**SPOILERS AHEAD*** FOR THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 9 EPISODE 5
‘What Comes Next’ starts right where we left off with Rick seemingly mortally wounded and evading an ever increasing walker (cough* zombie) horde as they sluggishly move towards him. Like all protagonists in this show the horde is ever approaching but always just out of reach.
I was one of the many that has given up on The Walking Dead, always just having a vague enough interest to look up recaps or funny breakdowns of episodes, like many my scorn for the show would heavily stem back to the death of Glen, perhaps even to his fake out death earlier (season 6) and then finally, the icing on the cake, killing off Carl in season 8.
For a long time as an audience member I felt a sense of contempt from the showrunners as they endlessly taunt us to stop watching with their assault of narrative inconsistencies and a dramatic currency of death.
The failure of the show in my mind could originate from this very concept “The Dramatic Currency Of Death”. This impending nihilism that the show continues to explore seems like a weekly dose of depression. What is the point of watching a show that simply plods through a formula of building a character up to then violently kill them off?
Don’t get me wrong a good death in a show is a fantastic way of injecting a bit of life into a show, but where shows like Game Of Thrones always succeeded in bringing narrative excitement from a death or two, TWD has always seemed to fail as each death comes across as an insult to the audience.
The pinnacle of treating the audience badly was in the series ending scene of season 6 where they specifically changed the narrative structure and film making style to create a cheap gimmick of a cliff hanger to bring the audience back for season 7.
The comparison to GOT is that it always treats its audience with respect never creating an unearned moment. Sure in GOT we remember the big deaths but we tune in week to week to know what’s happening to the characters and the forces against them. Whereas I felt that TWD always failed on giving more interesting avenues to explore other than deaths and hence why it’s finally experiencing some of the lowest ratings it has ever had.
Regrettably they seem too late to realise how jaded the fan base has become. Whatever course corrections they attempt now will most likely fall flat. This is unfortunate as the new show runner has made some interesting, and much needed changes, to the structure of the show.
From the new opening, that emphasises a chance to rebuild, to a dialling back of the drama. The stakes have moved from the fear of death to the interpersonal conflicts that evolve from the attempts to reinvent what civilisation looks like. This change of focus from the depressive week to week of yesteryear is a welcomed change for a show that was forever focused on death which has become stale and boring.
Suddenly these squabbles amongst characters and the very real difficult decisions become the dramatic source for the series. The benefit of doing it this way is that civil war debates are far more interesting than who the most recent “big bad” is and who they are going to kill off next.
It is unfortunate that Andrew Lincoln is leaving a show centred on his character for so long just when it is moving into gear but perhaps it is a necessary step for it to evolve into something new.
Whilst we follow Rick stumbling to his doom I was reminded of the character of Tyreese who in his final episode (S5) experienced similar hallucinations but where that episode seemed cheap and lazy What Comes Next manages to rise above the trope with memorable appearances of some old faces.
A character of Rick Grimes can not go out unheroically and the writers manage to do the character justice as he moves through flashback to flashback. Notable cameos from Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Hershel (the late Scott Wilson) offer up a seemingly angel and demon like appearance as Rick fights his injury more and more.
Meanwhile in Alexandria Maggie convinces Michonne that letting her kill Negan is a necessary evil. Michonne reluctantly hands over the keys to his cell.
Maggie’s first interaction with the smart talking Negan, starts out as you would expect, with him taunting her with the recount of his vicious killing of her husband. Maggie however sees through the facade as she realises the man before her is the shadow of his former self. Negan eventually breaks and begins begging Maggie to kill him so that he can join his wife Lucille. Realising his fate is worse than death she locks him back in his cell, perhaps finally seeing the results from Ricks justice system and ending their civil war for good.
This episode we also see where Anna ‘Jadis’ is up to, as she continues to arrange a safe rescue for herself with the mysterious helicopter. Reassuring the pilot that she does, in fact, have “an A” with her and as we know, she left Father Gabriel in the last episode, she doesn’t have an ‘A’ person. She picks up her gun from the passenger seat just before exiting the car implying she plans to leave by force.
Back on the road Rick finally stumbles over the bridge attracting the horde onto the unfinished structure where he hopes it will collapse sending the horde floating down the convenient flood waters below.
As the horde approaches Rick realises that the bridge will unfortunately hold and this will endanger the residents of hilltop, again in a nice plot contrivance, he notices a very convenient container of dynamite. Mortally wounded and running out of time he seems destined to die when Maggie, Michonne, Darryl, Carol and a group of survivors show up only to fail in their attempts to stop the horde before Rick, in a touchingly heroic moment, explodes the bridge. The horde of walkers continue their approach and one by one plummet into the river.
Down the river we see Jadis waiting for the helicopter as it approaches. She looks out to see the river (which suddenly appears) with miles of walker bodies floating by. Wounded on the shore, is the one and only, Rick Grimes coughing and spluttering. Jadis radios the helicopter pilot admitting her deception but asks if she can bring a “B” instead. In the final shots of the episode, we see Rick in the back of a helicopter flying off to safety then a flash forward, again, to a future time we find several new characters trying to evade a horde. When all seems to be lost a sudden inteception from an unseen gunman(or woman) is heard and the group evade certain death. Picking up Rick Grime’s hat we are introduced to an older (maybe 6 years older) Judith who seems just as capable as her father.
Despite the plot contrivances I really enjoyed this episode. By allowing the focus to be a worthy send off to a character, not undermining the audiences loyalty to the show by having a violent end, shows the real extent of this course correction for the show. It is heart felt and sincere in its approach, something lacking in previous seasons.
Angela Kang, the newest showrunner in a long line of showrunners, has the potential to do something that I thought was impossible, actually get an audience to care for the show.
As a fence sitting fan I have a hesitant hope that it will remain good despite the fear that it may never end, with Lincoln reportedly signed on for several features, at the very least I’m happy it’s finally not the same boring formula.
With a new trailer teasing another time jump and some interesting evolution of the zombies this show might even do the unthinkable be great again.
It’s a 3.5/5 Birds From Me – Jason
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