WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "Adaptation," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
The Walking Dead returned Sunday for the second half of its ninth season with the aptly titled “Adaptation." As the survivors deal with a new threat that upends everything they’ve accomplished, the drama settles into the previously inconceivable Life After Rick era. Both are obstacles on a massive scale, but showrunner Angela Kang proves herself capable of guiding the series over them.
It doesn’t hurt that The Walking Dead has always been an adaptation that’s viewed deviation from the comic book source material as an opportunity rather than a last resort or something to be avoided. One of the reasons Rexit felt so impossible is Rick Grimes' central importance to the narrative, but this is a show that’s prepared to take beloved storylines and characters, and twist them into something familiar yet different. The producers spent more than eight seasons reinventing the wheel, and while there have certainly been mixed results, “Adaptation” proves the series is capable of scaring, intriguing and entertaining without its longtime anchor.
The midseason premiere picks up directly after Jesus’ death, and progresses through the fallout of his murder, the capture of a Whisperer girl, and further retaliatory aggression. If first impressions are any indication, the Whisperers did not come to make friends. Greg Nicotero directed this episode written by Corey Reed, and the two find engaging ways to introduce the new enemy that make every revelation disturbing. We know the Whisperers use walker skin as camouflage, but unpacking that conceit results in some frightening sequences as we get glimpses of just how powerful a weapon that camouflage is.
Not only can the Whisperers effectively move amidst the herds with relative ease, they’re basically impossible to differentiate from their undead counterparts, making them adept at the sneak attack (see: Jesus). They have the ability to silently stalk and observe their prey in a manner that proves to be useful to them and dangerous to anyone who inadvertently crosses their paths. Daryl and his search party encounter a group of walkers, and we watch as the group creates new strategies based on the information that there could be humans lurking among any herd. These are as simple as “Leg shot!” or “Look at their hands,” but considering how long it’s been since we’ve seen ragtag survivors work together to defeat a new threat, this scene was a welcome callback to the show’s early days.
We're also introduced to Lydia, the first major Whisperer to appear since their introduction. Without revealing too much, she provides a look at the Whisperers that dispels any notion they're just another random group of psychos; they're an organized, intelligent society. That makes the Whisperers one of the biggest, and most challenging, dangers the survivors have ever faced, and they’ve also made every advancement in managing the walker threat largely irrelevant. “Adaptation” does an excellent job of introducing this threat in myriad ways, some direct, some not, and the episode leaves us with the feeling of just having scratched the surface.
That’s partly due to the fact that Negan’s escape gives some focal balance between the Whisperers and the rest of the action. After Gabriel left the key to the cell within reach, Negan bounced faster than Daryl out of a leadership position. He spends most of the episode alone, which gives us a rare glimpse of the character without the constant grandstanding of previous seasons. If you were looking for a televised adaptation of Here's Negan, this is the closest thing the show has attempted, at least in terms of character introspection. While it’s necessary to find a new place for Negan, given the inherent narrative limitations in keeping him in prison, it remains a question whether the character could, or should, continue to exist.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan will never not be entertaining and it’s not as if Negan’s story is uninteresting. But executing a redemption arc with the man who killed Glenn might not be possible. And it’s not a small job to reinvent a character so defined by his position as philosophical antagonist to Rick. Where else does Negan have to go as a man? If it’s just to eventually come around to Rick’s way of thinking, that might not be an engaging enough story. We know The Walking Dead can survive in a Rickless world, but we can’t say that with the same certainty regarding Negan.
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Aside from questions regarding Negan’s longevity, “Adaptation” deftly executes a reintroduction to The Walking Dead’s riskiest season. The Whisperers promise to be an enemy that’ll make us forget that Rick’s condemned to make movies with Jadis for the foreseeable future. We can’t say the same for the community members, but the future looks bright for audiences.
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, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Nadia Hilker, Dan Fogler, Angel Theory, Lauren Ridloff and Eleanor Matsuura.