WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "Where Are You Now?," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
The six-year time jump between Rick’s “death” and the arrival of Magna in the closing moments of last week’s episode ensured The Walking Dead wouldn't return in this episode for a tour of each character's grieving. His absence is still keenly felt, but for the most part, life has gone on. New problems have arisen and been solved, new conflicts have developed and left new scars – literally, in some cases. Not only do things looks markedly different (Judith, Carol’s hair), they also feel different.
Much has occurred in the years since Rick blew up the bridge (although no one has repaired it, so ironically, that looks the same), and "Where Are You Now?" spends a fair amount of its energy delicately laying the foundations of the way things are in the present. It’s a far cry from where we left off.
When Magna and her group first lay eyes on Alexandria, it’s clear what the see is a utopia -- and from a post-apocalyptic perspective, they're certainly not wrong. For all intents and purposes, Alexandria is thriving, with everything in its original condition or else newly rebuilt. However, to their credit, the Alexandrians seem pretty aware that they have something beyond valuable given the lengths they go to protect their location and the rigorous new member application process. Not only are Magna and her group blindfolded on the way to the community, they're met with extreme suspicion when they arrive. The community as a whole seems more anxious than they've ever been about keeping their existence secret.
Relationships are also similarly calm on the surface, but vibrating beneath. Michonne and Judith are fully mother and daughter, but Michonne is still clearly affected by the loss of Rick, and vacillates from despair to suspicion to anger for most of the episode. There’s a scene in which a very nervous Judith approaches Michonne’s bedroom and listens to her mother yell at the ghosts of Rick and Carl. But just as we think this is our new Michonne, The Walking Dead reveals she has a young son to whom she's devoted. An X-shaped brand on her back presumably relates to an event two and a half years earlier that broke apart the communities and seems to have been what led Alexandria to beef up security.
Everyone else has more or less grown further into the roles they occupied before Rick’s loss. The charter Michonne contemplated six years ago has evolved into a working government, with Aaron, Gabriel and Michonne among the leaders. Aaron is a doting father to a young daughter, Gabriel and Rosita are in a relationship. and Eugene is far more self-assured (and in love with Rosita). Negan, on the other hand, has changed drastically.
The crazed caveman we glimpsed last week has given way to a relatively put-together Town Jailbird. Presumably that's in part due to Judith, who apparently visits him frequently for help with homework. Negan is wrapped around her little finger, which is both cute and disturbing considering the blood on his hands. When he asks her what we’re all wondering which is why she visits him at all, Judith reveals admirable pragmatism when she answers that he doesn’t have to be a good person to be good at math problems. Judith is going to run the show one day.
Like Alexandria, but more so, the Kingdom has achieved peace and prosperity to such a degree that there's a sense of foreboding. Carol and Ezekiel are so happy that it's almost inconceivable both of them will survive the season. They’re a full-fledged nuclear family, complete with "rebellious" son Henry. The angsty teen wants to learn the blacksmith trade from Earl at Hilltop so he can return and maintain the Kingdom’s failing 20th-century infrastructure. The distance makes Ezekiel nervous, given the length of the journey (officially no more working cars, it looks like) and the strained relations between the communities. He’s also pouting that if Henry leaves right then he won’t be around to help Ezekiel with “the fair.” There are no specifics on that of yet, but it looks like an event in which several of the communities will get together for the first time in a long time.
The biggest change in the Kingdom at first appears to be Carol. The episode teases us into thinking she's lost her edge. She's the one who takes Henry to the Hilltop after Ezekiel concedes and when former Saviors led by Jed rob her and threaten Henry's life and she submits pretty easily. Henry's embarrassed and angry she didn't fight more, but Carol shrugs it off, assuring him that one day he'll understand. Then she waits till he's out and sneaks off to burn the remaining Saviors alive while they sleep. It's peak Carol, and almost nostalgic.
Audiences didn’t get to see the farming community this week, but the fact that it’s not the same place we left six years ago is evident. It’s still led by a woman, but one whom Michonne treats with contempt. That could be Maggie, but that’s doubtful, as Lauren Cohan’s final episode for the foreseeable future aired last week. It’s more likely Maggie left at some point during the time jump, and Michonne doesn’t get along with whoever remains in her place. And if that’s the case, who is this new leader?
Magna and her group are the only confirmed new cast members outside those from the Whisperer camp and Judith, so whoever’s in charge is someone we’ve seen before. It’s obviously not any woman who appeared this week, which leaves Enid, Tara and Cassie. Cassie is notable in that group given that, not only did she share Maggie’s thirst for vengeance, she acted upon it. If she were to somehow be the leader of Hilltop, it would makes sense for there to be enmity between her and Michonne. Michonne and Maggie were good enough friends that their relationship probably survived Maggie’s assassination attempt and subsequent second thoughts. But Cassie seems much more committed to vengeance as justice than Maggie ever was, so it stands to reason she and Michonne would butt heads a little harder.
Oceanside goes completely unmentioned this week, which makes sense if the communities aren’t united in any fashion – their predilection for remaining hidden might have cropped up again, plus they’re farther out than Alexandria, The Kingdom and Hilltop. Or it could be that Oceanside no longer exists, like the Sanctuary.
The writing might have been on the wall before Rick’s death, but at this point, the Sanctuary’s inability to sustain itself is stone-cold reality. Some of the Saviors were absorbed into the other communities, but a good number of them apparently splintered off to form a post-apocalyptic highwaymen gang. Those are the people Carol sets on fire.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.