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A tense and gripping sequence helps Walking Dead find new ways to evolve

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)
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And with that, The Walking Dead reminds us it still knows how to sustain tension. There hasn’t been much in the back half of season nine that would qualify as good storytelling, but the secret of this series is that a single well-done walker sequence can pull the viewer right back into the fundamental intensity that drives the show at its best. Yes, we’ve got established communities, and babies and fairs and crops and everything that testifies to how these people are trying to rebuild civilization; but the core of this narrative remains a house of cards—one false move or mistake, and all that they’ve worked to construct could come crashing down around them.

“Bounty” has a bifurcated structure that allows the series to shine in two distinct yet interrelated ways. It gives us the intensity and white-knuckle anxiety of both a showdown between different groups of humans and the still-vital threat of walkers, but also delivers an optimistic plot allowing longtime characters the chance to do their thing without it feeling tiresome or trite. Thanks to some savvy editing, each one reinforces the other. In the case of the Kingdom’s projector-bulb hunt, it’s by highlighting what both groups are working toward, the necessity of more than mere survival; and in Hilltop’s face-off with Alpha and the Whisperers, it’s the danger which remains a perpetual possibility from outside forces that can’t be contained.

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But the best part of the Hilltop plot was an even more intense and immediate danger: The cornfield sequence, which found Connie stumbling for her life, holding the infant Alpha’s follower had just abandoned to its grisly would-be fate at the hand of a pack of walkers. The sound design was brutally effective, conveying the weird feeling of everything being muffled, as though it were underwater. It made for the blares heralding the intrusion of walkers into her field of vision startling and raw. I’m a little sad the show didn’t go for the full-on sensation of absolute silence here, just to more effectively convey her sense of isolation and fear, but this muted sound mix certainly sustained dread. It’s arguably the richest and creepiest encounter with the walkers all season—the graveyard fight was only unsettling for its introduction of the Whisperers, the actual walkers being basically cannon fodder that set up the reveal.

Injecting that scene into the middle of the negotiations between Alpha and Daryl was smart, because otherwise the Whisperers would have just stood there all episode long, playing a waiting game. The tension ebbed once it was clear Daryl wasn’t about to rain down violence upon a group that brought babies with them, but having Alpha order the woman to drop the child was a potent moment; horrific in its own right, but an evocative display of just how committed her followers are to the philosophy she’s developed. It allowed for the push-and-pull dynamic of the Hilltop people and their fluctuating sense of morality to come into play. They don’t want to just let an innocent die, but they’re willing to send a girl back into their abusive arms of her mother to save their people. “The world is just shit sometimes,” Daryl tells Henry, echoing what Enid tells the kid earlier when he was trying to protect Lydia: You don’t always get to do the right thing. Sometimes, you have to do the right-now thing.

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)
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And amid all the powder-keg theatrics, the heads of the Kingdom got to do one of the better small-scale stories of the season. The “side mission,” as Ezekiel refers to it, is surprisingly charming and intimate, nailing a couple of the core themes (there has to be more than mere existence, the chance to regain symbols of community and humanity is worth the risk) without getting bogged down in tiresome melodrama. It’s been awhile since we’ve enjoyed an installment of The Wacky Misadventures Of Carol And The King; since their official couple-dom, I’d forgotten how well the two characters actually play off each other. Ezekiel’s can-do bravado and Carol’s eye-rolling skepticism are a natural pair, but what helps push this past another round of yes-we-can-no-we-can’t is the continuing evolution of their influence upon each other. Rather than the easy markers of Carol’s warming to the possibility of a future, like her long hair and smiling ways with kids, here the slow growth of her mindset is actually fused with her steely grit—the chance to put her vicious skills to use in service of an unnecessary collective benefit like a movie projector, instead of being a demonstration of why she refuses the call to hope.

And the “cobra strike” on the theater was well-staged, effective in both the smart details and the efficient way it was constructed by episode director Meera Menon. It was the opposite of last week’s moronic midnight stroll by the newbies, in which their plan was so stupid even Henry could’ve seen its flaws. Here, the members of the Kingdom (and their irrepressibly appealing frontman Jerry, now dealing with three kids) sharply execute their plan, and even though Jerry ends up dropping the bulb into the theater itself thanks to an awfully convenient appearance by a walker in a place they had supposedly cleared, the way in which they deal with the setback demonstrates that these people have survived for a reason: They’re very good at killing walkers, and even with a believable threat from a mass of groaning enemies, they set up shop and take them out one by one.

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There’s a few small moments reminding us that the season is driving toward this much-vaunted fair. Ezekiel has this grand vision of Alexandria, despite whatever supposedly permanent damage was done, rejoining Hilltop and the Kingdom at the event, and even signing on to the “Multi-Community Charter Of Rights And Freedoms” we finally saw unveiled this week, a document Michonne was working on way back before the time jump. The King gets his frame for the Charter, but he also gets a moment of admission that it would be foolish not to consider the worst-case scenarios of the Kingdom’s future. Carol is having an effect on him, whether he wants to admit it or not. At this point, it seems likely that the fair will feature an appearance by Alexandria, though not for the reasons Ezekiel might hope. The Whisperers are about to get a very unwelcome visit thanks to Henry’s idiocy, and the war our people are about to provoke with Alpha is—if eight previous seasons have taught us anything—going to erupt at the worst possible moment.

Stray observations

  • “It’s movie time.” You do you, Jerry.
  • Lydia’s return to her people, though required, ends up conveying a tragic honesty, thanks to the insightful screenplay from regular writer Matthew Negrete. “Maybe she misses me. Maybe she’s changed.”
  • Samantha Morton does a lot with a little, here. Her momentary half-smile when Lydia is returned to her reveals just enough humanity beneath her messianic zeal.
  • Gotta love the “Mission Mix” compilation someone (Jerry?) was thoughtful enough to compile to lead the walkers out of the theater. Incidentally, the song is “It’s All Right Now,” by Eddie Harris.
  • And the episode ender was “All My Dreaming,” Emma Russack.
  • Looks like Earl and Tammy have a new purpose in life. Someone should remind them how much sleep deprivation an infant is going to cause!
  • Are folks thinking the red symbol on the back of the road sign is just a Whisperer logo, or more complex communication of some sort?
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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.