Alpha—or “Mom,” as Lydia still thinks of her—has quite the unique viewpoint on proper parenting technique. Which is to say, a psychotic one: She tells the story of watching three-year-old Lydia almost die choking from some errant plastic, standing there watching her daughter struggle rather than help. Her child eventually gets free of it, her skin turning back to pink from blue—only for Alpha to hit her. It was the only way, she explains to Beta, to ensure the child will remember to never do it again. Apparently almost dying wouldn’t be memorable enough on its own. A horrific cruelty is the only thing Alpha understands to be an expression of love. And if that’s the case, she’s got a lot of love to give.
The title of this episode, “Guardians,” comes from several sources. Everything here is directed toward highlighting the different ways these characters see themselves as safeguarding people: Michonne, so intent on guarding the people of Alexandria that couldn’t see the way she was usurping the democratic ideals of the very charter she drew up; Alpha, with her brutal version of Darwinism forming the ideology that she thinks not only keeps her people alive, but is the backbone of the new world; Eugene, his love for Rosita pushing him to force others into harmony at the cost of his own happiness; Daryl, trying to save Henry from himself; even Negan in his way believes he can function as a guardian of his captors. So much of what everyone does in this post-apocalyptic landscape, even those like the Whisperers, is in service of a form of guardianship, an attempt to keep humanity going on in the face of such darkness. They just have very different ideas of what that protection should look like.
After being sidelined the past couple of episodes, Michonne returns to the forefront this week by slowly realizing that trusting others means giving up her tight hold on the reins at Alexandria. It’s not that her argument about going to the Kingdom’s trade fair being too risky is wrong, per se—as Aaron notes, leaving the compound is especially dangerous now that they’ve learned of the existence of the Whisperers—it’s that her means of expressing her opinion actually shuts down everyone else’s. Having veto power over anything she deems a security risk has not-so-subtly become a way of exercising dictatorial control over the council. And it resulted in the rest of them going behind her back any time they cared enough about an issue they knew she wouldn’t support. From Gabriel’s radio relay equipment to Aaron’s covert meetings with Jesus, everyone else saw the necessity of maintaining communication with the other communities; but going about it in underhanded ways actually made it all the more dangerous. As one of them says, what does it say about Alexandria if it survives but they let the Kingdom fall? Michonne’s hard-to-deny response: “It means Alexandria survives.”
And for as annoying as it is having Negan back in that goddamn cell (how long are we going to have to endure this? It feels like we’re stuck in there with him every time another scene of it appears), his conversation with Michonne should’ve made clear to her what her authority has actually meant. Admittedly, he does a bad job making his case—offering his services in “keeping people in line” doesn’t make it sound like he’s changed his ways—but calling out how she had everyone viewing the community as a democracy while she wielded authoritative control was sharply done. She simply doesn’t trust him (which is why it took Judith bluntly noting Michonne had changed to get Alexandria’s head of security to reconsider her position), which means there’s probably no way Negan is getting out, at least not unless Michonne accompanies a group to the fair and the Whisperers launch an attack. That’s a situation that might call for Negan’s particular expertise.
The other Alexandria subplot is as soapy as they come: Rosita is pregnant with Siddiq’s child but wants to be with Gabriel, Gabriel isn’t sure if he should commit to her and the kid, and Eugene (who’s in love with Rosita) wants to slap some sense into Gabriel and remind him that if he loves Rosita, who the fuck cares about anything else. Typing it out like that makes it sound even sillier, but Josh McDermitt leans into both Eugene’s flat affect and his hapless love for Rosita in a way that manages to mostly sell this overcooked material by emphasizing the humor. If the show wants to do these sudsy dramatics, it’s fine, as long as they don’t become burdensome, but instead continue to function more as background color than storylines we’re expected to invest time and energy into.
Speaking of things we don’t want to invest time and energy in, Henry gets his dumb ass instantly captured by the Whisperers when he goes to try and “rescue” Lydia from her people. At this point, the kid is mostly useful as a McGuffin to move Daryl from place to place. And Daryl’s rescue is a good one, as he swoops in with Connie during the walker attack on the Whisperers’ home wearing one of their undead masks, grabbing Henry and Lydia, and making off with them just as Alpha was trying to convince her daughter to stab Henry—or see if some of those much-maligned “feelings” would get in the way.
The scenes depicting life among the Whisperers are far more interesting than a lot of what we’ve been getting from our heroes in the back half of season nine. The survival-of-the-fittest mentality that has infected these people makes for fascinating viewing, and the sequence in which a man challenges Alpha for the right to lead their people offers a chance to better illuminate the mindset of the Whisperers as well as let Alpha perform some hardcore violence, first realizing it was the man’s girlfriend who pushed him to revolt, and then cutting off the woman’s head with some razor wire and handing it to the guy, before stabbing him. It was vicious, nasty, and electrifying. It may be time to delve a little deeper into this fanatical community: Things are getting interesting again.
- Watching Beta (Bates Motel’s Ryan Hurst) carve up a walker’s head to create a new Whisperer mask was the gross-out highlight of the episode.
- Aw, Daryl’s trained the little guy to retrieve his arrows. “Bad dog.”
- Lydia lives out every Walking Dead viewer’s fantasies by socking Henry in the jaw and saying, “You’re so stupid.”
- Michonne: “People don’t change. Not really.” Judith: “You did.” Michonne: “Go to your room.”
- Aaron and Michonne share a rueful moment of hoping they won’t regret letting the people vote to join the fair. They will.