The Walking Dead's "smart" zombies finally solve decade-long mystery (2022)

The Walking Dead season 11c spoilers follow.

The Walking Dead's final run is a reflective one thanks to the flashbacks that kick off each of these last eight episodes. And while there's much to celebrate about this show's historic run, revisiting the outbreak's early days also reminds us of a big plot hole that's plagued The Walking Dead since we first met that little zombie girl holding her teddy all the way back in episode one.

In fact, that is the plot hole. Because back when Rick Grimes was first chased down by her, this little walker clutched her teddy still. That's pretty sentimental for an undead brain-eating monster, wouldn't you say? And remember around that time when Morgan's undead wife tried to get back into her house by turning the doorknob?

At one point in the first season, walkers even climbed up a fire escape after Rick and Glenn (RIP). But since then, the zombies have become way more dumb. So what gives?

Some stabs at an explanation have been floated over the years, including the idea that newly-turned walkers still cling onto their human lives, subconsciously. But then how do you explain the fresh yet still dumb zombies who are reanimated in later seasons?

You can't even say the infection was just different back when the outbreak first started because that would mean the zombies should be a lot smarter in Fear the Walking Dead's first season too.

Thankfully, the writers finally clocked onto this while going back to watch old episodes for research. And as a result, we finally have a canonical answer that actually makes a lot of sense – if you're willing to be a bit lenient, that is.

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Episode 19 of The Walking Dead's eleventh and final season is mostly a story of two halves. On the one hand, Pamela Milton is out for revenge following the death of her incredibly annoying son, Sebastian. But what's more interesting is everything else that's going on with Aaron, Lydia, Jerry, and Elijah, who have all gone off to find supplies for Oceanside.

Out in the wild, they come across an amusement park that's been done up to look like a castle. Looks pretty safe, right? Well, Aaron tempts fate by telling Lydia that "loss is inevitable," and then right after, we see a crusty old hand appear over the wall from a distance.

Later that night, when everyone's chilling by the fire, a horde of walkers stroll on in, much to everyone's surprise. It turns out that the walls weren't enough to keep these particular zombies at bay. And that's not all. One tries to take Lydia's weapon from her and another even turns a doorknob at one point.

The Walking Dead's "smart" zombies finally solve decade-long mystery (2)

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Yep, these are the long rumoured "smart zombies" that the show's been teasing recently in trailers for the final season. But Aaron doesn't know that, so he just assumes they're Whisperers who are pretending to be walkers. Makes sense, but when he tries to rip off one of their masks, Aaron discovers that there aren't any masks at all. These are their actual rotten, decrepit faces.

Once the walkers are finally taken care of, Aaron speculates that there might be "other kinds" of zombies out there now following this skirmish. And he's right. There are.

At the very end of World Beyond, The Walking Dead's YA spinoff, we learn that new, faster zombies now exist in France. But those aren't the same as these "smart" zombies Aaron and the gang are dealing with over in America.

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Speaking about these new variants, Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple explained to EW that: "There's some different behavior, but this isn't any sort of reinvention... The truth is we hadn't really figured out yet what the rules for the zombies were."

Gimple's referring here to early walkers, like that little girl who exhibited more human behaviour than the others who followed in her rotten, shuffling footsteps. So why haven't we seen this kind of "smart" behaviour again up until now?

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Josh StringerAMC

"We sort of played into that as if there might be certain walkers in certain regions that might have different abilities that we really haven't seen before. We're kind of playing into the idea that some of these are out there and they're just encountering them now."

So these smarter variants have always existed within the show, but our gang has just been lucky enough to avoid them up until now. Admittedly, it's not the best explanation, but it does make more sense than anything else fans have come up with to try and explain those earlier "smart" zombies away.

And another benefit of this is how these new variants have reinvigorated the show during its final run. As showrunner Angela Kang pointed out during our exclusive chat:

"We're always looking for ways to kind of turn up the heat on our heroes... If you've been used to one set of rules for zombies, and you haven't really encountered ones that do these other things, then some of your mechanisms for protecting yourself change."

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Through this "exploration of the past and the present," these not-so-new "smart zombies" really do turn up the heat, as Angela put it.

"It's just in the spirit of exploring what's out there," adds Kang. "And for those who caught the end of World Beyond, we've seen that there may be a different variant that exists somewhere else, too. That's just part of the fun."

But it's not just fun. Sure, we did get a kick out of Aaron's reaction when he tried to pull off that "mask". And yes, it's nice that the show has finally explained away this mystery in a way that actually makes sense. But more than that, it's also about centring the walkers again, finally.

The Walking Dead's "smart" zombies finally solve decade-long mystery (6)

Jackson Lee DavisAMC

Because over the years, it's safe to say that zombies have gradually taken a step back on this show in favour of humans who, of course, have been "the real monsters all along". But actually, no, walkers are pretty horrific too, so it's gratifying that The Walking Dead acknowledges this with these new variants right towards the end of its lifespan.

Aside from the flashbacks, it's this kind of reframing that actually makes the final episodes a full-circle moment – especially for fans who have stuck with this show ever since that grubby little girl first chased Rick down with her teddy in hand.

The Walking Dead season 11 airs on AMC in the US and STAR on Disney+ in the UK.

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