Spoiler Warning for Season 9, Episode 3 of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed. Minor spoilers from “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be discussed.

“It’s us or the dead…and every life counts now.”

Damn. Season 9 of “The Walking Dead” is really just on a whole other level. The series is finally back on track, and these first three episodes really prove it. That being said, this is the first episode that does have a few pressing drawbacks…but it is still a thrilling and mysterious continuation of the story. While not perfect, this chapter of A New Beginning is still far better than those of the past two seasons.

The story of Rick Grimes is wrapping up. We all know it. We all feel it. Thankfully, he is given some time to enjoy these final days at his home with his family. Rick wakes up to start his day at Alexandria, giving Michonne a kiss on the shoulder and checking in on sleeping Judith before heading out to the now expanding garden. On the wall of the Grimes household is the planks of wood that Carl and Judith put their hand prints on; while walking out the door, Rick holds his hand up to Carl’s, showing that he carries his son with him as he goes about his days. At the garden, Rick finds a ripe tomato, which he places at Carl’s grave, signifying that life is sprouting from death and that Carl sacrificed his life for the good of the community. Later, Rick finds Michonne in bed working on her charter for the communities. He is proud of Michonne for leading Alexandria while he is away assisting in the construction of the bridge. Rick thanks her for everything she has done, and is doing…and for just being her. The future is teased more as Rick wants to assure his legacy by making a baby with Michonne. With his time on the show coming to a close, is it possible that an heir is on the horizon? Rick and Michonne have sex in this episode, but will a baby come out of it? If that is the case, the Grimes bloodline may just live on, because let’s be real…from a biological standpoint, Judith is totally Shane’s.

It’s family fun day in Alexandria. Much like in Season 7’s “Say Yes,” where Rick wanted to hold off on returning to the real world shit to spend time with Michonne on a supply run, he organizes a wonderful day for his daughter. The first stop is a trip to the infirmary for Judith’s cough to be checked out by Siddiq, who takes part in the fun and does his best to keep Judith happy. A musical montage plays as the Grimes family play hide and seek, skip down the streets, have a crawling race, and duel with sticks. That last activity holds some darker weight to it seeing as how one day Judith will have to be out in the world actually fighting for her survival; these family fun days, while absolutely beautiful to watch, are a rarity in this post-apocalyptic world. The final activity of the day involves the trio sitting outside of their home, reading “The Wizard of Oz,” which may be a bit of foreshadowing to how Rick makes his exit from the series; we don’t know if he will die, so could it be possible that he get’s whisked away to some far away strange land like Dorothy? Sadly, the day of enjoyment reaches its end when reality strikes. Scott arrives and tells Michonne and Rick that Justin has been found as a walker, presumably killed by someone. The Saviors at the bridge camp are becoming restless and Rick is needed there to calm things. And just like that, the Sheriff is pulled back into duty.

One of the major cliffhangers of the previous episode came as Justin was attacked by an unknown source while walking home to the Sanctuary. This episode opens up with a series of nighttime shots as walkers feast on a body at an abandoned school. There’s a fascinating bit of insight given into the walker lore as the feasting walkers stop eating the body as it begins to reanimate, showing that they know to move on and not eat their own. The walker is revealed to be Justin and a chilling sign is written on the wall behind him: “FINAL WARNING.” The next day, Maggie and Kal are traveling on wagon from the Hilltop to the bridge camp with food supplies for the Saviors. Jed, DJ, Arat, Laura and Regina step out in front of the wagon and a standoff of sorts erupts as Maggie questions what they are doing away from the bridge. They explain that they are in search of Justin, and Jed defiantly takes a tomato from the back of the wagon. Laura tries to calm the situation by telling Maggie that she can mark Jed down for the tomato and apologizes for the ethanol going missing. After the Saviors depart in search of their missing friend, Justin stumbles out of the woods as a walker, complicating matters even further. The tension between the survivors and the Saviors is understandable, but the discovery of Justin’s body takes things to a whole new level as it becomes clear that someone or multiple someones are picking them off.

Chaos erupts at the bridge camp as Justin’s body is revealed to the groups. The Saviors are both furious and terrified and the survivors on the other side stand ready to battle if the second coming of All Out War breaks out here. Alden steps up to the plate and stands in the middle of it all, but Jed calls him out for betraying the Saviors, and punches him in the face. Carol stops Jed before he takes things further, and even threatens to pull her gun on him. Jed calls Carol out for being a weak leader to the Saviors, prompting her to actually pull out her gun, which inspires the rest of the survivors to arm themselves. Laura shows herself to have changed immensely by stepping forward and ordering the Saviors to stand down, not wanting things to escalate. The Saviors wonder who killed Justin, and begin collecting nearby melee weapons to defend themselves. Arat demands that the Saviors stop what they are doing, showing that she has also undergone change. Fortunately, Rick shows up on horseback to settle things before they turn ugly, and to also order everyone to get back to work in redirecting nearby herds. The mystery of who is killing Saviors is explored further as Rick questions Gabriel about whether or not Anne might be responsible. Gabriel ultimately vouches for Anne, but later finds her acting rather strange and wonders if she is keeping something a secret. Anne is disheartened by the fact that even Rick considers her to be a suspect. This plays further into the redemptive arcs of this season. Enemies have become friends in many capacities, but the question of whether they can be trusted still remains.

