Photo: Jackson Lee Davis (AMC)

In the first scene of “The Bridge,” Rick Grimes rhapsodizes about the brightness of the future with his quintessential corniness. “We’re not fighting to survive,” Rick tells some unseen figure (though, of course, we know exactly who he’s talking to). His face is half-shadowed, a clear allusion to the dark past he’s referencing. “We’re making a new beginning,” he says. Of course, Rick isn’t just referring to the communities of Hilltop, the Kingdom, and Alexandria (and, to a far lesser degree, the Sanctuary)—communities we see, in a series of interlaced cuts, working to build the titular structure—but making a meta-commentary on the show itself. For the past several seasons, The Walking Dead has vacillated between brutality and tedium, leaning on grandiose grotesqueries to propel itself forward. This season is already infinitely more engaging because it’s allowing the fuse lit last season—specifically, Rick’s decision to spare Negan’s life, despite the justified rage of the people Negan and his Saviors hurt the worst (including Maggie and Daryl)—to burn slowly. Even in the episode’s more halcyon moments, we can hear a long fuse sizzling, inching ever-closer to the dynamite.

For a show that traffics so often in extremes, The Walking Dead is more compelling when it mines the everyday pitfalls, challenges, and triumphs of the post-apocalyptic world. This episode revolves around two seemingly mundane tasks—building the bridge and preparing for the harvest—and uses those tasks to tease out true character development and narrative momentum. Though one month has passed since Maggie publicly executed Gregory, her decision still reverberates like a prolonged aftershock to an earthquake: When Michonne arrives at Hilltop to ask Maggie, again, for food to help sustain the Sanctuary, there’s tension between the two friends. Michonne, who was a lawyer in the days before the end of days, is understandably concerned that Maggie played a one-woman judge and jury (even if Gregory was a serpentine jerk who arguably deserved it). Maggie, who lost her husband and the father of her child to the barbed end of Negan’s beloved Lucille, is understandably not inclined to devote her community’s precious resources to keep her former enemies alive—and she’s especially perturbed by Michonne’s (perhaps unintentionally) condescending appeal to be the better, bigger person.

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There’s been much ballyhoo about season nine being Rick Grimes’ last stretch of episodes (and there are many moments in this episode to highhandedly remind us how wonderful and amazing Rick is, how he’s opened his heart and his community up to so many people, and oh, how terrible it would be if anything happened to Rick), but season nine is also supposedly the end of Maggie’s tenure as a main character. Lauren Cohan’s work here, and in the previous episode, reminds us that this will also be a seismic loss—one that is, arguably, as significant, in its own way, as Rick’s departure. Rick’s leadership throughout the series has swung from the pointless sadism of the “Ricktatorship” to a mindless benevolence. Watching Maggie grapple with the very real dilemma of how to govern forcefully and intelligently is far more complex and riveting. Michonne and Jesus clearly view Maggie’s choice to execute Gregory and indefinitely incarcerate Earl as impulsive and emotional—and maybe it is.

However, Maggie’s solution ends up being far subtler and more intricate than simply ignoring her feelings. She allows Tammy Rose, Earl’s wife, to visit him in the makeshift jail, and watches from the shadows as Earl tearfully apologizes to Tammy for the violence that landed him behind bars he welded himself. The camera moves to Cohan’s face as husband and wife mourn their poor lost son: She allows the slightest twitch of her mouth, softens her eyes in a way that conveys both the weight of so much accumulated grief and the painful effort to suppress it. Rick may be the king of heroic speechifying; however, Maggie is a smarter, and ultimately more humane, leader because she draws Earl out in conversation about how he broke a twenty-year sobriety. Cohan and John Finn, who portrays Earl, beautifully underplay this scene, which slowly, and subtly, reveals the emotional and tactical functions of their conversation.

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Maggie genuinely wants to empathize with Earl because her father once had a drinking problem. It’s a testament to Cohan’s acting that I remembered this part of Hershel’s backstory (which was first introduced all the way back in season two) before Maggie tells Michonne about it: Her reactions are thick with that history, the anger and sadness of it, and the tiny furtive hope. But Maggie also needs to know whether Earl still poses a threat to her. This is some of The Walking Dead’s most sophisticated storytelling in years—and Maggie’s decision to put Earl on a kind of work release, where he gets out of jail to fix the plow, but plies his trade under armed guard, feels wholly reasonable and earned. This episode is all about the ways that small moments like this, moments where people choose to listen to each (or, not to), can save the day (even if it’s one day at a time) or cause catastrophe.

Daryl has been cautioning Rick that many of the Saviors are seething about their diminished position—and now, that discontent is leading to defections. Rick is full of kumbaya platitudes about how everyone will just get along, once they understand their shared mission. One could certainly argue that Rick’s naiveté is his echoing grief over Carl, because he’s imposing Carl’s innocent, kid-like vision of a better world over the on-the-ground reality. He clings desperately to this vision—even when one of the smart-mouthed Saviors goes to attack young Henry for refusing to let him drink more than his fair share of water. Daryl hasn’t just been telling Rick that the truce with the Saviors is failing, he’s been telling Rick, to no avail, that he’s exhausted and exasperated by his position as their appointed leader. So, it’s no wonder that Daryl responds to this insubordination by finally hauling off and slugging the smart-mouth.

The animus between the Saviors and our heroes culminates in the episode’s flashiest, and goriest, set-piece: The smart-mouth Savior ditches his watch-post, allowing a walker horde to overtake the work site. In all the snarling clamor, Aaron ends up with his arm pinned and pulped by a log pile (seriously, kudos to the special effects team, because I started retching as soon as Aaron pulled his bloodied string-cheese of an arm out from the logs). Enid, who has graduated from her training with Saddiq and is now a medic, manages to save Aaron’s life, but not his arm. Daryl waits devotedly by his friend’s bedside, and though he doesn’t blame Rick for this (at least, not out loud. Not yet), Norman Reedus’ tensed expression and the storm-clouds gathering in his eyes suggest that he’s reached a point of no return when it comes to the Saviors situation. Perhaps, even a point of mutiny.

The prospect of trouble from within the ranks is so tantalizing because it’s a stark reversal of the show’s lather-rinse-repeat approach of creating a Big Bad from the scary outside to cause conflict. So, our return to Rick in close-up, giving his monologue—only to have the camera pan wide to see Negan silhouetted in his cell—is so disappointing. Episodes like “The Bridge” show that The Walking Dead knows that it’s at its best when it allows for more intimate, organic moments of character development, and when it allows that character development to drive the action. We don’t need the gory pyrotechnics of yesteryear.

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