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After nine seasons of zombie-killing intensity, it was bound to happen, no matter how hard our heroes may have fought against the inevitability: Snow.

Whether you want to chalk it up to climate change or not, a wintry storm finally came for The Walking Dead, for the first time in the history of the show. Given that the series films in Georgia, it’s not surprising the writers have resisted pitting the characters against a seasonal occurrence that rarely happens in the state. In addition to the unlikely scenario of natural precipitation lining up with the shooting schedule, there’s the simple fact that it probably really sucks to shoot cold-weather scenes when it’s warm out, bundling up while the sun beats down, cooking the actors to a fine medium roast. But the combination of CGI and what I assume is a serious amount of artificial snow flocking on the landscape succeeded in creating an icy environment, the perfect setting in which to marinate while we watched the chilly emotional fallout from last episode’s mass murder.

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The show has always tended to follow up installments in which noteworthy characters die with brooding and meditative stories, moments in which both audience and characters can stop and take stock of where they are, reevaluating themselves and asking if it’s all still worth it. (Yes, that is very much a task for those on both sides of the screen.) And for all the live-or-die snowbound action of the episode, “The Storm” is very much in line with this tradition, a reflection on grief in the wake of trauma, and how it can quietly have significant unforeseen consequences, even weeks or months later.

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It’s been awhile since the deaths of Henry, Tara, and the others, as Ezekiel makes clear in his radio communique that bookends the episodes. The Kingdom’s fortunes plummeted in the wake of the disastrous trade fair, the water and electricity failing despite their best efforts, eventually forcing the King to abandon his land, leading his people to Hilltop before the oncoming snowstorm laid waste to the countryside and trapped them without sufficient food, water, or heat. Forced to take up sanctuary mid-storm at, well, the Sanctuary, Michonne proposes they cross through Alpha’s territory, before they’re stuck in an even worse location for starving to death. And while the members of the Kingdom make their desperate trek through enemy territory (and across a frozen river that could crack at any moment), a group of Alexandrians stumble through the heart of the roaring snowstorm, trying to get to Aaron’s house where the fireplace still works.

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

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Against the backdrop of the storm, three primary stories unfold: The destruction of Carol and Ezekiel’s relationship, Lydia’s death wish, and Negan’s rescue of Judith after she runs off to try and save Dog. There are a few moments of other subplots—the sturdy bond among those planning to care for Rosita’s child, Michonne’s hopes for reuniting the communities (not to mention her tentative moves toward reuniting Negan with the outside of his jail cell)—but the focus is on the aftereffects of the pain caused by Alpha’s murder of Henry. The unraveling of Carol and Ezekiel’s romance is the most artfully done of these, simply because it’s the most true to life. The grief of losing Henry drove a wedge between them, the same way losing a child so often does for couples in the real world. Watching the distance created between them, conveyed largely in pained glances and awkward exchanges, felt honest in a way the show all too rarely does.

And Ezekiel’s efforts to repair the damage, as well as Carol’s resigned acceptance of the end, were finely detailed and relatable. Ezekiel asking Daryl to leave Carol alone once they get to Hilltop—sad, honest, not trying to be rude—was the epitome of misplaced problem-solving. “He only blames you because he can’t let himself blame me,” Carol tells her old friend, and it rings true without sounding forced or like writerly rhetoric. (The “we made it.” “Did we?” exchange between the King and Carol after arriving at Hilltop was a more overwrought bit of dialogue.) Their relationship always felt like it only worked because Ezekiel was able to convince Carol that his over-the-top exhortations were a safe space in the world; stripping it away exposed what a fragile edifice their love was built on.

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Lydia, by contrast, is dealing with some serious survivor’s guilt, her feelings for Henry causing her to assume that she should’ve died in his place, which leads her to do things like offer her exposed arm to a walker frozen in the ice, inches from its mouth. By the time she tries to run off, begging Carol to kill her (“no one has to know”) and spare her from the misery she’s going through, it’s clear the former Whisperer desperately needs some human connection to get her through this. It’s sure not coming from Alden, who throws some blame her way before Daryl tells him to cut the shit. (Nice attitude, Alden, coming from a guy who had his life spared despite being part of the Sanctuary’s posse attacking our people.)