A split between Rick/Michonne and Maggie/Daryl opened up in the Season 8 Finale, but this episode really sees it reach a critical point. Alden asks Rick if a few of the Saviors can be granted permission to carry guns to make them feel safer, but Maggie is vehemently against it. There’s a really interesting point that Alden makes about himself going from a Savior on the enemy side to a trusted ally and member of the group. Rick tells Alden he is willing to budge a little, but only after Justin’s killer has been found; Maggie is not thrilled about this, but she seems to understand when Rick explains that the Saviors need to be protected in order to ensure the completion of the bridge. Later, Rick meets with Daryl and explains that Justin seems to have died from a small puncture wound through his chest; it is far too small and clear to come from a knife or bullet, and Rick hints that it could be from an arrow or bolt. Daryl is frankly stunned to hear that Rick even thinks it might be a possibility that he killed Justin, and asks if this type of conversation is what he used to do, referring to Rick’s days as a police officer. Daryl isn’t worried about the disappearing Saviors and wonders why they get to continue on surviving when so many good people died at their hands; “Why do they get this future? And Glenn don’t? Or Abraham? Or Sasha? All the people the Kingdom lost…Hilltop…Oceanside?” Daryl makes an exceptionally strong point, but Rick pleads for him to at least try and makes things work. In a moving and emotional callback, Rick states that sparing the Saviors might be the right decision, just like when Daryl spared the man who locked his brother on a rooftop. Rick and Daryl are brothers, and this is hopefully just a bump in the road of their relationship. Things didn’t start off great between these two, but the built a special bond that has lasted all these years.

This episode yet again furthers Season 9’s excellent character dynamics by putting several of the survivors together for some meaningful dialogue. Cyndie has the weight of the world on her shoulders being the youngest leader of the united communities. She pairs off with Maggie, seemingly to learn from her as a leader as they search the grids for straggling walkers. The two spot a small cluster of walkers heading into the woods, clearly drawn by some sort of noise. There’s a bit of backstory given about the history of the Oceanside residents as Cyndie explains that they used to live nearby before relocating to their current home. They come across a dilapidated cabin with a shaky metallic roof that is drawing the walkers. They split off so that Maggie can take down the walkers while Cyndie pulls down the noise-maker. While walking on the porch, Cyndie falls down due to the rotting wood and a squad of walkers break through the boarded up front door ready to attack; this door is a clear homage to the famed “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” signage from the pilot, down to the walker hands sticking through. Maggie takes down almost a dozen walkers as Cyndie finds herself with her hand stuck in the throat of one stubborn and gnarly biter that tries to take a chunk out of her throat. Thankfully, Daryl saves the day with a crossbow bolt to the undead’s head as he, Rick and Rosita arrive from their grid searches. While heading back to camp, they come across Beatrice, who has been knocked unconscious and reports that Arat seems to have been taken. This creates a crisis of sorts as Rick, Maggie, Carol, Cyndie and Jerry hold a meeting and discuss the fact that if they don’t find her soon, the Saviors will riot again. Jerry wonders what will happen if they find who took Arat: do they take the Gregory route? Or the Negan route? Without the help of the Saviors, everything they have been working toward will be washed away by the rising waters.

For far too long, Carol has been kept separate from the rest of her family. Thankfully, that has been corrected for Season 9 and she is being given scenes with her fellow OGs once again. While searching for Arat, Carol and Rick discuss the delicate relations with the Saviors that currently exist. Carol notes that she came very close to ending the conflict before it had the chance to really begin as the Savior mob formed. Rick really opens up to Carol and tells her that he has a moment every morning where he feels as though he should just march down to the prison cell and kill Negan. What keeps him from doing this is that he remembers the long list of people that have been lost to this world, during and also before the Saviors showed up; every single loss that Rick has felt has been felt by Carol also. It really seems as though Rick has taken a page out of Morgan’s “all life is precious” book and wants to honor those that have fallen. We’ve seen shades of this Rick throughout the series, but never quite like this. As night falls, Carol walks into a trap set by Jed and DJ, allowing them to hold her at knifepoint as Rick arrives with his colt python pulled up. Jed and DJ are not responsible for the missing Saviors, but instead demand that they be given guns to protect themselves. Carol being the undeniable badass that she is manages to overpower Jed and stab him in the shoulder. Rick and Carol spare Jed and DJ’s life, realizing that it wouldn’t look good for two more Saviors to disappear in the dead of night. Carol echoes Rick’s sentiment, showing that both he and Morgan have had an effect on her; there’s also the fact that Carol is now the leader of the Saviors, and killing her own people wouldn’t exactly be the best course of action.

