For a season premiere that launches with fans already aware its hero for the last eight years is going to be riding off into the apocalyptic sunset, The Walking Dead season 9 begins on some very hopeful notes. Said leader, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), is happily spending family time with his longtime love Michonne (Danai Gurira) and daughter Judith. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is safely tucked away inside an Alexandria jail cell. And though transportation challenges have become a pressing issue, Rick and Michonne and Maggie and Daryl and Carol and Eugene and – you get the idea: Rick’s whole crew – is honoring the memory of the late Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) by trying to rebuild not just their community, but a whole, multi-community society.
Of course, there are some issues within that goal. Rick and Michonne and Maggie and Daryl and Carol and Eugene may all support the same big-picture idea of living together peacefully, but they certainly do not all agree about whether such lofty ideals are possible (even with Negan locked away), and how they should set about achieving them if they are. Oh, and Negan, specifically the continuing survival of, is a big sticking point with some members of the group, too. So while there’s hope ahead, there’s heartbreak, too, along with a new group of villains who may make Negan and Lucille look almost sane and tame in comparison, some frisky and surprising new romances, and a pair of blasts from the past that add to the excitement of season 9 on camera and behind the scenes.
Ahead, 10 things you need to know before Sunday’s season premiere:
The action of season 9 picks up 18 months after the events of the war with the Saviors in season 8. Rick Grimes and friends, who were trying to build a new world from their Alexandria home base until Negan and the Saviors so brutally interrupted, are now scattered throughout the nearby communities. New relationships have been forged, while some old friendships are suffering from visible tensions. Supplies are dwindling rapidly, and everyone’s looking to old school methods of survival. Things get downright Little House in the Apocalypse when near depletion of the gas supply forces the use of horses and wagons for transportation, while Eugene (Josh McDermitt) tries to cook up a new source of fuel.
And it would be no fun to spoil a clever source of new food supplies – or the surprising person who points Rick and company to it – but suffice it to say that seeing the gang forced to be super resourceful as they attempt to construct an elaborate new society is the fresh jolt the show (and viewers) needed after two full seasons of misery caused by the arrival of Negan and his murderous minions. There is some fun to be had with these new adventures (especially during a road trip to Washington D.C.), which also serve as a way to reveal little nuggets of backstory on one of the show’s most mysterious characters.
Carl’s last wishes, for his father to make peace with Negan and the Saviors and channel his energies into bringing all the local communities together, is clearly what’s motivating Rick and Michonne in the new season. When we meet up with them, they’re negotiating deals between the communities for the sharing of supplies, leading efforts to gather new supplies, and spending lots of quality family time with Judith. Again, not to spoil any specifics, we actually see Rick laughing and Richonne in several romantic moments that aren’t just quick smooches while on the run from the danger of the moment.
As for the couple’s other relationships … Daryl and Maggie are particularly unhappy that Negan is still alive, and that Rick and Michonne made the decision to spare him despite the original plan that Negan would pay for the deaths of Glenn and Abraham with his own life. And while some of the Saviors see Rick as the hero who sprung them from life under Negan’s oppressive thumb, not all of them are happy with the dismantling of life as they knew it at the Sanctuary. It’s a situation that’s about to become a major problem, Daryl warns Rick.
Series star Andy Lincoln has already confirmed he’ll return to The Walking Dead to direct a season 10 episode, and he’ll be back on set during season 9 to shadow another director in preparation for that gig. But his days as Rick Grimes are rapidly coming to a close. AMC has confirmed nothing beyond his departure, but scuttlebutt among several sources is that Rick bids his loved ones adieu in episode five, “What Comes After,” an installment directed by EP Greg Nicotero (who also directs the season premiere) and co-written by former TWD showrunner-turned chief content officer Scott Gimple.
Will Rick die? Or, as so many fans have theorized/hoped, will an injured Rick take his leave in that helicopter he first spotted in season 8, meaning he might survive and eventually return to the original series or another spin-off project somewhere down the road? It’s tough to imagine a Walking Dead universe where Rick Grimes is definitively gone, and bringing the helicopter into play with his exit would be a nice full-circle story line moment.
