When was the last time you heard a new philosophy expressed on The Walking Dead? There’s an argument to be made that the moment Rick Grimes died, so did any remaining potential for new stories beyond seemingly endless variations on exhaustion with the continual specter of death, the need to retain some humanity in the face of the apocalypse, and revisions of the “Is this all there is to life now?” query that gets posed every few episodes. But you might consider that scene to be far too late in the show’s run to be the tipping point. Perhaps the capture of Negan was your own personal Waterloo with the series—or hell, how about the introduction of Negan, coupled with the death of Glenn and Abraham, as the instant it became a parody of itself? There’s no shortage of ways to claim the program is running on fumes, is the basic point. And yet here we are, at the beginning of season 10, and there’s undeniable quality to the storytelling, part of a creative jolt provided by the introduction of the Whisperers. Because for all the carping about the series having nothing new to say, it’s worth remembering a show doesn’t need to have something new to say. It just needs to say those old things in interesting ways. And though it does its fair share of foundering, The Walking Dead still elicits the necessary frisson of excitement and drama to justify its existence.
In the first episode of the season, our heroes are still very much in a holding pattern following Alpha’s brutal executions at the end of season nine. Broken into three sections that play out simultaneously before everyone comes together to put out the fire that erupts when an old Russian satellite crashes to earth just over the boundary line they established with the Whisperers, “Lines We Cross” thankfully doesn’t try to do too much reflecting on Where We Are Now. Instead, we get a number of character beats that serve to reintroduce the current state of affairs, and sequences meant to show how the community is evolving to deal with the existential threat of the Whisperers and their trump card—the massive horde of walkers Alpha threatened to unleash, should they not follow her rules about the territorial boundaries. True, poor Danai Gurira gets stuck with the annual “we have to be good” speech, as Michonne gives Aaron a pep talk about living up to their best selves in the face of cruelty, but it passes quickly. Much better is her angry rejoinder to him about why they’re all stuck playing possum for now: “They have a nuclear weapon. We don’t.”
It’s been long enough since the winter that Rosita has given birth, and baby Coco gets doted on by the odd coterie of parental figures: Gabriel, Siddiq, and Eugene. While Eugene does his Eugene thing by taking lots of measurements and trying to determine maximal diaper efficiency, Siddiq is dealing with PTSD from his unlikely survival in the confrontation with Alpha’s people in the barn. Given how many people we had to check in with here, the fact they spent so long on his flashbacks and trauma leads me to assume it’s going to be a significant subplot, and not just a way to introduce his medical assistant Dante, a.k.a. the most annoying new character we’ve seen in awhile. There’s honestly very little of interest in this Alexandria crew, and no one does much to alter that here.
Much better is the pairing of Negan and Lydia. Cassady McClincy killed it last season as Alpha’s daughter, and putting her traumatized ex-Whisperer together with the most hated man in Alexandria makes sense both narratively (the two former villains sensing the mistrust and anger that threatens to boil over into violence) and creatively (Jeffrey Dean Morgan finally gets a scene partner who seems to push him in new and interesting directions, rather than the rehashed Negan swagger that comes out when he warns Gabriel about the unstable mood at the camp, and we’re right back to the character’s old “pants shitting” talk). Luke flirting with Jules and Connie crushing on Daryl might be the lighter material used to remind us that everyday human drama will continue regardless of life’s bigger concerns, but the promise of these two navigating the coming dangers as a team is very appealing.
But Walking Dead isn’t stupid; it knows who we’re here for, and the middle of the episode gives us a solid installment of The Daryl ’n’ Carol Show. Having Carol turn into a seafaring explorer as a means of getting away from everything that’s happened is a good move, largely because it allows Melissa McBride to maintain a brighter disposition rather than fall back into morose stoicism. Carol, it turns out, loves the open water, and the only thing more appealing than freedom from the responsibilities of the community (with its attendant bad memories) is doing it with her best friend. She offers him a spot on the boat; he counters with a motorcycle trip to New Mexico. “There’s gotta be others like us out there,” and in that statement is the unspoken admission that there might be too much suffering in the collective memory of their time with these people. And yet, Daryl is the one to remind her that these people are also what gives meaning to their lives, that an obligation to stay isn’t just a chain around their ankles. It’s a way to keep alive the promise of something more. Besides, Carol giving Daryl shit for calling them best friends is this show’s high-water mark when it comes to witty banter. Melissa McBride, human embodiment of excellence.
The eventual satellite crash—and attendant decision to cross over into Alpha’s territory to put out the fire—doesn’t end up being as exhilarating as the show would like. Director Greg Nicotero (working from a script from showrunner Angela Kang) tries his best to mix it up, even throwing some smoke inhalation Ezekiel’s way while depicting the community’s increasing cohesion working together, as demonstrated earlier by the episode’s opening training sequence killing walkers on the beach. And while it improves once the walkers show up—Daryl throwing his axe to knock the collapsing tree branch onto the burning walkers (firewalkers?) was silly but fun—there’s never any real sense of danger to the situation. Honestly, there’s more tension contained in the final seconds of screen time, when Carol sees Alpha walk into the now-empty quarry and fix her with an unnerving stare, than in the entirety of the firefight sequence.
And that’s because Alpha and the Whisperers brought this show back to life. Season nine flailed miserably until their arrival, and after sensibly migrating south for the winter, these antagonists are back to menace our heroes once more. Magna and a few other new characters aside, the Whisperers are the true fresh blood that has reinvigorated the series, reanimating a show that was looking a little too much like one of its shambling undead, and providing a reason for viewers to return. After so much hand-wringing about whether the villains were back, Alpha just stepped out into the light. Speak of the devil, and he—or she—appears.
- The King is no longer the King. Ezekiel has dropped his florid manner of speaking along with his title (“I’m not your boss, Jerry,” he says, to little avail), and is basically just a guy still mourning the loss of his ex. Also: scared of birds.
- Currently accepting bets on the over/under for how long before Dante is killed, possibly after turning evil, what with his whole “we’re like gods” nonsense.
- Sidelining Judith to watch over the younger kids is a smart move; trying to incorporate her in a more adult manner last season was comically bad.
- Aaron: “We’re the villains of someone else’s story.” About four seasons too late with that realization, buddy.
- Kill of the week: At first I thought it was going to be Michonne slicing off that walker’s face in the opening minutes (correct me if I’m wrong: we’re meant to think that might end up being the face the kids find and everyone says is a walker mask, no?), but then it got beaten by good old Carol, slicing open a walker and using its blood pouring out to extinguish part of the fire.
- Even with the mass bloodletting last year, this was a useful reminder of just how many damn characters we’re still keeping track of.
- Welcome back, everyone, to the new season of The Walking Dead! I look forward to reading your thoughts and discussing the show—let’s just hope the creative resurgence that began last season can keep going.