SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 5, entitled “What Comes After”. Proceed at your own risk.
The defining moment of The Walking Dead Season 9 will undoubtedly be “Rick Grimes’ departure. It’s what’s been most asked about and talked about, and it’s how AMC has chosen to promote the show. For the first half of the season, anyway. Up to now, you haven’t been able to see a billboard or watch an ad for the show without seeing the phrase “Rick Grimes’ last episodes”. Years from now, fans will summarise the seasons like this: Season 2 was the farm, Season 3 was the prison… Season 8 was the war, Season 9 was Rick’s last.
And that’s unfortunate. Rick was a great character – scratch that, Rick is a great character considering he is, as far as we know, still alive, having survived his run from one last walker horde and disappeared on the mysterious helicopter with Jadis – and Andrew Lincoln has been an excellent lead for the past nine years. But while fans will remember the season as being Rick’s last, it should really be remembered for pulling a doozy of a switch-up.
After Rick is flown off, the episode ends by introducing viewers to a new group of survivors – Magna, Luke, Connie, Kelly, and Yumiko – in the same place where Rick and Jadis took off in the chopper. They’re nearly overtaken by walkers when someone clears them a path to safety. The group reaches their savior only for the viewers to find that it’s a sheriff hat-wearing, sword-wielding Judith – who looks to be somewhere between 10 and 13. Smart move, Walking Dead. You just blew things wide open.
Shock To The System
You can’t Google The Walking Dead without reading a story about the show’s drop in ratings. People enjoy a good success story, but they love witnessing a giant fall. Nine seasons in, you can expect to see a drop in viewership. Every year you’re adding another 16 episode barrier that new adopters – through Netflix or DVD – have to hop over to catch up. But that’s not the only reason.
The show’s also been a bit stagnant the last few years. Storylines that enthralled viewers back in Season 2 and 3 lose a bit of “oomph” six or seven years later. With a massive time-jump like this, it frees up the writers to do a lot more things. Maybe Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Saviors are thriving. Maybe new alliances that would have taken years of build-up are in full swing right when we arrive. There’s plenty of new ways to look at the show’s established characters given how much time has passed. That’s the kind of shot in the arm that could do wonders for the stories going forward, and that could even bring old fans back in.
The New Guard
If the powers-that-be behind the show are clever, they’ll keep the focus on Magna and her group at least through the show’s midseason. One of The Walking Dead’s biggest problems over the years is after the first couple seasons it struggled to introduce new survivors for fans to care about. Sure we got an Abraham here and a Jesus there, but they’ve tried so hard with plenty that just didn’t click (sorry, Aaron).
The time-jump offers the perfect incentive to stick with this new group. They don’t know the survivors of Alexandria, Hilltop, etc, and really neither do the viewers anymore, with so much time having been dedicated to the war against Negan at the expense of developing characters further. Many have stagnated. Focusing on Magna and the rest of her crew would serve double-duty, giving us ample screentime with them and introducing us to familiar characters who will (hopefully) feel a bit stranger given all the time that’s passed.
Having Judith be the one to save the new group was a sensible move. It explained everything we need to know about the jump instantly – though it’s not clear exactly how old she is. The show can do a lot with Judith now that’s she’s older. She always felt like a weight tied to the group’s collective ankle beforehand, but it’s clear now she’s definitely the product of being raised by Rick and Michonne — and that’s exciting for her development and the impact she could have.
When Carl died there were fans – at least, the ones who weren’t sick of the character – who were frustrated by all the future storylines from the comics the show wouldn’t be able to do. Why couldn’t Judith take over Carl’s place in those storylines? They aren’t drastically different in age, and they’d arguably be more interesting given that Judith hasn’t ever known a world without walkers.
One of the biggest concerns for Season 9 was that after Rick’s final episode there was going to be such a black hole caused by his absence that the rest of the season would be consumed by the characters’ grief. Rick was a big part of everyone’s life so all that sorrow would have been justified – but it would make for bad TV.
Thanks to the time skip, we can avoid all that and jump right into the heart of a new era for the show, without a boring transitional period. Sure, there will still be characters who’ll feel Rick’s absence (Michonne, Judith, Daryl) but with so much time passed, they’ll hopefully have worked through the rawness of emotion. Fans of The Walking Dead should start getting excited — the show is about to set foot in all-new territory in a way that nobody predicted.