But that sense of satisfaction is keenly tempered by the historically indisputable fact that as society advances, so does the job of managing it. This idea neatly manifests in the walkers, who aren’t the apex predators they were in earlier seasons. Now, they're something that's evolved into more of a force of nature as their herds threaten to destroy everything in their paths, including the fragile infrastructure the survivors have built.
Speaking of infrastructure, the Sanctuary has been welcomed back into the fold as Rick promised, but things are far from hunky dory. Daryl’s in charge of the struggling community, whose factory location makes it nearly impossible for them to grow crops. Turns out that was part of the reason Negan forced other communities to turn over food and supplies – the Sanctuary isn’t capable of supporting itself, and must now depend on its former enemies for survival.
But while Rick is fully committed to bringing about Carl’s idyllic vision of the future by helping them in whatever way he can, some of his former people – namely Maggie – aren’t feeling so generous. Not only is she still consumed with hatred for Negan, the Hilltoppers have grown increasingly resentful that they’re still essentially paying tribute to the Saviors even though they won the war. Maggie faces some serious leadership challenges that don’t leave her with any good choices at the end of “A New Beginning,” and her story pretty much dispels the myth that there was ever a “simpler time” in human history.
As season premieres go, “A New Beginning” is a bit more function than form. It spends much of its time outlining the season’s driving conflict between Rick’s optimism and Maggie’s cynicism as well as steadfastly, but subtly letting the audience know that, as a show, TWD has evolved just as the survivors have. While there are a few notable scares, not to mention a climax that’ll leave you decently shook, this episode is first and foremost an introduction to a new iteration of The Walking Dead – one that promises to forge new paths that will hopefully lead it back to more of what made the show so compelling in the first place. Now that the series is no longer slave to the conflict between Rick and Negan, it can get back to the business of exploring whether or not humans can cooperate long enough to build a society that will allow them to survive the world around them.
Fan reaction will probably vary, considering there’s a hefty portion of the fanbase that won’t be happy until the show goes back to dancing on the knife’s edge of hope and hopelessness it so skillfully mastered over the first few seasons. But there’s no way to recreate that tone without sacrificing the integrity of a narrative that is first and foremost is about evolution. “A New Beginning” doesn’t abandon All Out War because it can’t, regardless of how poorly received that storyline may have been. It grows a new story out of the ashes and dares to make The Walking Dead frightening again while evolving it at the same time. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a show in its ninth season – especially one that’s about to lose its central character -- but one Kang and the cast seem well-poised to make work.
The Walking Dead returns for Season 9 on October 7 on AMC.