Last year, TV Guide ranked the 100 greatest shows on TV at the time and left The Walking Dead off it completely. Our thinking was that even though it had remained immensely popular, it hadn't stayed vital. "As much as we love the show (we'll watch it to the end), it hasn't truly evolved in the eight seasons it's been on the air," my colleague Tim Surette wrote at the time. "Staying relevant in today's world means adapting and evolving, not merely surviving."
This was written after two interminable, joyless seasons of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) powering up at each other, Dragon Ball Z-style. The dialogue consisted almost entirely of speeches about "we have to kill to survive." All but the most diehard fans (of which there were still a lot!) had had enough and jumped ship. And a lot of diehards spent most of their time complaining about showrunner Scott Gimple on Reddit. Even for misery porn, it was no fun. It felt like it was running out of life, as most shows that last longer than a season do.
When we tweeted the story in September explaining our decision, AMC's official account replied, "You'll regret that after this new season," which was then a few weeks out from premiering. And while we don't regret not putting The Walking Dead on the list last year, we probably wouldn't leave it off this year. We may even put it somewhere in the top three quarters. Because Season 9 has reinvigorated the show. It did the things we had previously knocked it for not doing; in fact, there were even episodes titled "Evolution" and "Adaptation." Improbably, The Walking Dead is the best it's been since 2015.
I say "improbably" because the show faced a junkyard-sized heap of a problem between Seasons 8 and 9: Beloved leading man Andrew Lincoln was leaving. The Walking Dead has always been an ensemble show and has never completely revolved around Rick Grimes, but the sheriff was the most important, point-of-view character. It would be like if Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) left Grey's Anatomy. And beyond that, Lincoln's boundless positivity energized the other people who work on the show as well as the fans. Without him, things wouldn't be the same. And the show had just mismanaged Carl's (Chandler Riggs) death storyline, so fans were not optimistic that Rick would get a proper send-off.
But there was a big behind-the-scenes change that probably saved the show. Scott Gimple became Chief Content Officer of the Walking Dead franchise, and Angela Kang was promoted to showrunner in his place. And she came in with her work cut out for her, like figuring out how exactly to get Rick Grimes into that helicopter. Kang had been a writer since Season 2, and she obviously had developed her own ideas about how things should go. And those ideas were so good. Among those ideas: Writing dialogue as conversations instead of speeches. Casting great actors like Brett Butler and Angus Sampson to give small parts an extra kick. Giving dissatisfied cast member Tom Payne a truly shocking, game-changing midseason finale death that was one of the scariest moments the show has ever had. Figuring out organic ways to transfer Rick's and Carl's comic storylines to other characters. And most importantly, putting a sense of hope into the show.
Part of the reason why the show had become so hard to watch during the Gimple era was that it forgot people need stuff to live for beyond just surviving. Kang remembered this, and refocused the story on bringing separated communities back together based on love and cooperation, not just fear-driven survival instinct. It remembered that humans have culture, with the new character Luke (Dan Fogler) reminding people that music is good. But the best subplot of the season was Ezekiel's (Khary Payton) determination to screen a movie during the fair. The show treated the moviegoing experience like an important thing, a sacred relic of a bygone time worth preserving. "We're giving the gift of joy and lifelong friendship," Ezekiel said in that episode. "If that's not worth fighting for, I don't know what the hell is." Exactly! Moments like this balanced the grimness and gave hope for a future that wasn't all murder and misery.
Which is not to say that there wasn't a lot of murder and misery, because this is The Walking Dead. Murder and misery is what the show is about. It just has to be good. And it was! The heads-on-pikes sequence in "The Calm Before" had stomach-tightening tension as it built to a devastating reveal that had great acting and an excellent score. Alpha's (Samantha Morton) gruesome decapitation of an insubordinate follower was gratuitous, but sometimes fans want gratuitous. Michonne (Danai Gurira) massacred a bunch of kids! Kang brightened up the show in a few places, but she kept it dark, too. Bringing in the uniquely intense Samantha Morton to play Alpha was a brilliant move. She's the show's best villain since the Governor (David Morrissey).
As a critic but also a fan, I can't stress enough how gratified I was by Season 9. Before the premiere, AMC sent screeners for the first three episodes, and they were all good. There hadn't been a string of three good episodes in a row since I started covering the show in Season 6. It was rare to even get two good episodes back to back. And that level of quality continued throughout the season. When Rick flew away in that helicopter and the show skipped forward in time, I was excited to see what happened next in a way I thought I had lost with The Walking Dead. And I still am. I can't wait to see the Rick Grimes movies and whatever spin-off is in the works. I have faith that Angela Kang & Co. will find a satisfying way to write Danai Gurira off next season. I'm back in on a franchise I thought I was out on. That's miraculous. Like someone coming back from the dead.
The Walking Dead will return for Season 10 in the fall. Season 9 is available to stream on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.