Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Of all the ways The Walking Dead could have executed this particular narrative leap, it’s fair to say this probably wasn’t the tactic anyone was hoping for.

There’s not trying to hide the fact that a lead actor is leaving a show, and then there’s making the news a central aspect of your marketing campaign. Ever since word broke that Andrew Lincoln would be leaving the series, the question of how Rick Grimes would make his exit has loomed large over the entire story. AMC decided to lean into this development, touting season nine as a farewell to its main character, essentially advertising each new episode with a countdown clock to saying goodbye to the sheriff-turned-ringleader of this new world disorder. Which is fine—a show’s creative team shouldn’t give a shit how its channel plans to promote their work—but for anyone tuning in with bated breath to see how Rick would ride off into the sunset, having his horse rear back and throw its rider back-first through a piece of rebar jutting out from a concrete block during the final seconds of this episode is a pretty ignoble twist.

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No one should be under any illusions this will be Rick’s final resting place—given the brief shot we saw of Maggie noting the executed walkers strewn by the side of the road, my personal suspicion is she’ll be riding to Rick’s rescue at the beginning of next episode—but still, it’s a fairly abrupt way to introduce his endgame. It’s almost admirable, compared to the drawn-out goodbye we got for Carl and the interminably endless Negan situation that continues to sap time from the otherwise creatively resurgent season (we’re really going to take seriously his mournful lament for Lucille the bat?), to have the man who has been the center of it all ended by a stupid split-second error in judgment. It feels honest in a way that too many character deaths on this show don’t, and fitting to this new world that has been built: Sure, they’ve made great strides in creating a viable future for humanity, but at the end of the day, one wrong move and you’re chum for the hordes of the undead.

But that won’t be the case. Next week he’ll be (temporarily) saved, and we’ll get a lengthy goodbye for Rick Grimes. So rather than dwell on the series’ continued inability to come up with compelling deaths for its lead cast, let’s focus on Michonne, who finally gets a bit of serious character study by taking center stage in “The Obliged.” The opening montage efficiently depicted the internal conflict of the character (though it’s straight out of the season five premiere of Buffy The Vampire Slayer), and that psychological struggle between the adrenaline-driven fighter she’s become and the caring mother and community member she’s trying to be is a clear, albeit slightly reductive, take on Michonne’s mental state.

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

If only we didn’t have Negan speechifying about how they’re the same in order to hammer us over the head with the ways that she’s evolving as a person, this would’ve been a nice detour into her psyche. Watching someone try to become who they want to be, only to continually return to who they are, is good viewing when someone as charismatic as Danai Gurira is doing the trying. Using Lucille to kill the walker that almost got her when she was distracted by the hanged man was a fun (if heavy-handed) touch, as was alluding to the perpetual kinetic intensity of the fight against the walkers as a kind of addiction; so seeing Michonne sensibly own up to both sides of her personality, while distancing herself from Negan with a scornful dismissal, was a helpful reminder that these characters can be both intelligent and practical. Season nine continues to treat its protagonists as people rather than symbolic exposition devices, and the show has benefited greatly from that change.

Even Rick and Daryl’s below-ground heart-to-heart wasn’t as tiresome as it could have been. Rick has been in the right about why he’s kept Negan alive, but Daryl’s blunt-force point about how sometimes people can’t simply let the past go and become their better selves is, ultimately, the most valid case the show has made yet for what is otherwise some nonsensical adherence to frontier justice on the part of the hotheaded archer and Maggie over the past few episodes. It felt rushed, but pushing Rick toward a kind of messy realpolitik acknowledgment that Carl’s dream isn’t killed by concessions to majority will was a handy way to usher in the next era of the story. It may not be the ethically correct move, but ending a debate (in which both men made valid points) with the less heroic decision keeps the show’s moral compass spinning in a more interesting manner.

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

What kept “The Obliged” from skidding into the gutter was further evidence of how the various storylines this year are snaking out in uneven progression, certain elements dying out just as others are picking up steam, rather than the unfortunate tendency of the Negan seasons to have everything moving along in one unwieldy chunk of narrative. Anne is gone but almost certainly not for good; the helicopter gambit is just too juicy of a hook to tease without delivering soon, meaning Gabriel should wipe those tears and prepare for a reunion sooner rather than later. Their exchange was too quick to land emotionally but it did proffer some intriguing tidbits of what’s going on in Anne’s head—Pollyanne McIntosh continues to imbue that character with appeal that far outstretches the thinly written personal arc.

Similarly, the departure of the Saviors is quickly negated by their violent return, with the more vindictive of the men returning in a clearly ill-conceived attempt to extract some payback for their...humane treatment? Really, they just want supplies; Jed is stupid enough to point a gun at Carol’s head, thereby becoming the umpteenth dude on this show to wildly misjudge the nature of the woman he’s sizing up. (And, presumably, the latest to receive his comeuppance from her, as well.) The roiling tumult of the Sanctuary population is now erupting, and it’s to the credit of the show that it can leave the situation on such a cliffhanger without it feeling unduly like a tease. (Director Rosemary Rodriguez keeps the transitions between these abrupt plot twists as smooth as could be hoped for.) Carol’s statement from earlier in the episode—“It’s up to them to figure out who they want to be”—now an ironic portent of the fractured group’s division into those who respected our crew (led by the women of Sanctuary) and the foolhardy men who think they’re entitled to more.

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Call it Chekhov’s Horde: You can’t reference the disastrous consequences of two massive throngs of walkers joining together in act one without having those groups meet up in the final minutes to pose a new threat. Better still, it’s an overdue return to the undead taking center stage as a threat to our heroes. The break was nice—it gave the show an opportunity to recharge its zombie creative juices, meaning a tactic that long ago lost its force is now once again a sense of menace. With the interpersonal dynamics of our protagonists simultaneously fraying at the edges yet instantly renewed under the walker threat, the show is managing to keep its pontificating from dragging down the overall pacing. Now if only a certain former leader of the Saviors could also manage to fall through a hardy piece of rebar—or just have Maggie pay him a quick visit—we could get the best season of The Walking Dead in years.

Stray observations

  • I’m very curious to see what becomes of Maggie, more so than Rick at this point. Lauren Cohan is already all but confirmed to be returning in the future, so the question of how her character gets removed from the equation is a more open and fascinating one. I predict Rick’s death will spur some sort of self-imposed exile, à la Carol.
  • Then again, it’s too bad Maggie is going away; I’d love to see her reaction when she found out Jesus tattled to Rick about her plan to execute Negan.
  • As exhausting as the Negan-Michonne exchanges were, I did enjoy her bemused realization of Negan’s goal: “You’re desperately trying to connect with me!”
  • It was dispiriting to realize that Maggie and Daryl hadn’t left straightaway after last episode to Alexandria, instead taking a breather and making certain there wouldn’t be a warning call to prevent Maggie from getting in. Presumably, five seconds after last week’s episode ended, the two of them looked at each other and said, “Wait, that’s a long walk! Screw this.”
  • Keep slamming your head against that wall, Negan. No, harder.

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