The world of The Walking Dead is different now, as evidenced by the title of the season 9 premiere, “A New Beginning.” It’s a new beginning on a show level — the producers and cast have spent some time promising the show will return to its roots — and a new beginning on a character level. The Negan war is over for the first time in two seasons (or has it been longer? It sure feels longer). And after such a laborious war, is long-lasting peace even attainable?
The original group — the architects of this new collective society — are together, except that they’re not. Rick continues to run Alexandria with Michonne and a now talkative toddler, Judith, by his side; Maggie was democratically voted leader of the Hilltop by her people; Daryl is in charge of running the Sanctuary, though he pines for the days of roaming the wild with a small, loyal group; Carol shacked up (romantically speaking) with King Ezekiel at the Kingdom; and the others are sprinkled about the colonies, including Oceanside, as generals, keepers of the peace, and general support.
At it’s best, this world resembles Carl’s utopian vision of the future. But, as with any war’s aftermath, wounds that were left untreated begin to fester. A trip to Washington, D.C. to retrieve more supplies and a touch base at the Sanctuary reveals peace is already beginning to unravel.
The core group and additional citizens from various colonies (including Anne/Jadis, so Negan must be locked away somewhere close) venture to a museum to gather packets of seeds, a plow, and a new carriage for their horse-powered vehicles. There was a tense moment when Ezekiel fell through the glass floor and dangled over a pit of walkers for a moment, but he’s fine. Someone who wasn’t fine, though, was a young stableboy from Hilltop, Ken.
On their way back, Rosita rolls up to relay that a herd collapsed the main bridge, so the group splits off to get Maggie back to Hilltop (where her newborn baby Hershel is waiting) and deliver the supplies to the Sanctuary, which is still struggling to get back on its feet. Along the way, the new carriage gets stuck in mud, and while they push it out, they’re set upon by wild walkers, one of which kills Ken as he’s trying to save his horse.
Maggie travels back to Hilltop to inform his parents, Tammy and Earl, whose anti-Sanctuary sentiments come out in the midst of grief. There seems to be a growing frustration over Maggie’s leadership. Although the groups are supposed to be working together in this time of peace, most of the scavenged supplies are going to the Sanctuary, which prompts some resentments from the Hilltoppers who fought to free themselves of Sanctuary rule. As the grieving parents note, Gregory, who’s still scheming, always maintained a “Hilltop first” mentality. (Sound familiar?)
Some at the Sanctuary are, similarly, trying to keep their old ways alive. Rick, Michonne, and Daryl arrive at the colony to deliver supplies. While everyone claps for Rick, who’s become the legendary hero who freed them from tyranny, Michonne notices a spray-painted message on the wall that reads “We are still Negan.” Daryl mentions similar messages have been popping up, but he thinks it’s mainly because their food supplies are dwindling. Michonne fears the larger implications. The messages probably have something to do with Justin (The 100‘s Zach McGowan), who’s super cagey when Daryl asks him where they came from and has generally been combative with the Sanctuary’s new leadership.
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Later at Ken’s funeral, Maggie isn’t welcome by the parents, which Gregory uses to his advantage. After playing the part of the reformed mayoral candidate, making a speech, passing out drinks, he gets Tammy drunk so she retires to bed early, leaving Earl alone with Gregory. Earl is a recovering alcoholic, but in his grief, he succumbs to Gregory’s games and gets so drunk that when Gregory puts the idea in his head that Maggie doesn’t have to be the leader anymore, he listens.
At the Sanctuary, Daryl doesn’t want to be a leader anymore and he tells Rick as much, for the aforementioned reasons laid out. He would prefer to check on Maggie and the baby at Hilltop. (He also mentions most of the bridges are destroyed “after the big storm,” which could be a reference to the storm that ravaged the group on Fear the Walking Dead.) Carol, thankfully, comes to Daryl separately to say she’s going to take over for him. She’s partly doing this as a friend, but partly because Ezekiel proposed to her and she’s not ready to take that step.
Later that night, as Maggie is walking Hershel around Hilltop in the stroller, she runs into Gregory. She mentioned earlier how weird it’s been to see Gregory trying to act all nice, but she attempts to make nice with him now… except he mentions that someone defaced Glenn’s grave. Instead of getting Hershel to bed, she goes back to investigate and is attacked by a hooded man. The carriage is knocked over, leaving a wailing Hershel crawling on the ground as Maggie fends off this attacker. Jesus and Enid hear the commotion and come to their defense. The man is restrained and revealed to be Earl, still swaying back and forth from the drink tainting his breath. Maggie knows instantly this is the work of Gregory and goes to confront him in his office. The two have it out with Gregory even attempting to kill Maggie with a knife, hoping to say he defended himself. Clearly, the man doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.
Maggie subdues this attacker as well, unleashing something within her. As seemed like the case in the season 8 finale, Maggie doesn’t believe Rick was righteous in sparing Negan’s life. Now, when Rick comes to visit after her dead-of-night attack hoping she will spare more of Hilltop’s food supplies to help the Sanctuary and more of her citizens to help rebuild the bridge, she has terms: she won’t stop anyone at Hilltop who wants to help with the bridge, but if she gives more food, the Saviors must hand over the fuel supply they’ve been making off the dead corn. (Nothing else can really grow from the earth around the Sanctuary.) Rick implores her to do the right thing, but she believes they already did the right thing by sparing their lives. She also reminds Rick that he once agreed to follow Maggie’s lead after the war. The time came and Rick never did. So now she vows to prove herself as someone to follow.
In the episode’s final moments, Maggie proves herself to be a leader — whether she’ll be a benevolent one is still to be seen. The colony has gathered in the main square where Gregory sits on a horse about to be hung for his crimes. Tammy and Earl stand by with their heads hung low, unable to bring their eyes to meet Maggie’s or the protesting Gregory. Though Maggie tells her people she doesn’t want to do this, she says “the punishment must fit the crime.” This certainly tosses a chink in Rick’s chain as he and Michonne were planning to form their own charter of laws to oversee how everyone in the connected colonies treats each other.
So Daryl pats the horse and Gregory hangs, even as Michonne screams out that children have wandered out of bed and witnessed the life leach from his wriggling body.
This is a new beginning, not just for the show, not just for colonies, but also for Maggie.