The future of the The Walking Dead appears murkier than ever, in more ways than one.
There’s a new war coming with fresh adversaries The Whisperers and war typically means casualties. But just as it’s beginning, three actors already made their way off the show (Andrew Lincoln, Lauren Cohan, and Tom Payne) and now another crucial centerpiece (Danai Gurira) is planning her exit in season 10. With AMC still determined to make this franchise last as long as possible between its main series, Fear spin-off, and a movie slate (potentially featuring some of the faces that recently departed), what will The Walking Dead look like in a year’s time? What narrative gears have already begun churning in the remainder of season 9 to plan for what’s ahead?
As we return to the graveyard to see Michonne’s squadron flee from The Whisperers with Jesus’ now lifeless body, these questions linger in our peripheral. It’s an uneasy time for these characters as a wave of change looks to trample over all who remain, and change isn’t always easy to embrace.
Change came for Negan when he found himself a free man. With his jail cell left open, he snuck out with plans to return to The Sanctuary, but as Judith, who caught him trying to hop the wall, warned, there’s nothing left for him out there. Her words came to pass when, with a shovel as his temporary replacement for Lucille, he threw open the doors of his former dominion to find it vacant. All that’s left are walkers, including a zombified Big Richie; there’s not a place anymore for even one of Negan’s most loyal Saviors. So Negan returns to Alexandria — not before Judith shoots him off his motorcycle. She did warn she would shoot Negan if she ever saw his face again. But Daryl’s Lil’ Ass-Kicker, in the end, escorts Negan back to his jail cell with no further fuss.
Showrunner Angela Kang teased earlier that, with Carl gone, some of his story beats from the comics would play out through Judith and also Carol and Ezekiel’s son Henry. We see the relationship between Judith and Negan (once a bond between Carl and Negan) continue to grow in Rick’s absence. She’s an opportunity for Negan to become the father figure he craves to be and a chance at some semblance of redemption. She also provides Negan with a potential opportunity to serve as the show’s new focal point with the knowledge that Michonne may eventually depart the picture entirely. There are rumblings of Danai potentially appearing in those Walking Dead movies, but how can the writers reduce Michonne’s involvement when you consider she’s Judith’s mother? Negan feels like a natural answer to that.
Henry picks up more slack for Carl as Michonne and Daryl finally unmask their attackers. On their way back to Hilltop, they lay waste to a small group of Whisperers and take one of them hostage. That would be Lydia, the daughter of The Whisperers’ leader Alpha. In the comics, Lydia becomes a love interest for Carl, but now she’s getting paired with Henry. As the teen is still locked in a cell, Michonne and Daryl throw Lydia in jail for interrogation. With Jesus now dead, more change arrives when Tara becomes the leader of Hilltop. They all want answers out of their new prisoner, but her tears and wails serve as the best poker face. The girl just keeps feeding them lies masked by her apparent hysterics. Daryl tries playing bad cop again later, newly refueled by the sight of Jesus’ burial, but goes for a different tactic when he gets the same results. He decides to leave Henry, who’s been vocally protesting Daryl’s interrogation, in his cell to unknowingly coax the truth out of Lydia while he listens by the window.
This becomes his mission to complete since Michonne closes ranks again. Aaron now stands by her earlier decree to look after one’s own in light of the slaying of Jesus, and Michonne doesn’t feel good about staying at Hilltop while Alexandria remains unaware of The Whisperers’ existence. In a conversation with Daryl, she confirms his guilt for not recovering Rick’s body and giving him the proper burial Jesus got. But she thanks him for his efforts both during and “after” the bridge explosion, again alluding to the mystery time gap that resulted in Michonne and Daryl’s back scars.
Daryl’s efforts with Lydia, however, may already be flawed because now The Whisperers have their own secret weapon. When it took too long for Michonne’s team to return, Luke and Alden went off in search of them. They followed a trail of Yumiko’s arrows into a trap set by Alpha. It’s unclear if they’re now prisoners or just dead.
An additional, but far less concerning, development brings up more questions. As Eugene’s injuries are treated in the infirmary, Rosita runs outside to vomit, confirming that she’s pregnant. But she’s not pregnant with Gabriel’s child, she’s pregnant with Siddiq’s. They had been fooling around before she shacked up with Gabriel and Eugene hears all of this through the window, putting a dark cloud on his recent confessions of love for Rosita and creating a bit of a love quadrangle, one that also has elements from the comics but has become even more complex. All these comic book throwbacks serve as warnings that those casualties we’ve been worried about may soon come to pass, but the show never serves a beat-for-beat adaptation. So we’re left at the end of the midseason premiere as we started it, with more questions.