The ninth season of The Walking Dead continues its inexplicable uptick in quality with “The Bridge”, another surprisingly solid episode.
There are lots of common misconceptions about film and TV critics, such as that we’re all pseudo-intellectual nitpickers who hold your favourite shows to unreasonably high artistic standards. Well… that’s often true, actually, but one that isn’t true is the idea that we all want certain things to be terrible so we can enthusiastically and mean-spiritedly maul them in reviews. Sure, writing a horribly scathing article is fun, especially as catharsis after having to endure something abysmal like the last several seasons of The Walking Dead. And I can only speak for myself, obviously. But personally I want everything to be good – after all, I’m the one who has to sit through it if it isn’t. So it’s my absolute pleasure to report that last week’s ninth season premiere wasn’t a total fluke. The Walking Dead is indeed getting good again, for the first time in years, and “The Bridge” was a solid continuation of its new attitude and ideas.
That attitude is an introspective one, and the ideas revolve around conflicts between long-time cast members who are trying to navigate a burgeoning new world while toting around eight prior seasons of personal baggage. So on the one hand you have Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Carol (Melissa McBride) still trying to assemble a hippie utopia built on hand-holding and co-operation, while Maggie (Lauren Cohan) rules her own rural kingdom with a more iron fist and Daryl (Norman Reedus) morbidly grumbles about having to work with people who, scarcely one season ago, were trying to kill him.
The success of this ninth season thus far is that none of these conflicting attitudes seem artificial; they’re all natural outgrowths of each character’s personal experiences throughout the show. Rick is trying to build a new world in Carl’s idealistic image, whereas Maggie’s domain is fuelled by resentment over Glenn’s murder. Both are now raising children, but the latter, despite having Jesus (Tom Payne) on-hand as an advisor, doesn’t have the close-knit support provided by Michonne and Carol; she’s separate from the others, geographically and emotionally, and “The Bridge” is about not just the building of a literal one, but the extending of a metaphorical one.
So while the local communities enlist the help of the Saviours on a testy construction project, Michonne visits Hilltop to negotiate more food – and, of course, to see if Maggie has turned the place into North Korea. She still has her attempted murderer shackled up in the dungeon, but various conversations with Michonne, Jesus and the culprit himself lead her to reverse that decision and put him back to (supervised) work. Ordinarily, these kinds of ethical discussions would be unbearable, but the writing is so improved that they’re suddenly a pleasure, which is easily the standout improvement among a host of other good ones, such as an increased focus on better characters, the toning down of outlandish ones such as Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt), the promotion of previously useless folks like Enid (Katelyn Nacon) and Aaron (Ross Marquand), and much less of a focus on fancy-pants structural flourishes and insufferably “arty” stylistic decisions. (“The Bridge” is admittedly bookended by Rick regaling Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with the day’s events, but that actually works and includes some great, ominous lines.)
As insane as it feels to be typing these words, “The Bridge” even managed to reinvigorate the show’s zombie action – and in a way that cleverly furthered the simmering tensions between the Saviours and everyone else, given how the former group were responsible for directing a horde which, for one reason or another, they allowed to descend on the logging yard. This was a fine sequence that allowed the walkers to feel dangerous without having the humans behave stupidly, and it had real bodily consequence for Aaron. The ramifications of it saw Rick banishing this episode’s bad guy, Justin (Zach McGowan), who briefly reappeared in a coda during which he was presumably killed by a mystery figure who has been quietly bumping off the Saviours.
That isn’t even the only tantalising subplot supplied by “The Bridge”. Elsewhere, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) began a relationship which was reasonably well-handled but didn’t ring entirely true, and towards the end of the episode the latter spotted something flying overhead – a helicopter? A drone? – that hints at even more shenanigans afoot.
For the first time in a long while, I’m genuinely interested in what The Walking Dead is doing. “The Bridge” was an ideal early-season episode that furthered the overarching plot while also teasing a number of tangential mysteries. The show overall has much better writing and direction, and it’s leading to better performances, too. Previously insufferable characters are becoming likeable (several of this episode’s best moments belonged to Aaron, of all people) and old ones are taking on additional contours and complexities. There’s a thin veneer of self-awareness – including what I can only assume was a nod at Ezekiel’s horrible speechifying last season – here now, and a much surer sense of what the show wants to be about long-term. I’m as shocked as anyone. But contrary to popular belief, I’m very pleased about the new direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads.