Khary Payton as Ezekiel, Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel Stokes, Pollyanna McIntosh as Jadis/Anne, Avi Nash as Siddiq, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 9, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

‘The Walking Dead’ season 9 preview: 18-month time jump, more agrarian feel, Rick’s pending departure

Originally posted Saturday, October 6, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” about to return for a ninth season Sunday night, remains a hugely popular show, but over the past two seasons has shed about a third of its audience.

Why? It’s an aging show, for one. No matter what the new showrunner Angela Kang does this season, she faces the challenge of keeping loyal viewers because new ones are hard to come by.

The horrific loss of Glenn at the start of season seven led many folks to say, “Enough!” The Rick/Negan war at times became less a dramatic device and more an exercise in eye-rolling tedium. And with so many communities and characters, the story telling frequently became unfocused. 

And then news came out earlier this year that Andrew Lincoln was leaving midway through season nine. The man who has played Rick Grimes decided it was time to spend more time with his family in England after grueling summers in Atlanta for so many years. From all accounts, he was the heart and soul of the set, the man who created a collegial tone and welcomed all newcomers warmly. 

“He is someone who really brought people together,” Kang said on set during an unusually brutally hot September day in Senoia. With his absence, “our cast is actively trying to keep a very professional and loving family relationship on the ground.” She hopes his legacy will stick with everyone no matter how long the show lasts. 

Reporters were on set last month while the show was shooting episode 12, it was clear Lincoln was already gone. And so was Lauren Cohan, who plays Hilltop leader Maggie, and is now shooting an ABC show with the awful name “Whiskey Cavalier.” Of course, Lennie James’ Morgan has moved on, now starring in spin-off show “Fear the Walking Dead.” 

Despite all these negative trends, Kang has seized the chance to return the show to more character-driven dynamics. (So far, so good. Early reviews based on the first three episodes have been largely positive.)

“We really see the characters have found this groove,” said Kang. “They are very tight with each other. You get to feel that warmth.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Norman Reedus, Angela Kang, Andrew Lincoln, Jeffery Dean Morgan attend the Premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" Season 9 at DGA Theater on September 27, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

And she had other ideas as well taking over for Scott Gimple, now promoted upstairs to oversee the entire “Walking Dead” franchise. She said there is now this “interesting Western/agrarian vibe. That was something I really wanted to capture.”

Kang, a former “Walking Dead” writer, also reached back to the very first episode of “The Walking Dead,” where Rick woke up from a coma and discovered a world he no longer recognized. “I was also such a fan of the pilot,” she said.  I wanted to try to recapture that feeling. The silences. The beautiful wide landscapes.”

As season nine starts, eighteen months have passed since Negan was captured and Carl died.

Scavenging has reached its end point after four-plus years without an electric grid or any sign that the United States is even functioning as a country. Finally, gasoline appears to be almost kaput. Bullets are no longer readily available. Horses are the norm. With canned goods all but used up, there’s now a struggle to grow enough food for the remaining survivors. 

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Danai Gurira as Michonne - The Walking Dead _ Season 9, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

Rick and Michonne are happily raising Judith at Alexandria. Maggie has taken control of the Hilltop while inexplicably keeping Gregory around. Carol and King Ezekiel at the Kingdom are closer than ever. Jadis - now just known as Anne - has shed the clipped Scavenger vernacular and is merely trying to blend in. Daryl is reluctantly running the show at the Sanctuary, where Negan loyalists warily lurk. And speaking of Negan, he’s in a prison cell in Alexandria, stewing in his own bitterness. 

“He’s going insane,” said Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of Negan. “Truthfully, the four walls have closed in on him. He’s battling, trying to keep some sense of sanity. It’s not going well.”

Also for the first time, there are brand new opening credits done in a cool, graphic novel style. 

And for folks who track “Walking Dead” shooting, the Gold Dome in downtown Atlanta does indeed masquerade as a D.C. natural history museum, where Rick’s crew in the first episode hunt for agricultural elements that might help them rebuild society. 

And with Negan out of commission, the show has to bring in new protagonists. As noted in the graphic novels, the Whisperers will become the newest threat to Rick Grimes’ efforts to rebuild the various communities in a more sustainable way. In the comics, they dress in the skin of the walkers as camouflage. Samantha Morton will play their leader. 

In the first three episodes, there is no overt signs of Rick’s pending departure.

Kang said she has mixed feelings about Lincoln’s departure leaking out ahead of time, which AMC is now using in its marketing so it’s now no secret at all. “We have to pretend all the information isn’t out there,” she said. “It is what it is. We live in this landscape and roll with it.”

She hinted that the show will keep Maggie’s character’s departure open ended as opposed to killing her since the odds of her ABC show surviving a second season is less than 50/50. (Cohan had a contractual dispute with the show, which led her to take on the ABC role.)
“Hopefully, we will have her back next season,” Kang said. This season, “we definitely have a very strong Maggie arc.”

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Danai Gurira as Michonne  - The Walking Dead _ Season 9, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

Norman Reedus, Lincolns’ best bud on the show since 2010, admits that he tried to convince Lincoln to stay but understands why he did it.  

“We used to talk about everything on the way to work,” he said. “We work. Then we had lunch.We go to the trailer and talk about the rest of the day and what we did or scripts. Then we end the day, get in my car, pull out my phone and we talk more. At night, he’ll call. His wife thinks he and I are having an affair!” 

He added, “the day he left, I went and got my food. I sat there and didn’t know what to do!”

Reedus kept on pouring the praise on Lincoln while still describing him in present tense. 

“When people show up on set, he’s the first one to say hello, the last one to leave,” he said. “He’s the one saying, ‘Come on! Stop f**king around. Let’s do this!’ He’s been that guy for me. He’s really set the bar high.” 

Given the depth of the remaining cast, Reedus is confident fans will find plenty to like even without Rick.

“In a world of zombies and samurai swords and baseball bats, all these things, if we don’t play truthfully, as honest as we can, it will fall part,” Reedus said. “So he really fought to do that. In his honor, we’re trying to keep that torch there.”

As for Reedus, he said he has no plans to leave until AMC turns the lights out.

“I started on season one of the show,” he said. “I’d love to book end it. I’ve put so much effort into this. To walk away now just seems cowardly. It’s a fight every day in a million different ways. It’s a fight I’ve been invested in. My family’s here. I like my work. I like riding my motorcycle through the country to work. I’ve been in New York a long, long time. Every time I go to New York, I want to go back to Georgia.”

He added, “This is my family. I’d love to see it to the end.”

TV PREVIEW

“The Walking Dead,” 9 p.m.

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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