Fall: The air cools, the leaves turn, I agonize ineffectually about whether to endure another season of this miserable show before surrendering.
I hate fall.
It’s easy to get sucked in this time, though. Change is in the air — even in the title of the season premiere, “A New Beginning.” Andrew “Rick Grimes” Lincoln is leaving this season, guaranteeing major shifts in the show’s dynamic. They have a new mastermind behind the camera, with the guy who steered TWD into the ground having been kicked upstairs. Even the setting was (momentarily) new last night, as the Grimes gang ventured briefly out of the woods and into post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. to fetch agricultural artifacts from the national history museum so that they could study how to build plows and wagons.
Why they couldn’t have raided the local library for books on how to build plows and wagons is … not clear. Dramatic license: A raid on a deserted library isn’t nearly as fun as a raid on a museum with the burned-out dome of the U.S. Capitol in the background.
The most cause for optimism comes from Maggie’s development as a ruthless but virtuous (well, mostly) governor of the Hilltop. Everyone complains about the show’s pacing and talkiness but an overlooked source of its problems through the years has been how the Good Guys tend to stay good while the Bad Guys remain steadfastly bad. If ever there was a premise that should scramble traditional notions of heroism and villainy, it’s survival amid a global zombie epidemic. “The Walking Dead” should have more morally complicated heroes and antiheroes than “Breaking Bad” but, since Shane passed from the scene, it’s been about as complicated as a pro wrestling event. Marginal characters like Eugene and Dwight occasionally find their loyalties shifting, and every now and then Rick gets stuck with a totally unconvincing plot line in which he’s a bit more ruthless with the bad guys than usual before inevitably regaining his moral bearings, but the core cast is basically inviolate. Rick, Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and Maggie are good, period. The enemy always comes from outside.
And since the enemy is always just a variation on the same psychotic-warlord character, it’s excruciatingly boring.
Maggie’s ready to break out from that. She’s not Shane, who was really just an id given room to run by a world without rules. She’s obviously not a psycho like Negan either. She’s not even drunk on power. She’s simply trying to do the best she can for the people who elected her, and if that means she needs to be a little rougher than Rick or Michonne are willing to be, then that’s what it means. Her loyalties have shifted but not to a Bad Guy; they’ve shifted to the residents of Hilltop. She cares enough about them to stoically take lip from the parents of one of the men who died while out on a raid with her. She cares enough about them to try to get the best deal possible for them on repairing the bridge by driving a hard bargain with her mentor Rick. When he pleads with her to be generous with food for the Sanctuary, which is struggling, that’s not her problem. The Saviors can starve. (To the extent Maggie has an “illegitimate” motivation, her thirst for revenge against Negan and the Saviors for killing Glenn, it’s perfectly understandable.) Conflict is brewing between her and the other communities but not because she’s crazy or out to conquer. She’s just being a vigorous advocate for the people she represents. Lotta dramatic possibilities in that.
A deeper theme of the episode was how to cope with a wrecked society’s problems once the fighting stops. That’s why it started off with the raid on the museum: Naturally the gang would turn to a reliquary of the last peaceful age for idea on how to begin a new one. One of the most low-key interesting exchanges came between Daryl and Rick at the Sanctuary, in which Daryl let slip that all the gas is almost gone (which would explain their otherwise inexplicable choice to ride horses to D.C.) and the roads are breaking down. That’s the sort of mundane, unsexy, but extremely important problem that people in their situation would face but which the show has been otherwise mostly unconcerned with amid all the rote shoot-em-ups with the Governor and Negan. The other pressing concern in a post-post-apocalyptic world is law, a running theme throughout the episode. There are now three models competing. In Alexandria they’re moving to a “charter,” per Michonne, a written code of crime and punishment. At the Hilltop, they’ve got a benevolent dictatorship going. Gregory is hanged on Maggie’s say-so — but not because he threatens her power. He is in fact guilty of attempted murder and a peaceful community can’t have that. Meanwhile, at the Sanctuary they’ve got a malevolent dictatorship brewing once again, with malcontents leaving graffiti on the walls begging for Negan’s return. The Sanctuary is a failing state, and people in failing states seek order by any means. Those three models are going to vie for supremacy all season long, I assume.
The potential fly in the new ointment here is Negan. He’s still alive, he’s a bad character, and, unless the writers surprise everyone by developing him, he’s going to inevitably suck the show back into a dopey good-guy-bad-guy dynamic at some point. The fact that the Saviors want him back means we’re all but guaranteed some “Napoleon returning from Elba” plotline in which Negan recaptures power and has to be finished off by a new coalition of the willing. Not looking forward to it.