The Walking Dead underwent enormous changes in Season 9, both in front of and behind the camera. Top-billed actor Andrew Lincoln departed, while executive producer Angela Kang took over as showrunner. Onscreen, a six-year time jump allowed the show to introduce a bunch of new characters. The splashiest of those new characters was skin suit-wearing psycho Alpha (Samantha Morton), who was as disturbingly intense as you wanted her to be. But she wasn't the breakout of the season. That honor goes to Connie, a deaf woman who's holding her own in the zombie apocalypse, played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff.
Connie quickly proved her mettle during one of the season's best action sequences, rescuing an abandoned, crying baby from walkers and running into a zombie-infested cornfield. We experienced the scene from Connie's point of view, which added a thrilling dimension to the sequence, since we couldn't hear the zombies sneaking up on her. It was something that couldn't be done with a hearing character and opened up new possibilities for types of Walking Dead action scenes, an impressive feat for a show nine seasons in.
Connie also brought out new dynamics in old characters. When she went out on an adventure with Daryl (Norman Reedus), she was not shy about putting the tough guy in his place. Most people defer to Daryl unless they want to get beat up, but Connie would make decisions and leave him to catch up. Besides, if Daryl is gonna mumble while facing away from her, he's not talking to her, and she's not gonna hang on his every word; she's got stuff to do and no time to waste. We're betting there's going to be some romantic chemistry between the two of them when the show returns for Season 10. Daryl needs someone who's like him, but more so, and Connie is a woman of even fewer words than he is, and more decisive to boot.
Connie has been a great addition to The Walking Dead at a crucial time of transformation, and the character might not have worked if not for Ridloff, who completely embodies the idea of a survivor. Ridloff is a newcomer to TV -- The Walking Dead is her first substantial TV role -- but she's already had success on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination last year for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. Before that, she was a kindergarten teacher turned stay-at-home mom who was tutoring the play's director on sign language when he cast her in the revival after she filled in on a table read with Joshua Jackson. It was her first professional theater role, and she got nominated for a Tony. Then she landed her first recurring role on a TV show, and it's on one of the biggest ones on air. She's just killing it. She's a 41-year-old rookie who can more than hold her own in scenes -- and even steal them -- with a star who makes $350k an episode.
It's incredible to see The Walking Dead not only have a deaf lead character but for her to be an important part of the ensemble. This is thanks in part to the writing, which provided the character with great material, but is mainly due to Ridloff, who is one of the stronger performers on the show and played a crucial role in revitalizing the series. We can't wait to see what she does next.
Because this is such a competitive category, TV Guide wanted to take this opportunity to shout-out all the runners-up who just barely missed out on the honor of Best Newcomer: In the Dark's Perry Mattfeld, whose unapologetic snark made us wish we were half as cool as Murphy; What We Do in the Shadows' Harvey Guillen, who brings so much heart to the FX vampire comedy; and The Umbrella Academy's Aidan Gallagher, who is so great at portraying a grown man in a teen's body we've had to Google the actor's age multiple times.