WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "What Comes After," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
The final 10 minutes of The Walking Dead’s "What Comes After" was a one-two punch of massive plot development. Rick Grimes survives after Anne rescues him, and he's ferried off to parts unknown as Wang Chung blares, Maggie spares Negan’s life as he sobs at her feet, Shane exhibits self-awareness, and the last few moments introduces beloved comics character Magna -- and re-introduces Judith Grimes.
While viewers are still picking their jaws up off the floor as the helicopter flies away from the farm where it touched down, time elapses and the barn in the distance turns to ruin and the plants and trees grow. There's a group of survivors led by a woman that includes some of the new cast members we saw in the Season 9 trailer. They begin to get swarmed by a herd of walkers in an open field when a shot rings out and takes down one of the undead. Then another, then another and then enough perfect hits to clear a path for the survivors. As they run to meet their savior, the camera pans up to show a little girl who can’t be more than 10, wielding a Colt Python, with a katana strapped on her back. She then picks up her brother’s old hat and announces herself as Judith Grimes.
In the interim of the second time jump of the season, Judith’s leveled-up to John Dory levels of marksmanship and Michonne levels of badassery. In roughly 90 seconds of screen time, she steals our hearts, and not only because of the confident way she pulls off Grimes family fashion.
While the absence of Chandler Riggs’ Carl Grimes is still acute, NuJudith’s arrival fills a void that wasn’t keenly felt until we met her. While no one could accuse The Walking Dead of falling down on feminism, Enid is the only girl under 18 who isn’t crazy, dead or both. It’s not as though Judith is going to serve as an example for girls her age, who presumably (hopefully) aren’t watching. But the narrative choice to make her an aggressive, fearless, capable little girl as opposed to sheltered precious cargo is noteworthy. It would have made just as much sense for Michonne and the community to be overprotective given Judith’s youth and legacy as the last surviving Grimes family member. However, it’s ultimately so much more satisfying to see her turn out more like the brother and father she barely knew, and it allows The Walking Dead to return to a dynamic it hasn’t seen since the first few seasons – a young child growing up in the apocalypse – but now revived with a different point of view.
She also serves as a welcome signal that the next few episodes won’t be an excruciating tour through everyone’s grief. While there will no doubt be echoes of Rick’s absence to be seen, Judith’s appearance as a well-adjusted, gun-slinging young lady indicates things in the communities won’t be as morose they could’ve been had the show picked up next Sunday right where it left off.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Lennie James, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.