When Gabriel goes to visit the Whisperer Dante, imprisoned in Alexandria’s sole jail cell after being exposed as an infiltrator and murdering Siddiq, he ruminates briefly on some of the core themes of the series. “Trust?” the priest inquires. “A meaningless idea,” responds his prisoner, spouting the same tired antihumanist nonsense he delivered earlier in the episode, about how no one is actually kind, people crumble under duress, there’s only a Darwinist survival of the fittest, blah blah blah. But Gabriel has a solid response: “Do we deserve a second chance? I don’t know. But sometimes, we get one anyway.” And then he proceeds to brutally murder Dante, stabbing him repeatedly in the chest, stomach, and neck. It’s cold as hell, and a welcome surprise twist—and it’s the most interesting thing Gabriel has done in years.
The first half of season 10 of The Walking Dead has been uneven at best, an attempt to skate by on the intensity generated by Samantha Morton’s Alpha and the threat of the Whisperers, while mostly sticking to rehashed soapy dramatics among its sprawling central cast. Some good ideas involving Lydia and Negan were surrounded by some protracted disagreements among key pairs, like Rosita and Eugene, or Daryl and Carol, which even when delivering otherwise engaging sequences sometimes fell short thanks to wobbly directing. Michonne was sidelined for a distressing amount of the time, and thanks to a bloated roster combined with the far-flung locales of the various communities, no one was ever in the same place at the same time for very long, meaning it’s been structured even more like a soap opera than usual. The Whisperers make for a solid Big Bad, but it might be time for a sharp left turn, narratively and creatively speaking. Otherwise the show has a tendency to turn into the very thing critics caricature it as: A lumbering corpse, running on the fumes of fumes of the same old stories—and if those two metaphors don’t really fit together, well, neither do the various tones struck by the show over the past couple of months.
“The World Before” sticks to the template of the season, fusing together several plots into an uneven whole, cutting promising storylines short while elongating others that need to get wrapped up. The reveal of Dante as a secret villain last episode was cool and unnerving, so it’s unfortunate that after an opening montage which shows how Alpha selected the Whisperer and convinced him to abandon her people to bring down Alexandria from within, this installment immediately undoes that potential by having Rosita discover his treachery and take him down. (Quickly killing zombie Siddiq and saving her kid without much trouble also highlights this season’s unfortunate tendency to put its characters into “threatening” situations in which they’re obviously not the slightest bit at risk of dying. We become inured to these faux-life-or-death encounters, and they sap the stronger action scenes of real menace. Killing Rosita then and there—or when she goes outside the walls to vent her grief via brass knuckles—would’ve been the far more interesting idea.) So while there was some appeal to seeing Dante’s conflicted feelings about his actions (“I liked Siddiq; it wasn’t part of the plan”), it didn’t lead to much.
Similarly, while Michonne’s narrative this week ends with the promise of something new and interesting—shipping off to an island naval base where she might recover weapons that could tip the balance of power against Alpha—this episode mostly finds her playing den mother: shepherding her crew to Oceanside, then brokering the deal with the captured Virgil to take her to his home. The library stopover was a fairly rote beat, premised on Judith and Luke doing the age-old discussion of history and preserving the record of what happened, something that gets reinforced by Aaron’s story to his daughter about coming upon the old American Indian village, it’s story lost to time. But if this is what was needed to finally send Michonne somewhere new, and break up the established dynamics, then so be it. (I really hope they give Luke a reason to exist next year beyond “Music!” and “I have a crush!”)
The loss of subversive Dante means we’re back to basics at Alexandria, save for the intrigue generated by having Gabriel finally lose his cool and murder the prisoner. With luck, that choice will pay dividends in the back half of the season, by finally giving Seth Gilliam something meaty to grapple with again, character-wise, for Gabriel. It begins here, with him finally shedding the patience-and-understanding mantle to snap at Rosita, telling her to suck it up and press on, that the feeling of fear and helplessness is temporary, because it has to be. “Maybe Dante was right,” she frets. “Maybe we’re not as strong as we think we are.” This conversation seems to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it shows at least one aspect of Rosita’s life is changing. Because Eugene may have helped her kill a few walkers, but their fractured friendship remains stuck on autopilot. At least Aaron’s exchange with Gamms—sorry, Mary—led to an actual advance in their story, when she revealed her familial tie to the baby boy they rescued last season. It’s intriguing if she actually sold out Alpha, but the opposite seems more likely—that she fed them a story about where they could find the horde, they arrive to see nothing, but then a “chance” sighting of Alpha sends them tearing after her, all so the Whisperers’ leader can trap them underground mere feet away from the massive assemblage of undead.
It took all season, but Daryl and Carol finally push through her anger and the deliberately casual, just-hangin’-out vibe they’ve warily established between themselves so as not to rock the boat of their connection. Daryl confronts her once they cross the border into Whisperer territory, and in a very un-Carol-like display of emotion, she wells up and apologizes for keeping him at arm’s length all this time. Whatever internal torch Daryl is carrying, it gets a little brighter here; it’s literally the only character beat of any consequence among the group that sets out to find the horde. Jerry, Magna, Connie, and Kelly might as well be mop handles with signs around them saying, “tertiary characters,” for all the good they do here. I know the size of the cast means each episode needs to make drastic decisions regarding which characters to focus on (and thereby give actual lines and subplots to), but even after last season’s decapitation bloodbath, we’ve got a huge number of people in need of being more than cardboard cutouts—either that, or relegate them to the sidelines and be done with it, because trying to shoehorn in, say, Kelly’s hearing fears for one episode, while making her a glorified extra the rest of the season, just feels like a disservice.
At the end of the first half of Walking Dead season 10, we’ve got one major character shipping off to distant shores while several of the other key players are trapped underground with Alpha’s horde. The best thing about each development is how they carry the potential to shake up the largely unchanged state of affairs we’ve watched for the past eight episodes. Yes, people are nervous about Alpha; yes, they’re starting to live in fear and turn on each other; but aside from Siddiq’s death and Eugene’s self-imposed exile to Hilltop, we began this midseason finale in much the same place we did episode one. Playing the waiting game might be anxiety-inducing for its participants, but it’s a fairly inert device to spread across an entire half of a season. You’ve dumped our heroes into a hole and driven another offshore, Walking Dead—it’s time to get to the fireworks factory.
- Rosita joining Gabriel as she burns Dante’s body was a nice touch for his turn to the dark side.
- Ona related note, I found her dropping down, helplessly, at Siddiq’s grave to be a surprising moving moment. Christian Serratos has been doing some underrated work this season; maybe playing Selena lit a fire under the actor.
- Lydia’s still gone, but as we’re reminded here, “Alpha doesn’t know that.”
- Judith finally does something not-annoying by slicing Virgil in the leg as he’s trying to escape.
- Never thought I’d miss Negan so much.
- This ended up being a harsher assessment than I had originally intended, but the more I think about it, the more the series really does need to break this creaky mold it’s built with its various communities and disparate storylines all playing out in wobbly, rarely overlapping tandem. I don’t claim to know the path to creative rejuvenation for such a long-running show, but after largely wasting the Whisperer threat in the first half of the season, I know this hasn’t been it. Fingers crossed for some bolder choices in 2020.