Two characters died in the Season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead, but not the ones we've been speculating about. One of the characters who died was one we'd never seen before but whose death is the catalyst for the leadership clash between Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln). The other was an old nemesis whose luck finally ran out.
The first death was Ken (AJ Achinger), the teenage son of Hilltop's blacksmith Earl (John Finn) and Tammy (Brett Butler). His death came as the scavenging group was returning to Virginia from Washington, D.C. and the wagons got stuck in the mud. He was trying to free a horse from its reins when he was bitten by a walker, and then the ungrateful horse kicked him in the chest, ensuring he was doubly dead. We had never seen him before, so his death didn't mean anything to us viewers, but the characters who knew him were deeply affected, especially Maggie.
His death was important for what happened after. Maggie went to talk to his parents about what happened, and Tammy was furious with her for letting her son die while gathering supplies to help the Saviors, who many Hilltoppers still resent. "Those damn Saviors eat our food and take everything that Hilltop bled for," she said. "It ain't right." Tammy told Maggie that she voted for her over Hilltop's former leader Gregory (Xander Berkeley) in the election of the community's new leader, but at least Gregory has vowed to "put Hilltop first," which she doesn't think Maggie has done. Tammy forbade Maggie from attending Ken's funeral while Earl brooded. Tammy and Earl's grief over their son's death was a surprisingly emotionally affecting subplot and will continue to deepen over the next few episodes.
At the funeral, Al (Callan McAuliffe) sang a lovely rendition of "The Last Rose of Summer" and Gregory gave a speech about what a great kid Ken was, which must have been what inspired Earl to go drink with him. Earl threw away many years of sobriety and was very vulnerable to Gregory's anti-Maggie manipulation. Gregory said that Maggie just does whatever Rick wants and the people of Hilltop suffer, but it doesn't have to be that way. He wanted Earl to assassinate Maggie.
The assassination attempt failed, and Maggie went and confronted Gregory. He got in her head by saying that her fearless leader Rick is still sheltering Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who Maggie still wants dead for what he did to Glenn (Steven Yeun). They fought, and Gregory tried to stab her, but Maggie overpowered him. His punishment was execution by hanging.
"I made this decision," Maggie said after the deed was done. "But this is not the beginning of something. I don't want to go through it again." Which seems like foreshadowing that this is going to happen again. Michonne (Danai Gurira) seemed upset by the whole proceeding, and capital punishment will probably be one of the issues her charter addresses, and presumably not everyone will be on the same page about that, either.
Gregory had started to seem like he had nine lives after his numerous narrow escapes, but his treacherous nature finally caught up with him. His death closes the chapter on the struggle for leadership of Hilltop (for now; that will change after Maggie leaves later in the season). But his death, as well as Ken's, are pushing Maggie to break from Rick. When Rick visited to ask for the Hilltop's help rebuilding the washed-out bridge and feeding the workers, she drove a hard bargain, demanding that the Sanctuary provide most of the labor and give Hilltop the ethanol it produces as fuel. She and Rick have different views on how to handle the residents of the Sanctuary. She sees them as colonial subjects, while Rick sees them as partners in the new world. Maggie is asserting her leadership by putting Hilltop first, and that's going to lead to further complications.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.