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The Walking Dead explores the parental ties that bind—and strangle

Photo: Jace Downs (AMC)
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There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement when The Walking Dead turns its attention to the Whisperers, and especially their steely leader, Alpha. It’s possible that some of this is just the appeal of the new; we’re still learning about these disturbing fanatics and their strange ideology, and after 10 seasons, it’s always nice to have a breath of fresh character air onscreen. But the more likely reason is Samantha Morton, genuinely menacing and unstable in a way few of this series’ villains have been. Unlike the Governor, who is the next closest thing to a homicidal psychopath we’ve seen, Alpha has no plan to build a better world. She tends to let pragmatism take a back seat to impulse, and allows being a reliable leader to fall by the wayside whenever it suits her pleasure, for reasons sick or sweet. She might be the most unpredictable antagonist yet, but it never feels haphazard or like the show is inconsistent with her character. She’s just a creepy malevolent weirdo, embodied by a great actor, and that makes for compelling viewing.

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We didn’t really need this backstory. We already had an origin story of sorts for Alpha and Lydia, and part of what makes the relationship between Ryan Hurst’s Beta and his leader so interesting is that there’s a whole world of unspoken understanding that passes between them in every scene. But hey, this is The Walking Dead, which never let a chance to over-explain something go by; still, if you’re going to have extraneous journeys back in time, you could do much worse than having them anchored by Morton. She makes the trip worth it, and by focusing more on the strange circumstances of their meeting than any true reveal of their subsequent bond, the show at least leaves some mystery to the pair, while adding a layer of unsettling history to Beta and his (shudder) longtime mask, made of the face of his former loved one.

Alternating back and forth between seven years ago and the present day, “We Are The End Of The World” spends at least as much time on the more engaging current events as it does the past, which also helps it supersede being just another unnecessary flashback episode. The story of two sisters newly aligned with the Whisperers—one of whom was the mother of the baby abandoned by Alpha’s people in that bravura standoff scene last year—provides a way in to this strange community, and the most tense sequence of the episode. After losing her cool during a walker herding mission, Beta recommends she be punished, but instead, Alpha has her sent to a tunnel-like location, where she cradles the anguished young woman, and then...does...nothing. The fact that we spend the entire scene waiting for the other shoe to drop is testament to how well crafted it is, from Morton’s performance to the direction by Greg Nicotero.

And it gives the show the chance to have the woman go full-on hysterical shortly thereafter, attacking Alpha in a crowd of walkers, only to be pulled off by her own sister and thrown to the ground as chow for the undead. Her decision to sacrifice her flesh-and-blood sister for the good of the herd—“Protect the Alpha,” as she puts it—immediately makes her a favorite of Alpha. She’s only had a couple of scenes thus far, but getting anointed as “Gamma” suggests actor Thora Birch will play a significant role this season, especially given how displeased Beta seems to be with the entire situation. With just a few small moments, we get a broad spectrum of perspectives on the Whisperers, from Beta’s chest-thumping belief that nothing should come between him and his boss, to that random Whisperer’s quick aside to the soon-to-be-eaten women that others in the camp are wondering about what it might be like to live among some less inhuman folks. For all their professed commitments to feeling nothing—the better to be like the undead among whom they move—Alpha, Beta, and the rest seem all too aware of the fact that not only do none of them live up to the ideal, but that people’s humanity springs up at the most inopportune times.

The flashback scenes did their part to remind us, once again, that Alpha was a terrible mom, but a pretty good ringleader of emotionally disturbed people. After some admittedly affecting moments between Lydia and the parent who distorted her worldview in ugly ways (“I wanna be more like you, momma,” followed by Morton turning a moment of genuine love into a brusque admonition to “stop calling me that,” was the most potent), we see the true purpose of this happenstance pit stop inside a sealed building. Beta was a broken man, who may or may not have done some really awful things, but who was holding on, like so many did, to a loved one that had already turned. He had started to spiral into madness, but Alpha gave that flailing direction; she convinced him that a path alongside her, and the rest of the walkers, meant he had a home. It’s a weirdly seductive pitch, one that makes unexpected sense in a world overrun by the dead, and that clearly worked on many more people in the ensuing years. She’s become a parent to others in a way she couldn’t for her own kid. She’s a true believer who sees her own weakness (that she couldn’t give up on her own daughter) as proof of the rightness of her faith. When every sacred space has been destroyed by the profane, best to hold nothing sacred—other than the fervent belief that anyone trying to retain such attitudes will be devoured (literally) by the reality of now.

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With the episode ending the same as last week—Carol and Alpha coming face to face on the Whisperers’ territory—the question is less one of whether punishment will be coming for our people, but how severe it will be. Alpha, unfortunately, thrives in such uncertain times; “There is clarity amid the chaos,” she tells Beta, and it serves as a double answer to those of our people who thought she might even be grateful for their work putting out the satellite fire. Alpha doesn’t have gratitude; she has faith. Woe be to those who don’t share it.

Stray observations

  • Good way to tell when someone’s probably a cold-blooded monster: They’re amiably humming chipper melodies minutes after barely escaping a horde of walkers and negotiating with a metal-wielding behemoth to stay in a hallway for the night.
  • Beta, watching Alpha dig into the entrails of a walker she just took out: “Whoa, you’re different.”
  • A nice bit of repeated dialogue is Alpha’s instruction to her daughter, later repeated by Lydia as she wanders off into the building: “We’re all monsters now.”
  • The sight of this sadistic mother still tearfully holding on to the stuffed bunny doll her daughter rejected years ago in an effort to be more grown-up was perhaps the most affecting little flash of humanity in the entire episode—and effectively beaten down by Alpha’s subsequent tantrum.
  • Alright, Walking Dead, you’ve done enough table setting; let’s start pushing season 10 forward, please.
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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.