Guys, I haven’t been this stunned by an episode of The Walking Dead in so long. I mean, I was pleasantly surprised when a zombie knifed Jesus , I’ve enjoyed the wackiness of the Whisperers and the Highwaymen , and I’ve loved the bizarre way Rick was taken off the show. But last night’s episode was just fantastic—and it had an ending so shocking my jaw literally dropped.
Two things: The first is I sincerely suggest you watch “The Calm Before” before reading this recap. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this once or twice before other good episodes, but man, I couldn’t mean it more.
The second thing is that way back in season four, I called the final Rick-Governor showdown the show’s “Red Wedding” moment , mainly because of how much violence there was and how many characters were killed—plus that amazing, horrific shot of baby Judith’s car seat covered in blood. I would like to rescind that, because while it was indeed violent, the fight wasn’t shocking, really; we knew the Governor would come and there would be a battle. And sure, we’ve also known the Whisperers would be coming to mess with the communities for taking in Lydia, and we’ve all suspected it would happen during the big fair since people on The Walking Dead can’t have nice things.
But I could never have imagined that this would happen—a turn so surprising and so tragic, it matches Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding better than anything else.
Enough of my prologue. Let’s talk about the show’s prologue, which focused on a couple we haven’t seen before, flashing forward through their anniversaries. They find Hilltop, the lady makes a wooden coin with an “H” on it for “Home” or “Hilltop,” the guy loves them and says everyone will love them, and they head out to the fair with a box of “H” coins. It’s so sunny and cheerful and treacly that you know they’re going to die. Indeed they do, on their way to the fair, but we also see Alpha scalping the lady to get her blonde hair.
It’s a micro version of the entire episode because everyone starts off incredibly happy to be at the long-awaited Fair of New Beginnings. There’s a bunch of trading going on, Earl and Siddiq are leading blacksmith and CPR workshops respectively, and there’s even a Eugene dunk tank, which is pretty amazing. The leaders of the communities all get together to talk about the new threat of the Whisperers, and decide to unite once again—they declare an attack on one community an attack on them all, like a sort of apocalyptic NATO. They sign the pact Ezekiel’s been sitting on, and Michonne even tells Gabriel that as Alexandria’s council leader he should sign it, not her. And then they very wisely agree that since the Whisperers will attack Hilltop in revenge for rescuing Lydia, each community should send some warriors to help defend it—immediately. All good.
About the worst thing that happens during the fair is that the shitty teens who kept that zombie in a pit and Henry got drunk with continue being shitty, and lie to Lydia that Henry’s really into Addy, the non-shitty teen girl with the glasses, so Lydia has no chance with Henry. And then we see Alpha inside Hilltop, wearing the blonde lady’s hair and hat, and no is aware.
The shitty teens thing gets resolved blessedly quick—Lydia very appropriately shoves goat shit in their faces and Henry sets things right with her immediately—and, uh, I guess the Alpha thing gets resolved, in a way. We do see her introduce herself to King Ezekiel, who she asks to lead her away to help find winter clothes in a super-ominous way. Later, Alpha grabs Lydia from movie night and has a conversation with her daughter about how she’s become too weak to survive, and the camera cuts quickly away, implying her mom has killed Lydia as well.
But first! The warriors sent to Hilltop, which include Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and New Kids leader Yumiko, encounter the busted cart of the couple from the opening. Because Hilltop still needs defending, the rest of them head on, while the aforementioned four track down the Whisperers’ trail, hoping their people are still alive. They very much are not, and all the Walking Dead pro team does is get themselves captured by the Whisperers, who very mysteriously don’t kill them. (Also, Beta stops by to make sure they all know “You just had to give us the girl.”)
In fact, Alpha takes Daryl on a little trip and shows him a herd of, oh, I’d guess several thousand zombies. She says her people are among them and can guide them. That seems completely absurd—how many people can she possibly have in there? Do they take shifts? How can they possibly keep a herd that size together?—but it’s that level of ridiculous that I love seeing in The Walking Dead. Alpha has the zombie equivalent of an atom bomb, and that’s pretty fun.
