‘The Walking Dead’ Season 9 Returns With New Enemies and Downed Heroes

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” returns to continue its ninth season, which strives in trying to find new, more human stories to tell amid its landscape of contorted, snarling walkers and now rival groups  impersonating the dead. It’s an impressive feat that TWD pulls off. A genre that barely manages to keep a two hour movie afloat is still going strong in this series. Mostly, because the characters are more fascinating than the dead, and as this season enters its second half, the dilemmas and conflicts are getting even more twisted.

When last we saw our post-apocalyptic heroes, they were being surrounded by Whisperers in a gloomy cemetery. They were not only fighting off this new, human menace (who disguise themselves as walkers), but were retrieving the body of fallen comrade Jesus (Tom Payne). While escaping through the woods, Daryl (Norman Reedus) aims for the legs to sniff out the real Whisperers from the actual walking dead. To the anger of Michonne (Danai Gurira), they capture one of the Whisperers, a terrified woman named Lydia (Cassady McClincy). Daryl decides to take her back to Alexandria and Hilltop to get some answers. Back at Hilltop Tara (Alanna Masterson) sends out a search party to find Daryl and Michonne. Alden (Callan McAuliffe) leads the way with Luke (Dan Fogler), a plump, music-loving newcomer who volunteers. But soon the original search party arrives with Lydia captive. She’s tossed into the same prison where Henry (Matt Linz) is still passing the time. Lydia claims her people were simply trying to scope out Alexandria and Hilltop to see if they were good people, which of course Daryl and Michonne don’t believe for one instant. Meanwhile in sick bay Eugene (Josh McDermitt) decides to finally confess his feelings for Rosita (Christian Serratos). But there’s a slight problem, she’s already mated with the more attractive Siddiq (Avi Nash), and appears to be pregnant. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in his own drama has managed to escape, even if Judith (Cailey Fleming) isn’t too happy about it. Negan wants to return to a specific Sanctuary to find old followers…some who have turned into the dead already.

For an extended mid-season premiere clocking in at an hour and 14 minutes (counting commercials), this episode, titled “Adaptation,” keeps it simple. We’re catching up with everyone even as a few storylines advance in important ways. The good citizens of Alexandria must now cope with the loss of Jesus, and there are some moments of decent drama. Contemplating on the loss of Jesus, Aaron (Ross Marquand) admits to Michonne that he was wrong, they should have stayed isolated in Alexandria (not clear how it helps, but there you have it), and it’s one of the episode’s best moments. Much of the rest of this chapter simply consists of set-ups for what’s to follow. This makes for an episode that is probably not as satisfying when simply judged on its own. But this show has been on for nearly a decade, so it has to carefully spread out its story threads. The most complete storyline in “Adaptation” belongs to Negan, who goes on a trek back to his old Sanctuary, but finds nothing except walkers eager to munch on him. Old friends are now the walking dead and he dutifully smashes their heads in before going back on the road. The final scene between him and Judith is a darkly comic gem, as she shoots out his motorcycle and does a wicked “I told you so.” Of course how she made it out there all alone so far down the road is a question left to the gods of TV logic.

The other elements of “Adaptation” are all set ups. Darryl tries to get answers from Lydia, who claims her mother is the only survivor of their group. But the final scene is Alden and Luke getting surrounded by Whisperers, one of whom aims a shotgun is probably Lydia’s mother. On the more melodramatic side of things, fans will no doubt want to see what happens with Rosita, who obviously doesn’t want poor Eugene, has copulated with Siddiq, but is technically still with Gabriel (Seth Gilliam). Sudden pregnancies have a way of complicating such triangles. Michonne and Daryl also seem to be hiding something and speak in cryptic dialogue. What’s going on? We have to keep tuning in. This is what makes “The Walking Dead” still watchable. No doubt the most devout fans of this genre will cheerfully watch endless hours of advancing dead (still done with brilliant makeup effects) get mowed down, chopped up and set aflame. But the characters are what anchor it all down into something more engaging, even when they can come across as unconvincingly goofy as in the case of Luke.

“Adaptation” signals this season as being more about the showdown with the Whisperers than with the ever present dead. Take this mid-season opener as merely a first chapter, with hopes that the next few will only get more bloody interesting.

The second half of “The Walking Dead” season nine premiered Feb. 10 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.