Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

“Warning Signs” accomplished what precious few episodes of The Walking Dead have done since about roughly mid-way through season four: It got me excited about what’s going to happen next. For the past several years, The Walking Dead has been, at least for me, a put it on while cleaning the house kind of show. The lather-rinse-repeat of its narrative structure—the group finds a temporary sanctuary and is driven from said sanctuary by a charismatic outside strongman and his nefarious followers; experiences truly gratuitously sadistic violence, often foreshadowed by the doomed character getting a scintilla of real development; wages war against the charismatic outside strongman; and, after much Rick Grimes speechifying about the power of faith and community, emerges battered yet victorious—made it easy to have on in the background.

The unexpected miracle of season nine is that the show has finally pulled out of that same soggy cycle and reinvented itself as a drama that is equally invested in politics and gore. These titular “warning signs” aren’t just about the divisions within the groups, or even the costs of those divisions—they are, more powerfully, about the philosophies that create those divisions. These philosophies can be clearly delineated as Team Rick and Team Maggie and Daryl, but it’s to the credit of Corey Reed’s script that these delineations have a great depth and nuance.

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The first scenes of the episode, with Rick and Michonne creating a family day to coax young Judith to the doctor’s, living the kind of sweet and happy lives that seemed all but impossible a few short years ago, show why the promise of peace means so much to Rick, even if his friends can’t fully get behind it. The shot of Rick walking out of his cozily-decorated home to pluck a tomato from his garden seems almost unnatural in its normality—one could almost forget that this house, this garden, this life with a loving family, is a cocoon from Armageddon.

Rick’s mantra has become “the future”—it’s why he’s put so much effort into forging, arguably forcing, an armistice between the Saviors and Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and Oceanside. It’s why he suggests, coyly, that he and Michonne could have a baby of their own (Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira have such a potent chemistry, they can convey that momentous decision with a series of glances and a “yeah?”). But the episode is very much about what happens when we can’t reconcile the pain of the past. The image of a tomato appears again when Maggie travels from the Hilltop to the Sanctuary, begrudgingly bringing the food she promised. One of the Saviors taunts her as “the widow,” before taking a giant, juicy bite out of one the tomatoes on her wagon. This visual connector deftly suggests that Rick’s vision of a halcyon time-to-come is built on the battered backs of his friends’ here-and-now. Maggie is being asked to feed the acolytes of the man who beat her husband to death. The women of Oceanside are being asked to work side-by-side with the killers of their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, and their sons. Daryl is being asked to oversee and protect the people who helped imprison and torture him.

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It’s no wonder, then, that Daryl has precious little patience for the Saviors’ fears about the disappearances from their ranks—fears that are stoked into a brushfire of a near-riot when they discover Justin’s body, with a fatal wound that looks too tidy to be a walker bite—and for their desire to arm themselves, as protection. Though The Walking Dead is not an overtly political show, there’s something very prescient about this idea of people who were used to so smugly exerting a bloody and brutal dominion over everyone they encountered suddenly aggrieved that anyone would dare to challenge that dominion—let alone make them answer for their cruelties. Yet there a substantial, and mostly women-led, contingent of Saviors that is trying to live by the rules and establish a delicate, but still viable, peace. It’s easy to distill things into Team Rick (peace, even if we must swallow the pain) and Team Maggie and Daryl (reckoning, even if it thwarts the peace).

However, there are also characters like Carol, who is trying to strike a balance between the factions, not so much because she’s ideologically-aligned one way or another—but, as she tells Rick, while they’re out on a search mission after Arat, one of Negan’s former lieutenants, goes missing, because she doesn’t want to be a stone-cold killer anymore. Rick’s compassion helped Anne (the artist formerly known as Jadis) try to evolve from being a quasi-feral loner, unmoored by the loss of her band of misfits, into a member of the community. Though Anne’s arc for these first three episodes has revolved around this mysterious helicopter and a group of unknown persons who demand offerings of “A” and “B” types of people in exchange for crucial goods and resources, it’s also about how people can inhabit gray areas. In her previous life, Anne captured and bartered other human beings—there’s no excusing that. She is also embarking on the slow, awkward, and poignant process of trying to belong—painting portraits of the lost and beloved, and beginning a romance with Father Gabriel. Who knows what could have happened if Father Gabriel hadn’t caught her on the walkie-talkie? When he rebuffs her plea to run away together, we get the sense that we’re losing the potential for something sweet and genuinely loving. Pollyana McIntosh invests Anne with such ruefulness that we ache with her for her dashed hopes.

The episode’s only flaw is that it doesn’t extend the same degree of characterization to Arat, whose disappearance and death is the moral axis upon which the episode turns. We learn that the Oceanside survivors—inspired by Maggie’s rough justice for Gregory—have been systematically targeting specific Saviors for execution: Justin killed Beatrice’s husband. Arat killed Cyndie’s 11-year-old brother. The scene where Daryl and Maggie track the Oceansiders to an old homestead, the place they fled after the Saviors’ slaughter, is electric with tension and raw, pulsing emotion. Sydney Park gives Cyndie’s memories of her brother’s final moments, sobbing for his life, a long-percolating and bare-constrained fury that is excruciating yet captivating to watch. Arat begs Daryl and Maggie to save her, yelling that she’s one of them now—but we don’t have a sense that she’s been on any real path of redemption, that she’s done anything to mitigate the terror and the grief she inflicted not so long ago. When Cyndie forces her to repeat the words she said before she killed the crying child—“no exceptions”—it’s easy to understand why Daryl and Maggie walk away, tacitly condoning the women’s revenge.

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Although, perhaps, we’re not meant to care about Arat. Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the show is challenging us to see her innate worth as a human being—even if she’s capable of gunning down a little boy in cold blood. Rick wants everyone to believe that “every life matters,” and that sure is a beautiful sentiment. But if Arat’s life matters, so did Cyndie’s brother’s. Even if we don’t believe in an eye for an eye, she surely deserved to be punished for her crimes. Michonne’s charter might have some kind of truth and reconciliation commission; though it might be too late for any kind of reconciliation — and not just between the Saviors and everyone else.

Rick insists that tasting some future utopia is worth all the accumulated bile that many of his people have had to swallow. He calls that naivete mercy—and maybe it is. But its has prompted an equal and opposite reaction among the people who want some kind of reckoning. The Oceanside women say that they thought they had to live under Rick’s rules, but Maggie showed them another way. Now, Maggie and Daryl are fully embracing that other way, the way of reckoning. They’re going to see Negan, bearing weapons and a jug full of gasoline.

This collision between philosophies is some of the richest, most nuanced and compelling storytelling the show has done in years. The struggle here isn’t between our heroes and some special guest star who will inevitably be defeated—it’s between characters we’ve come to know over the years, even if we’ve mostly kept the show on in the background. For the first time in a long time, I’m riveted. I can’t wait to see what comes next.