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

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Alpha’s daughter has been a surprisingly strong presence during these last few episodes, and it has everything to do with Cassady McClincy’s performance. She has consistently located the raw-wound heart of the character, making even those groan-inducing moments of teenage romance between Henry and herself maintain a degree of appeal that would otherwise curdle into cloying nonsense. If she’s our new avatar for the kids following the deaths of Enid (Katelyn Nacon was always good, but the character had been sidelined for quite some time) and Henry, the show will have a net gain.

I’ve been lamenting the dead-end nature of Negan’s storyline all damn season, so having him finally back outside and doing something—anything—was a welcome change of pace, even if I still maintain the character should’ve escaped when he had the chance, and reappeared later down the road. Leaving the wind-whipped rope line to go chasing after Dog is an understandable move (who wouldn’t try to save their pet, especially if they were tasked with watching someone else’s?), and after working overtime to establish Judith and Negan’s bond, he was obviously going to be the one to bring her back. It’s irritating the show waited until the last possible moment to engineer his rehabilitation, but it’s better than nothing, which honestly isn’t always the case when it comes to the series’ narrative decisions.

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Crossing over a frozen river in the middle of Whisperer territory gave this reflective episode some momentum it certainly needed, and thematically, it was apropos: We began the season with our heroes precariously navigating their way over a glass floor, and we end it with the icy equivalent. The walkers popping out of the snow were a visually cool touch, and equally symbolic in the way they put a button on the season; for all the human-inflicted misery that drives so much of the show, in the end it’s still about people trying to survive in a world where the undead can literally pop up at any moment and try to kill them. Everyone having a snowball fight with the kids in Alexandria at the end was a little too treacly, considering what they just went through—or maybe it just felt as though Daryl leading the kiddie-fun charge didn’t entirely scan. Negan’s line would’ve been a fine place to go out (“No one ever thinks that they’re the evil one”), but that would’ve cut out the next-season teasers that were basically the equivalent of a Marvel post-credits scene.

The creative revitalization of The Walking Dead this season followed a strange bell curve, starting strong but then plummeting hard when it dealt with the farewell of Rick Grimes and Maggie and the attempt to recover from the subsequent time jump. But once the back half of the season got on track with the introduction of Alpha, it became the most consistent batch of episodes the show has had in quite some time. The Whisperers were just the jolt of unpredictable energy the series needed, and the brutally efficient paring down of the sprawling cast that took place in “The Calm Before” will hopefully allow for some more focused storytelling next year. The Kingdom is gone, our protagonists are on the defensive, but there’s a good spark of life in both the characters and creative direction of the show. Looking forward to seeing you next season, Alpha.

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Stray observations

•Beta does some whipping of Alpha’s arms in preparation for “what comes next.” Classic zealot behavior, which is an interesting evolution of a character who has presented herself up until now as a hard-bitten realist, albeit one who has chosen a particularly narrow and strange mode of existence.

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•Oceanside certainly got the short end of the stick this season, in terms of attention. If they’re a part of our group, the show might want to treat them as such, rather than a weird afterthought.

•Kill of the week: Daryl stabbing a walker with an icicle.

•Negan, as they prepare to head out the door to Aaron’s: “Seriously? Not one of you assholes is gonna untie me?!” If your show’s got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, for god’s sake, let him Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

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•“That woman was able to walk amongst us because we didn’t know each other.” Michonne’s discussion with Ezekiel provides the best rationale yet for the communities reuniting.

•If The Walking Dead plans to amble on for another couple of years, it might want to consider a strategy that eventually leads to an ending. I know the show—like the comic that gave it form—was always intended as an open-ended beast with no conclusion, the better to evoke the uncertain and open-ended nature of life after the zombie apocalypse. And who knows? Maybe it will maintain a soap opera-like life for any number of years, stretching on ad infinitum as cast members come and go. But does anyone outside of AMC execs really want that?

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•It’s been a treat to read the comments on this show from TV Clubbers. You all provide the best (and most skeptical) responses to this show to be found anywhere. See you in the fall, if you decide to come back for more.