The Walking Dead just drove right past the goddamn fireworks factory. Here’s a show that thrives on intensity and dread, a series where subtlety and nuance have never exactly been a strong suit, and whose most exciting episodes have often involved big battles and race-against-time scenarios where massive amounts of zombies threaten to overwhelm everything; you’re telling me that after all the build-up of the Whisperer menace, the long-heralded confrontation is breezed by in the pre-credits sequence? To quote Negan: Sorry, kid—this shit is done.
Honestly, it beggars belief that The Walking Dead decided what it really needed was to have a huge, multi-season narrative leading up to a big fight between our heroes and the some of the more compelling antagonists the show has ever seen, and then completely cop out on the fight. It’s a trombone-sound fart of a rug pull, the kind of bait-and-switch you would lampoon on a more intelligent TV show. True, no one has ever credited the series with an overabundance of brains (which, ironic, no?), and yet it’s still surprising that AMC’s long-running enterprise seems to have so much trouble nailing its big moments lately. True, the final minutes of “Walk With Us” are the real attention-getter (more on that shortly), and that ending is so good, it’s almost enough to rescue everything that came before it, but it’s still a baffling choice to excise the best action from your horror-action TV show.
The episode opens in media res, the flaming arrows that trapped our heroes between Hilltop’s burning walls and an army of walkers (see last episode) having already accomplished the task of stripping the town’s protection and letting the hordes of Whisperers and walkers come pouring through. And for a couple of minutes, it seems like things are really going to be exciting: Ezekiel is already gathering the children, Daryl is racing among the different skirmishes, walloping heads with his morning star, and Carol is standing atop one of the few remaining battlements, loosing arrows and looking down in worried despair at the chaos below. “Walk With Us” looked primed to be an action-packed hour of struggle, akin to one of Game Of Thrones’ lauded battle episodes, and the way small moments of character service darted in and out of our view during the fight suggested a smart integration of story and spectacle. From Eugene racing off to try and save his beloved radio equipment to Yumiko spotting a blood-soaked Magna among the throngs of the undead, it was thrilling, invigorating stuff.
Then the opening credits roll, and suddenly we cut to the listless aftermath. Normally, when you follow an action-heavy episode, the subsequent installment in which people recoup their strength and take stock of the new state of affairs feels earned, because we’ve just been through the fire alongside the characters. Here, by abruptly yanking us out of the heat of battle and leaving only the denouement, it strips the somber mood of legitimacy. It doesn’t feel earned, because we skipped right past the catharsis of confrontation, but are still expected to fully feel its weight. That’s not how drama works. From there on out, it’s a struggle to regain a sense of narrative momentum, and while noteworthy elements happen en route to that wallop of a closer, they don’t have as much emotional heft as they would’ve, had the show not build up this confrontation so much and then abandoned it mid-stab.
But let’s look at what did happen during those middle acts, before we get to the grand finale. Despite having reduced Hilltop to a smoking heap of ash, Alpha isn’t calling anything a victory until she gets Lydia back so she can…kill her? Despite the long conversation with Negan about this very issue, Alpha’s motives are getting a little messy, especially when compared to her initial insistence that Ezekiel and company keep her daughter safe. Is she just mad about Lydia choosing to help Daryl instead of murdering her mom? Weird vendetta, but go off, Alpha. Even Negan is bored by this part of the episode, deciding to ignore orders and start smashing walker heads, rather than desultorily trying to round them up again. Meanwhile, Alden makes his peace with former Whisperer Mary, letting her hold her nephew, much to the relief of Kelly. Of course, that comes just in time for Beta to enter frame and stab Mary through the heart, watching with religious fervor as she transforms into a walker. He doesn’t get to savor the moment, though, because Alden fires an arrow through now-dead Mary’s head, forcing Beta to run away. Hey Alden, pro-tip for next time: Maybe shoot the giant hulking psychopath in the head first, then deal with the shambling zombie afterward? Everyone Beta kills from now on is kinda on your head.
There are a few more little moments—Carol encourages Eugene to drop everything and go find his mysterious Stephanie, Magna and Yumiko sort of break up, and we learn Magna lost Connie while trying to make their way back home (earning Carol a punch in the nose from Yumiko for getting them separated in the first place)—but the other story that somewhat succeeds emotionally is the death of Earl while trying to keep the children safe. Having been bitten, he secures them in one room of the shack where they’re hiding, then goes in the other room to bash his head into a spike before he can turn and attack them. It’s a move we’ve seen from the show before, but it still has bite, because there’s something existentially moving about watching someone be forced to kill themselves lest they kill others. Add to that the upsetting (if button-pushing) sight of Jerry’s wife Nabila freaking out because her children aren’t at the rendezvous spot, and you’ve got some blunt yet undeniably effective character beats.
And then. That ending. “Blunt yet undeniably effective” doesn’t do it justice, because it finally did something I don’t think the show has had the guts to do before, at least since the first few years: Kill off a major character with no fanfare, in the middle of a season. Negan reports back to Alpha that he’s captured her daughter, directs the leader of the Whisperers to the shack where he’s got her tied up, and then, when she flings open the door to learn she’s been fooled, he slits her throat, cuts off her moaning walker head, and brings it back to Carol. “Took you long enough,” she says with a sardonic glance.
Even Siddiq’s death in the first half of this season didn’t surprise as much, because it followed the show’s usual route of spending the entire episode leading up to it watching the soon-to-be-dead character emotionally making peace with their life. Here, it’s the opposite—if anything, at the moment of her death Alpha is even more driven to complete an unfinished goal than ever before. It’s obvious from the start that Negan is trying to give Alpha an out, convince her not to kill Lydia, and when she rebuffs his every effort, it’s clear something will happen. (For the record, I assumed Lydia had freed herself earlier and was already gone, not that she was in another location altogether.) But still, even armed with that knowledge, it’s a hell of a closer, taking out one of the best villains the show has ever had with such quick, ruthless efficiency (and a kiss from Negan). It almost rescues this underwhelming letdown of an installment—almost—through sheer surprise. It started great and ended even better; if only there weren’t that whole episode in between to drag it down.
- I laughed when Negan refers to Beta as “Frowny McTwoKnives.”
- Guess Carol didn’t clue Aaron in to the whole “Negan’s gonna infiltrate the Whisperers so he can murder Alpha” plan. Actually, I’m guessing this was Carol’s plan B, given how badly she wanted to do it herself.
- Mary’s death was also a bit of a surprise, though once she was reunited with nephew Adam, it was pretty clear death was coming for her.
- What makes the aborted battle even more frustrating is how effectively they established what could’ve been some excellent setpieces: The burning farmhouse, the pile of dead walkers holding back the even larger pile of live ones, Eugene re-entering the building to try and save his stuff...what a waste.
- Did I miss something in the reveal that Beta is someone known to the other Whisperers as not just Alpha’s right-hand man? The man who says, “It’s you...your voice sounded familiar” just by catching a glimpse of the part of Beta’s face exposed by Mary ripping his mask certainly seems to imply there’s something else going on there; I just can’t think of what it could be.
- Her having to kill walker Earl is the first time I’ve possibly ever felt a little bad for Judith.
- “I am dead to this world, but you are pretending.” Might want to look in a mirror next time you say that, Negan.
- Goodbye, Samantha Morton! It’s been great having you on the show—Alpha was a truly memorable villain.