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The Walking Dead returns with a cool new villain—and better yet, they're actually scary

Photo: Jackson Lee Davis (AMC)
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If you were wondering whether The Walking Dead may have lost its facility with a heavy-handed metaphor, don’t you worry: Three-fourths of the way through the midseason return of the horror drama, Negan pulls out a compass to guide him in the direction of...Judith Grimes, whose initials are etched into the back.

Yes, the second half of season nine has returned to deliver on the promise of a mysterious new threat, and while the Whisperers have only just begun to make themselves known, the few moments of their tricks highlighted in “Adaptation” showcase just how unsettling and menacing they can be. Even after you know there are living and breathing people beneath those sewn-together walker masks, it’s still remarkably effective (and cool, frankly) to watch as a mass of walkers assemble at the cemetery gate Daryl has just closed behind him, only for one of their hands to slip between the bars and turn the latch, freeing the horde to continue its pursuit. After several seasons of campy glam villainy in the form of Negan and the Saviors, there’s an admirably back-to-basics sense of creepiness to this new threat, even if it detracts from the interpersonal and inter-camp conflicts that animated the best parts of the first half of the season. The Whisperers are fucking scary, something this show hasn’t been in a long time.

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If only every subplot introduced this episode delivered such intrigue. For each moment of Luke awkwardly searching for a place among his new neighbors, there’s a hokey moment of Daryl and Henry exchanging manly words about responsibility. (Sorry, Henry, you’re still a dud.) For each scene of Eugene trying and failing to communicate his feelings to Rosita, there’s an almost stultifyingly bad exchange between Negan and Judith, the latter apparently being the only kid in the apocalypse to have free reign to wander in and out the gates of her community without a single adult expressing concern. Honestly, how did she know Negan was approaching? Who let her go out alone? Who thought any of this subplot made a lick of sense? Once she watched him vault the fence, it was already stretching plausibility, but his return encounter with her beggared belief in a way even The Walking Dead should know better than to assume it could get away with.

At least Negan’s walkabout wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The newly chastened ex-prisoner, for reasons not all that clear, needed to see with his own two eyes that Sanctuary was reduced to garbage, a wasteland of bad memories literally populated by the shambling corpses of his former followers. There was an element of “Negans—they’re just like us!” to this journey, as he foraged for his new shovel weapon, killed some walkers, and even (sigh) managed to locate a men’s clothing store with a leather jacket that oh-so-perfectly fit his frame. But at the end of it, he turns right around and heads back to his captors, hat in hand. “You were right...there is nothing here for me. Not any more,” he tells Judith, the little kid being the only one that Negan will entrust with his real feelings. As far as odd couples go, this one’s not great. With any luck, the show will find someone else to pair Jeffrey Dean Morgan off with, one who can actually spark something interesting in a character I had long ago written off, despite being portrayed by an actor who normally has charisma to burn.

Photo: Jackson Lee Davis (AMC)
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Hilltop, meanwhile, reels from the loss of Jesus. As Tammy tells Tara, the people are going to want to punish someone for what happened, and at the moment, the only candidate is the young woman locked up in their cellar. It’s pretty clear Tara doesn’t feel ready to assume control, so with only a small nudge, Daryl agrees to come back and help get things in order. It’s an abrupt pivot for a character who we last saw having spent years living on his own out in the wilderness, but the discovery of the Whisperers is a momentous enough change that it’s not really jarring to have him return to the community.

Honestly, neither he nor Michonne had much in the way of character beats this episode, instead mostly serving as tools to pry semi-reliable information out of the mouth of Lydia, the captured Whisperer. Which is fine: This is far and away the best thing happening on the show, so they may as well lean into it. The version of this character who appears in the comics is starting to be on the outs with her flesh-wearing associates, but it’s anyone’s guess what TV Lydia will be like. At present, she sounds a bit brainwashed, insisting they were fine before our heroes came along and slaughtered them. “We were good. It’s what we did to live.” She doesn’t see anything strange about their arrangement; quite the contrary, it’s the undead’s world now, and they’re just trying to go along to get along. Everyone still alive is a threat to her people—or so her reasoning goes—and therefore Hilltop should expect danger.

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Photo: Jackson Lee Davis (AMC)

And yet her other estimations are such obvious bullshit, it’s hard to know how much she’s concealing, or to what degree she might be playacting as the terrified captive. There’s no way there are roughly “10 of them, maybe more” when it comes to Whisperers, so everything she says is suspect, just as Daryl and Michonne assume. Unlike dumb old Henry, of course, who already seems to be smitten with the disembodied voice from the next cell over. One thing she is right about: Walls don’t necessarily keep you safe.

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The Luke and Alden roundabout feels like a miscalculation on the part of the series. Does anyone watching care enough about either of these characters yet to make such a pairing compelling? Dan Fogler is laboring mightily to create some affection for his optimistic music teacher, but there’s not enough history there to justify extended scenes featuring only the two of them. By the time they’re captured at the end (by the woman we can only assume is Lydia’s mother Alpha, since Samantha Morton, who was cast in the role, was in the credits here), it’s a case of not enough emotional attachment to make it land. Having walkers in the woods suddenly reveal themselves to be Whisperers is everything great about the new nemesis; just give us a reason (and a character worth worrying about) so we might invest in their actions.

Stray observations

  • There’s still no progress on the “what happened between the communities?” narrative front tonight. Aaron briefly tells Michonne she was right about keeping Alexandria isolated, but that’s more of an I-just-watched-Jesus-die reaction than anything.
  • “But then you attacked us and now we’re dead.” Are you high, Lydia?
  • Rosita being pregnant by Siddiq is the soapiest plot twist we’ve seen in awhile, what with Eugene overhearing for good measure.
  • I did like Eugene apologizing for the “involuntary bites and scratches” during his medical treatment.
  • The best part of Henry still in a cell is no more of those excruciating kids he befriended.
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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.