(Note: This story contains spoilers about The Walking Dead’s just-completed ninth season, but to be honest, they’ll probably make you want to watch the show again when it hits Netflix.)
If you’re one of the millions of viewers who have stopped watching The Walking Dead since 2016, I can say with absolute honesty—for the first time in years—that this is a damn shame. While AMC’s venerable zombie apocalypse show has managed to squander much of its once immense popularity, the series’ just-wrapped ninth season proved that it is once again one of TV’s most entertaining dramas. Now if only its former audience knew.
I don’t blame anyone who gave up on the series between the show’s apex—culminating in 2016’s infuriating, insulting cliffhanger—and the two boring, interminable seasons that followed. After it was announced that star Andrew Lincoln, who played the main protagonist Rick Grimes, would be leaving the show in late 2018, there probably didn’t seem to be any particular reason to come back. Now I’m here to tell you there is, and it’s a simple one:
The Walking Dead has gotten weird.
New showrunner Angela Kang seems to be the one to thank. And the shift began, appropriately enough, with Lincoln’s final episode. While most viewers—myself included—assumed the only way Rick’s character would achieve any narrative closure would be to die heroically, Kang had a different plan in mind. Instead, Rick blew up a bridge he was standing on (it’s a long story), appeared to die, but then was seized by mysterious people and flown away in a helicopter to a mysterious location. It was completely bizarre, and it was also interesting as hell. Viewers still have no idea where he is, but AMC‘s canny announcement Lincoln would return as Rick in future Walking Dead TV movies has kept fans satisfied that they’ll eventually get to see what happened to the character who was the heart of the show.
After that shocker, Kang wisely used the opportunity afforded by such a seismic change to reset the series. Following a similar development from the original Walking Dead comics, the story jumped forward about seven years. Not only did this allow the characters in the world to move on from Rick’s death off-screen—as opposed to spending half a season wallowing in despair—it automatically gave viewers new, intriguing mysteries about their favorite remaining characters. Why had communication between the three communities broken down? Why did Michonne and Daryl have brands on them? Where was Maggie? What the hell had happened to everybody?
These people have decided the best way to live in the zombie apocalypse is to cut off zombies’ faces, wear them like masks, and then go shambling along with them.
This reboot started out with remarkable freshness and energy and was a perfect place to get onboard with the series. But the millions of fans who stopped watching over the last few years needed something more—something that would make The Walking Dead unique again, not just among the writhing piles of zombie entertainment that now clog up the pop culture megasphere, but even compared to the eight seasons of the show that preceded it.
They finally got it in the Whisperers, a set of new foes introduced in season nine. The Whisperers may be the most bizarre group of characters yet in a show that has been filled with them. There was the Kingdom, which had ersatz knights and a king. Then there were the inhabitants of Terminus, who seemingly chose to become cannibals about 15 minutes after the first corpse rose from the dead. My favorite may be the Scavengers, who, I kid you not, seemed to be some kind of expressionist art collective who lived in a garbage dump.
The Whisperers are something else entirely. These people have decided the best way to live in the zombie apocalypse is to cut off zombies’ faces, wear them like masks, and then go shambling along with them. They simply hang out with them, and they whisper to one another so they don’t, you know, get noticed and eaten by the dozens of zombies they are willingly walking among.
This is deeply hilarious. Even in the heightened reality of The Walking Dead, even in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, this is an absurdly dangerous ethos. The group’s “only the strong survive” mentality prevents them from guarding themselves against zombies—meaning they get eaten with some regularity. And yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of survivors who seem to be completely onboard with this unique and highly questionable lifestyle choice.
But there is a method to this madness. The fact that humans in zombie disguises now hide among actual zombies has brought excitement back to the show’s decaying bread-and-butter action because there’s always a chance that a zombie may suddenly spring into action and murder a main character. There was also a chilling moment in episode 11 (“Bounty”) where the Whisperers had to leave a crying baby on the ground for zombies to eat. (It survived. The show hasn’t quite crossed that line. Yet.)
That’s not all. Apparently being able to walk among the dead has allowed the Whisperers to somehow weaponize their decomposing pals. Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers, has a herd of thousands of zombies her followers can order like an army.
Nothing about these guys makes any sense, but they are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. And these are just the main new antagonists. The show has also introduced a group of survivors called the Highwaymen, who are essentially survivors who have decided to become a bunch of ’80s-era Hank Williams Jr. impersonators.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the unnamed group revealed in a flashback to have caused much of the psychological and emotional damage that occurred during the time jump. See, a few years ago, a fairly pregnant Michonne and her Alexandrians came across a woman guarding a bunch of ragamuffin kids—and the woman was one of Michonne’s old high school buddies. What could go wrong?
If you’ve seen The Walking Dead, you know the answer to that. It turns out Michonne’s friend has been training her Dickensian gang to steal supplies and murder adults in order to survive—except somehow these kids are much more dedicated to murdering adults than surviving. Her former friend orders her charges to continually attack Michonne, forcing the mother-to-be to essentially kill a first-grade classroom full of kids in self-defense. This scene is The Walking Dead at its most, well, Walking Dead: audacious, incredibly dark, and completely unique. For a show that just wrapped its ninth season, that’s an incredible achievement, not least because it’s been such a long time since the series could be described as any of those things.
The news that The Walking Dead’s season nine ender was the lowest-rated finale in the show’s history is not good, but it can’t have been that unexpected among Kang and her producers. After all, there are a lot of terrible Walking Dead episodes to make up for, and a single season—no matter how good it is—can only do so much. It’ll take at least a year, and most likely more, to win back even a fraction of the millions who have walked away from The Walking Dead.
If these audiences ever decide to return, season nine is exactly where they need to start over—as long as they’re comfortable with the zombie apocalypse getting weird.