Warning: major spoilers ahead for the Season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead has finally returned for its ninth season to pay off on the Season 8 finale that saw Rick spare Negan, resulting in some of his closest allies secretly turning on him. Maggie in particular was furious about Rick denying her vengeance for what Negan did to Glenn, and Season 9 was bound to show how she handles leading Hilltop differently from how Rick leads Alexandria. Here’s how the premiere handled it.
The significant time jump between the end of Season 8 and the beginning of Season 9 gave Maggie the time to develop as a leader as well as give birth to her baby off-screen without forcing the show to address the growing difficulties of a zombie apocalypse pregnancy. It was revealed early in the episode that she only relatively recently became the official leader of Hilltop, as ousted leader Gregory had called for a vote.
Since Gregory didn’t completely change his character during the 18-month time jump, it probably wasn’t a terribly close election. While one would think that the position of leader at Hilltop would be a pretty sweet gig, Maggie was visibly frustrated for much of the episode, even before the reveal that she executed Gregory. She was visibly irritated when Rick would make calls for the entire group when her people were involved, and she refused to go back to Alexandria where Negan was, even if going to Alexandria might have been more practical.
It couldn’t have helped that she was getting grief from just about all sides, despite the fact that her community was flourishing. As it turns out, the other settlements were largely reaping the benefits without contributing a whole lot in return. Nothing could even grow in the factory of the Sanctuary, let alone produce enough to share with other settlements. Hilltop wasn’t thrilled that they were working so hard and other communities were gaining from it. It was a no-win for Maggie.
Rick was getting “bless you” and rounds of applause from the former Saviors while Maggie was being forbidden from the funeral of one of her own people because of something that went wrong and was not at all her fault. She was being blamed at Hilltop for sharing food with the Saviors, as if everything else wasn’t enough. So, when Gregory got in the head of the dead boy’s father and encouraged him to seek revenge on Maggie, she didn’t have a hole lot of restraint. Although she successfully got rid of him — and therefore enabled viewers to stop wondering when somebody was finally going to snap and just kill Gregory — by hanging him, his influence remains. Not everybody is happy with Maggie.
Unfortunately, the parallels between Maggie and Negan aren’t too hard to spot. We can probably be confident that she’ll never play “eenie meenie miney moe” with people while wielding a barbed wire baseball bat. Still, she has adopted his attitude to a certain degree. She eventually demanded that the people of the Sanctuary give up resources that they were already short on, and she argued that they’re lucky enough that they were allowed to survive after surrender. At Hilltop under Maggie, the punishment fits the crime, and so Gregory was hanged.
She won’t be Negan 2.0, but if people at Hilltop begin to grumble that their new leader shares some qualities with the man who once ruled over them, it won’t be difficult to understand why. So that is who Maggie has become as a leader after the time jump. What about Rick?
For his part, Rick doesn’t seem to enjoy his celebrity among the Saviors or the warm welcome he receives when he visits the Sanctuary, but he doesn’t exactly protest too much. He laughed it off when Michonne teased him about it and then spent a happy night with the woman he loves. While there’s nothing wrong with Rick enjoying his lot in life after so much suffering, seeing him happy and in love while Maggie struggles under all kinds of pressure and Daryl wallows in misery as leader of the Sanctuary isn’t easy.
It also gives the impression that Rick has gotten overly comfortable with the respect he receives as the leader who stopped the war back in the Season 8 finale. He does deserve credit for ending the conflict that could have killed them all, even if it came at the cost of alienating his allies by sparing Negan, but it seems like he hasn’t really developed as a leader the way others have. Rick would be perfectly happy to have Daryl come home to Alexandria and seemed quite eager to have Maggie back, even if only as a guest.
Basically, The Walking Dead Season 9 premiere planted some seeds of potential resentment from Maggie toward Rick while not necessarily alerting Rick to the fact that trouble is brewing among his former bosom buddies. Rick doesn’t seem to realize that they’re not the friends they once were, and that friendship would have had to change with Maggie becoming a leader even if she wasn’t furious about Negan’s survival. The conversation between Rick and Maggie at Hilltop and the subsequent hanging of Gregory likely clued him in that Maggie isn’t the woman she was back when she was a faithful follower.
The differences between Maggie and Rick could make for some intriguing developments in the first half of Season 9, especially considering both Lauren Cohan and Andrew Lincoln are on their way out. The Walking Dead could very well bring Maggie back, but the odds are pretty good that Rick will bite the dust sometime before the final credits on the midseason finale roll. If Rick does die, could that motivate Maggie to change her ways and perhaps leave Hilltop in search of a place where she doesn’t have to be a ruthless leader? Will they have a showdown that results in Daryl stepping up as the new leader? What will go down with King Ezekiel now that Carol is a priority for him?