TWD Finds Some New Life and Direction, but Is It Enough?

“The Walking Dead” is now in the second half of its ninth season. Yes, nine seasons.  Few TV shows amble along for as long as TWD has. Despite a continued ratings decline, the show continues to stagger along, like one of its zombies.  On the one hand, it’s hard to see how the show continues for a few more seasons. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has been written off the show, though AMC has promised to make a few Rick-centric films, and last week, it was announced that Michonne (Danai Gurira) is leaving after next season.  Gurira’s role in Black Panther and her work as a writer and producer have thrust her even more into the spotlight, which is well-deserved. Bigger opportunities await. It’s hard to fathom a sustained viewership of TWD without its key characters. Daryl (Norman Reedus) may be popular, but I’m not sure he can sustain the show as its main protagonist.

That said, the ninth season, under new showunner Angela Kang, has been one of the best in a long time. For the first time in a few years, TWD feels like a horror show again, one with character development and moral divides. A large part of this has to do with The Whisperers, the comic villains who wear skin masks of zombies to blend in with herds. This season has had two especially strong episodes. The mid-season finale, featuring The Whisperers first proper introduction, contained  well-done atmospheric horror elements, including a graveyard, fog, pounding rain, and the group of survivors surrounded by the new villains. This confrontation led to the death of a series regular, and The Whisperers immediately felt like a more immediate danger than the cartoonish Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the war with the Saviors that lasted way too long.  Additionally, their stitched, Leatherface-like  masks are chilling!

The second highlight of this season includes the latest episode, “Omega,” which focused on The Whispers’ leader, Alpha (Samantha Morton). The flashback-heavy episode fleshed out Alpha’s story and her abuse towards her only child, Lydia (Cassady McClincy). Simply put, Alpha is a layered and terrifying villain, one who killed her loving husband and then made her daughter think it was her fault. She is much more realistic than Negan because her story centers around domestic abuse. Unlike previous villains, there is no indication that the new world made Alpha the way she is. “Omega” indicates that she was always an abusive monster.  We see the effects of it on her daughter, who has gashes and scars on her arms, and has been emotionally manipulated over the years to believe her mother was the loving one, not her father. At one point, Lydia has a hysterical breakdown because she’s so certain Alpha is going to find her. Currently, Daryl and company have her prisoner at Hilltop to find out more about their latest threat.

Like her mother, Lydia, at least so far, is one of the more interesting characters the show has introduced recently. In “Omega” her story is interwoven with that of Daryl, who was abused by his father as  kid, and Henry (Macsen Linz), who found loving parents in Carol (Melissa McBrde), his “second mother,” and Ezekiel (Khary Payton). In the show’s first season, Carol suffered abuse from her husband Ed. Over the years, she took back her power, and now Daryl and Henry are in the position to help Lydia triumph over her scars. There is a lot the show writers can explore here. Of note: Carol’s hair is short during the duration of the show, especially in the first season, and in “Omega,” Henry tells Daryl that she initially cut it off because her husband used to drag her around by it. Now that she’s with Ezekiel, a loving, supportive man, she’s comfortable enough to grow it out. One of the most emotional moments occurs when Henry tells Daryl, “I’m glad you and my mom are friends.” Understanding the deep ramifications of abuse, Daryl and Henry want to be a support system for Lydia.


Alpha (Samantha Morton) and The Whisperers

The episode concludes with an unmasked, bald-headed Alpha approaching the community and telling Daryl and the good guys that she only came for one thing, her daughter. Flanked by her merry band of rotting skin masked Whisperers, this final shot of Alpha is one of the most unnerving scenes the show has featured in a long time. Unlike Carol, Daryl, and Henry, Alpha has fully embraced her darkness, and she’s clearly going to be a major threat to the group.

All of that said, it’s hard to know how much life is left for TWD. It’s mid-season premier netted about 5 million viewers, which again, would be considered high ratings for most shows, but for a juggernaut like TWD, it’s a sharp decline. Had TWD not made so many mistakes over the last few years (Glenn’s fake death, Glenn’s real death, killing Carl last season, pretending like Rick was going to die this season), then it would be in better shape. It’s too bad Angela Kang didn’t take over the show earlier. She brought the horror and character development back, but it remains to be seen if that’s enough to stop the bleeding.