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It’s the No. 1 show on TV. There was a dip in the ratings last season but here’s the truth, courtesy of trade magazine Variety: “The Walking Dead remains the number one show on television among adults 18-49 for the sixth season in a row.”

The ninth season of The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m. ET) will be crucial if its popularity is to be maintained. Even as the storylines wobbled and the Negan character began to dominate in the most recent two seasons, it was must-see TV for a vast audience. Now, as all followers must know, the Rick Grimes character will make his exit. Will he die? Will he disappear to possibly return later? You can bet on death. That’s what this series does. Rick’s young son, Carl, is already dead.

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A still from The Walking Dead, Season 9.AMC

What happens to Rick will undoubtedly be heartbreaking. He’s now a father to a little girl and firmly attached to Michonne (Danai Gurira), forming an aw-shucks family unit in the midst of the horrific world in which the show’s narrative exists.

From the beginning, the small group of survivors on the series have merely gone from one temporary refuge to another. The faint hope that elements of the old civilization can be rescued from the postapocalypse collapse always evaporates. And faint hope only leads to heartache, as one enemy group after another, one terrifying threat after another, smashes safety to smithereens. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, who has been amazingly solid) was the reliable leader, sometimes stony of heart but always benign. His exit will be the hardest of all for the show’s fans.

What I can tell you about this season is limited, but there is plenty to forage for clues. First, the season opens about a year after the end of the brutal war with the Saviors group. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) lives as a prisoner held in solitary confinement. The core group is living a peaceful existence, and a mainly agrarian one. As the years after the zombie apocalypse go by, old technology is harder to find and reuse. Solar power is harnessed. Characters use horses for travel now. Nature is reclaiming the world and that presents its own problems.

What’s looming more ominously is the tension between the various surviving communities. Some were once at war with each other. Now, under Rick’s guidance, it’s all about diverse groups getting along and helping each other. Certainly that is what he tells Negan, with some relish. It cannot last, of course. The urge to battle, to fight in order to dominate, is always there.

What’s also there, of course, are the Walkers, the ceaseless parade of those endless armies of predatory zombies. There is more killing coming, more danger and more narrow escapes.

There are new characters, too, and perhaps the most fascinating is played by that fine British actor Samantha Morton. She plays Alpha, leader of the Whisperers. The Whisperers are survivors of the apocalypse who choose to blend in with the walking dead by wearing suits made from human flesh. They also have their own philosophy for living, and to call that philosophy “primal customs,” as some coverage does, is an understatement.

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Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln)'s exit will be the hardest of all for the show’s fans.AMC

Viewers will also see a new title sequence, done in macabre animation, and anchored in the colours black and red. In the sequence, ravens are everywhere, shadowy men on horses move through fields, a human skull is spiked by a garden fork, and the barbed-wire bat named Lucille, previously used by Negan, is featured lying in a junkyard. There are helicopters in the air, too.

What does it all mean? That will become clear. But one narrative thread is likely to come to the fore: Female leadership. The series has a new showrunner, Angela Kang, who has been a writer on it since the second season. She’s indicated that women will play more prominent, complex roles now. One who won’t be around for long is Maggie, as actor Lauren Cohan is set to star in a new AMC series. Her exit, perhaps not as final as Rick’s, will also jolt viewers.

There has always been so much to extrapolate from The Walking Dead. First and foremost, we the audience are entranced by the dreadful possibility of a world without order, communication or modern technology. And we fantasize about the probability of helping recreate society and culture from the ruins of destruction. And, mostly, we watch in horror as hope fizzles. Expect more despair.

Also airing this weekend – the new season of Doctor Who (Sunday, Space, 1:45 p.m. ET) airs at an odd time to coincide with the highly anticipated global premiere. It has the 13th Doctor to be featured and the first female in the role. That’s Jodie Whittaker. A lot of people are bonkers about this development and, by the way, the Space Channel is on a free preview right now. Enjoy.

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