The real head-scratcher and also the weakest part of the episode revolves around Anne who makes her return to the Junkyard for what seems to be the first time since she moved to Alexandria. She walks through with her gun and flashlight under the cover of darkness, opening up a compartment that contains a radio. She turns it on and attempts to speak to the mysterious person(s) on the helicopter, questioning if they are responsible for the missing Saviors. The voice asks her if she has an “A” or a “B,” but no clarification as to what these letters mean is given. Anne, now Jadis once again, clearly knows and has some relationship with this person though; she promises to get the voice an “A” tomorrow. Gabriel emerges from the shadows and confusedly wonders who the hell she is talking to. Gabriel is pissed, because he stood up for Anne, but now she has reverted back to Jadis and he deduces that she used to trade human beings…and she seems to be doing it again. Jadis explains that she did it to get supplies for her people, but where are they now? She asks Gabriel to leave everything behind and come with her to a new community via the helicopter to escape the constant shame and suspicions she apparently has to live under. He is having NONE of it, because Father Gabriel is loyal to Rick and his people. Jadis tells Gabriel that she thought he was a “B” all this time…but that is apparently not the case…whatever that even means. In a stunning turn of events, Jadis knocks Gabriel out with the butt of her gun. It appears that the helicopter is part of a massive human trafficking operation that is seemingly linked up to some large community. This aspect of Jadis’ character was hinted at several times, but most prominently last season in “Still Gotta Mean Something” when she nearly managed to trade Negan to the helicopter people; although, it definitely wasn’t clear that that is what she was doing at that point.

Maggie and Daryl are really at an impasse as they wonder if Rick’s vision is really worth it in the end. Maggie wants to see Rick’s viewpoint, and she acknowledges that it is the right path forward for Hershel. That being said, she notes that when she looks at Hershel, she thinks about what could have been; Glenn should be here raising his son, but Negan ended that. They come across a killed walker with a spear in its body and Daryl voices his realization of who took Arat. They make their way to the building that Justin reanimated at and discover the missing ethanol that was due at the Hilltop days ago. It is here that Maggie and Daryl find Cyndie holding Arat at gunpoint, forcing her to beg as the Oceansiders watch on. The mystery now has its answer: the Oceansiders have been picking off the Saviors. Beatrice killed Justin as payback for him killing her husband. Arat is the last surviving Savior that took part in the slaughter of the Oceansiders, helmed by Simon. Cyndie explains that this building was once their home and was found by her mother and grandmother. The group fled to Oceanside after the slaughter and tried to stay hidden, but Rick’s group reeled them back into the war. They remained peaceful after the war, until Maggie showed them that there was another option available when she hanged Gregory. Arat pleads for her life to Maggie and Daryl, stating that she is one of them now and that Simon would have killed her if she didn’t partake in the slaughter. Cyndie passionately tells Arat that she begged for her eleven-year old brother’s life to be spared, but Arat just laughed in her face before shooting him in the exact spot they stand now; they force Arat to repeat what she said to Cyndie before killing the brother: “no exceptions.” Realizing that Arat is cut from the same cloth as Negan, Daryl and Maggie turn their backs and walk away as Arat tearfully begs for them to help her. Cyndie takes a spear and shoves it into the back of Arat’s head. And just like that…justice has been served. Or has it? Arat has a dark past and did some downright terrible things, but she seemed to be on the path to redemption. She sure won’t get the chance to prove herself now.

“Warning Signs” isn’t as strong as the first two episodes of the season. While still miles better than most of the episodes of Seasons 7 and 8, this episode does suffer a bit from some clunky dialogue and the regression of Anne/Jadis. Hopefully, there is some major story arc planned for her character, because otherwise it might start to feel as though the wheels are spinning with her story. There’s also the issue in that Gabriel acts less-like the trained survivor that we know today as he follows Anne/Jadis and is captured by her, something that he probably should have been able to evade at this point. The vigilante mission that Maggie and Daryl are headed down could also be problematic, especially if it ends in the escape of Negan or someone getting hurt/dying. That being said, this episode still has many strong moments and highlights, specifically the action, the character interactions, the callbacks, the musical score and song choice, and the progression of the story. As usual, the performances are stellar and Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Norman Reedus, Pollyanna McIntosh and Chloe/Sophia Garcia-Frizzi really shine here. The standouts of the episode are definitely Sydney Park and Elizabeth Ludlow in the haunting final showdown of their characters; Sydney pours her heart out, and Elizabeth’s saddening pleas make their scene together the best moment of the episode. This season really seems to be about the communities working together, and trying to involve the Saviors, but that obviously isn’t going well. The ending of the episode appears to show that the Saviors are abandoning the construction site and returning home, so will the bridge be washed away? Is Rick’s vision unattainable? Will his exit be a direct result of this collapse of the new society? As AMC has hammered into the viewer’s brains, Rick Grimes’ final two episodes are upon us and some of those questions are about to be answered.

Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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