Leaving that is, but new TWD showrunner Angela Kang has already confirmed she plans to have Maggie return as leader of the Hilltop community in season 10. For now, Lauren Cohan is going off to star in ABC’s midseason spy dramedy Whiskey Cavalier – with Scott Foley and another TWD alum, Tyler James Williams. Beyond those details, nothing has been confirmed about exactly how or when Maggie will take a break from the Hilltop. But it looks like episode six, “Who Are You Now,” could be the when. And with more of the leadership of the new world-building falling onto Maggie’s shoulders after Rick is gone, it would make perfect sense that Maggie might finally take Georgie – Jayne Atkinson’s traveling record album collector who left Maggie and company with valuable instructions on jumpstarting society last season – up on the offer to visit and observe Georgie’s community. That could also be the show’s way of introducing viewers to the Commonwealth, the comic book group of Ohio communities that’s already operating as a more organized, technologically advanced post-apocalyptic society.
Onscreen, Jon Bernthal returns as Shane Walsh, Rick’s BFF-turned-enemy who Rick was forced to kill in season 2, for an appearance that almost certainly ties in with Rick’s exit. Will the ghost of Shane visit Rick to torment him about how Lori and Carl died on Rick’s watch? Will flashback Shane appear as a dying Rick tells Michonne more about the man he believes to be Judith’s biological father?
Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, Michael Cudlitz – a.k.a. Abraham Ford – becomes the first TWD cast member to direct an episode, as he helms the Daryl-centric seventh episode, “Stradivarius.” Cudlitz, now starring in ABC’s new fall comedy The Kids Are Alright, joins Fear the Walking Dead star Colman Domingo as the only two cast members, so far, to also direct in TWD TV universe.
Even before his best friend Rick leaves, Daryl has assumed more of a leadership position within the group, and to say he’s not thrilled about it is an understatement. Also new: Norman Reedus’ silent brooder is no longer a man of few words, as he lets Rick, and his other BFF, Carol, know exactly how he feels about his new duties and how geographically splintered Rick’s crew is. The only person angrier than Daryl, in fact, is Maggie, and both of them are directing a good deal of that anger and resentment towards Rick, which will ratchet tensions up to a very respectable level as Rick’s parting looms.
If you haven’t read the comics, the Whisperers are the creepy survivors who peel walkers and wear their undead skin to walk stealthily among zombies and humans alike. They are cold, dangerous people who believe nothing is more important than their own survival – even Negan has standards against brutality like rape (do not RIP, Rapey Davey) – and who are likely to wreak the same kinds of major havoc in the TV series as they do in the comic book. They will also bring some stellar, recognizable faces – well, recognizable under the zombie skins, anyway – to the series, as Whisperer leader Alpha will be played by Oscar nominee Samantha Morton, while Alpha’s chief lieutenant, Beta, will be played by Sons of Anarchy and The Outsiders alum Ryan Hurst.
Grace Under Fire star Brett Butler and John Finn – a.k.a. Pacey’s dad on Dawson’s Creek – play Tammy and Earl Rose, Hilltop citizens who support Maggie as their leader … at first. Rhys Coiro – best known as volatile director Billy Walsh on Entourage – plays Savior Jed, who is still unhappy about the new, post-Negan way of life for the Saviors.
Zach McGowan (Black Sails, pictured above) appears as a rebellious Savior who clashes with Daryl. And Castle Rock and Ozark alum Cassady McClincy will play Lydia, the daughter of brutal Alpha. In the Walking Dead comics, Lydia becomes romantically involved with Carl, so now there’s a possibility she’ll become involved with another teen survivor.
Given the rumor that the season will include another, much longer time jump after that 18-month lapse at the beginning, maybe Lydia will make the acquaintance of an older Henry?
As for the teen Carl did have a romance with before his tragic death – Enid (Katelyn Nacon) – she’s still very close to Maggie, but she’s also taken on a surprising new role at the Hilltop, and it’s one that draws her into life-saving action early in the season.
Oh, and one more teaser about the new characters mentioned above: one of them pretty quickly ends up behind bars, just like Negan.
Rick and Michonne are closer than ever, and Richonne fans will get to enjoy a lot of sweet and sexy moments with them before Rick becomes a memory. And various trailers for season 9 have also hinted at new romances between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and the beloved Jerry (Cooper Andrews) and Nabila (Nadine Marissa). But what will surely be the you-never-saw-this-one-coming hook-up of the entire series also unfolds within the first three episodes of the season, and all we can say about it is, truly, you never saw this one coming!
You will definitely find out much more about that helicopter from last season, including how Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), er, Anne, is connected to it.
The Walking Dead season 9 premieres October 7 at 9 p.m. ET