The last thing Alpha tells Daryl before she lets him and the others go free is that there’s now a demarcation of territories: There’s a line, and the Whisperers own the south. All the main characters need to stick to the north. When Daryl asks where the line is, all Alpha says is, “You’ll know.” She ain’t kidding.
Because the line is marked by several severed heads on wooden spikes. Ozzy, the leader of the Highwaymen (I think). Some other guys. Earl’s wife Tammy. Teen jerk Ronnie. Teen non-jerk Addy.
And finally... Henry.
That’s…that’s crazy. It’s certainly the biggest culling of the show’s main cast since Negan killed Abraham and Glenn, and that surprise was ruined by that dumb cliffhanger . This was shocking. I was surprised because the show didn’t even give us a hint of what was going to happen until the group first spotted the heads from a distance.
Then the show masterfully intercuts the heads’ identities with flashbacks of characters in the Kingdom looking for them: Earl can’t find Tammy. Gabriel asks around for Tara to discuss something. Alden scans the crowd during his performance on stage but is disappointed his girlfriend Enid isn’t there. Finally, we see Lydia run up to Ezekiel, panicked, telling him that her mom was inside. Turns out they’re both okay. But back in the present, Daryl runs to Carol, begs her not to look, to look at him instead. And the camera pans oh so slowly to reveal Henry is the last head.
Poor, kind, dumb, horny Henry.
The show has brought him to the forefront since the time-jump, which makes his death hit hard—exactly as the show wanted it to. Even if you thought he was an idiot, we spent so much time following his character as he tried to do the right thing, over and over again, that killing him off is still a big surprise. That he was still just a kid makes it tragic. And the fact that Carol loved him like a son, and that she has to experience the grief of losing another child...that makes it personal.
I have no idea how Alpha—and presumably some associates—managed to sneak all these people out of the Kingdom with anyone noticing. It’s straight-up nonsense because it requires a Joker in The Dark Knight-level of omnipotence to make happen. Yet I do not care in the slightest. This scene is so well shot, so well-edited, and so fantastically acted on all levels that it ranks among the show’s very, very best moments. It’s the kind of scene that could make some of those millions of people who stopped watching The Walking Dead after years of crap tune back in, and, arguably, deservedly so.
Season nine has had some ups and downs to be sure, but there have been many more ups than downs. The fact that this is the season Angela Kang came on as showrunner should be lost on no one. The fact that she’s managed to turn the show around while incorporating the loss of the series’ main character is simply astounding. Honestly, I think this may be my favorite season of the show ever. Granted it’s been on a million years, so my memory of the early days are hazy, but The Walking Dead has been so good this season I’m actually bummed out more people aren’t watching it! And I’ve spent the last several years wishing I could stop watching it myself!
The episode doesn’t end with the reveal of the victims. Instead, it ends with a speech from Siddiq, who was also captured but was left alive by the Whisperers to tell the rest about the horrors he and the others experienced. (I would think the severed heads on sticks might have been message enough, but whatever.) Instead, Siddiq tells everyone how important the comradery they’ve only just rebuilt between the communities is. Because even though those who died came from different colonies, even though some of them didn’t know each other at all, they fought together, and they protected each other, even when they were doomed.
This message of togetherness is meaningful, yes, but what’s really great about it is that it doesn’t negate everything we’ve been watching this season, which has been one of The Walking Dead’s most obnoxious habits. The progress the characters made has not been lost or doesn’t seem to be. Sure, maybe it’ll immediately go to hell next episode, but I don’t think so. I think the pact everyone made has just been cemented by the Whisperers, and I think they’ll be united in their fight against that bunch of corpse-cosplaying weirdoes. And that’s something I’m truly excited to watch.
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