dead are great to watch, the last two years spent too much time exploring their daily lives while staying away from our leads. A few of these episodes were okay, but many were frustratingly long and boring.
In seasons 7 and 8, I wanted to know mostly about Rick’s group – they are the ones I had been following the longest, and the ones who started the entire mess with Negan – no amount of Shiva in The Kingdom could change that.
This season, so far, has opted to give us short bits in the Kingdom and Hilltop but has wisely kept its focus on Michonne and the survivors in Alexandria. They are the heart of the show regardless of who gets cut from the cast. Even with Rick no longer there, his heart and spirit live on in their struggles and victories.
The show will do well in not straying its focus too much from the core cast because it is through their lenses that this story has moved along so well both in the comics and in earlier seasons of the show.
Few shows can maintain the same level of buzz and quality after nearly a decade on the air, The Walking Dead is no different. Sometimes a show can find new life in its later years, though, and not die a depressing death.
It’s a shame so many of the original viewers have dropped off because, for the moment, it looks as if our survivors have found their way again. The show feels as fresh as it has ever been. Let’s hope this trend can last for the rest of this season.
With this level of quality, I believe The Walking Dead has a few more good years left in it. I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing. Who wants The Walking Dead to become AMC´s version of Grey´s Anatomy or The Simpsons, i.e., a decent show but still a shadow of its former self. Let´s hope the show-runners know when it’s time to go out on a high note instead of whimpering to a forgettable end.
If you want to hear my post-show live broadcasts for episodes of season nine of The Walking Dead, on Youtube, click on the video link below. C’mon, I got shot at one night and nearly choked to death while broadcasting on another!!!
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