Truth be told, after Carl Grimes was killed off in last year’s mid-season premiere and then, Andrew Lincoln’s very abrupt departure from the series, I didn’t hold out much hope for the future of The Walking Dead, which is very disheartening since I’ve covered the show since season 2. Also, being an avid comic-book reader, it was only made worse by my receiving the next issue every month and seeing either Rick or Carl on the cover — a constant reminder that the series is now barely recognizable in its relation to the source material. All of this is why I have been relatively silent for the past 2 episodes since Rick’s final send-off. While the Whisperers storyline has always been my favorite in the comics and I knew that arc was on the horizon in the series, I didn’t want to get my hopes up and instead, decided to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to determine if I wanted to continue coverage of the show. However, I am glad to report that after tonight’s mid-season finale, we should all give Showrunner Angela Kang and her team a standing ovation, and I’m beyond excited for the remainder of the season. In other words, yours truly is back on board for this show!
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM WITH A PRISON ESCAPE
With a new threat emerging, I suspect it would be quite easy to forget that the former threat that had menaced our survivors for over 2 seasons was still cooling his heels in a prison cell in Alexandria. Yes, Negan (Jeffrey Dean-Morgan) is still chilling in his 6 X 8, and with Michonne (Danai Gurira) accompanying Magna and Co. to the Hilltop, Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) has been reluctantly assigned to be the temporary warden. At the beginning, Gabe tries to minister to Negan and teach him meditation because hey, that’s part of the job he had in his old life. But, as you would expect, Negan isn’t a very good pupil, and instead, turns to taunting Gabriel.
In particular, Negan points out the new window in his cell, which he jokingly refers to as the new “television” of the apocalypse. The folks in Alexandria have private conversations with one another right outside the window, almost as if they have forgotten he’s even there — and that includes Gabe’s beloved Rosita (Christian Serratos).
Just the other day, Rosita was out there chatting up to storm. She said some things you would find very interesting — Negan
I don’t need you to tell me how Rosita feels about me — Gabe
Now, who said she was talking about you? — Negan
Oh snap! While most people may write this off as Negan just being an asshole, I found it to be quite interesting given what we know from the comics. In the source material, Rosita ends up with Eugene, and they actually move in together. Obviously, Father G has taken over Eugene’s role from the comics in that respect. However, later on, we also learn that Rosita is pregnant, and then some time after that, it is revealed that Siddiq is the father. In other words, while Rosita had officially been in a relationship with Eugene, she was having an affair with Siddiq. This all being said, are Negan’s comments an indicator that Rosita may possibly have a lover on the side? I certainly think so, especially given that Rosita’s relationship and her pregnancy had a significant role in the comic-book Whisperer arc.
While Gabe is initially civil to Negan, the next time he visits, not so much. Gabe has to change Negan’s bed pan, and of course, Negan can’t resist cracking jokes about that. This time, however, Gabriel loses his cool and fires back at Negan, and we soon learn it’s not just because he has to clean up Negan’s shit. Gabe has since learned that Rosita has been injured and is at the Hilltop, and because he’s stuck taking care of this asshole, he can’t go be with her. Negan tries to apologize, but Gabriel will hear nothing of it and just storms out. At first, this all appears insignificant — until the wind picks up that night as a storm begins moving in. Negan notices that the gate to his cell appears to move ever so slightly, and when he goes to investigate further, discovers that Gabe had inadvertently left it unlocked. Oops!!!!
Of course, this is no accident in terms of the narrative, and the timing is perfect. I can’t reveal much more here without spoiling some major storylines that come later, but I will say that Negan plays a pivotal role in the upcoming Whisperer arc in the comics. Some had been wondering if the writers were planning on adhering to that comic-book arc, and with Negan’s escape, I think the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
NEW SURVIVORS AT THE HILLTOP — AND JUST IN THE NICK OF TIME
Riders are coming! Riders are coming! Riders are coming!
As Michonne, Siddiq (Avi Nash), and Magna (Nadia Hilker) and her crew approach the Hilltop, a watchman races on horseback through the community yelling this over and over again, which prompts everyone to run back to their living quarters and hide. At first I didn’t think much of it, but then, it dawned on me that this is new. Then, when they are greeted by Diane (Kerry Cahill), the reception isn’t exactly warm, and that’s yet another indication that something happened during the time jump that has prompted these communities to harden and to be suspicious of everyone — even of each other. Regardless, after Michonne states that they’ve come for Rosita, and that the others are “good people looking for a home,” they are finally allowed to enter after relinquishing their weapons.
The tensions between the 2 groups is made even more evident when Michonne runs into Carol (Melissa McBride), who we should recall is at the Hilltop to drop off Henry (Matt Lintz) as he begins an apprenticeship with the blacksmith, Earl Sutton (John Finn). For the comic-book readers out there, the latter should give you deja vu with respect to a similar arc with Rick and Carl in the source material. While the conversation begins quite cordial (Michonne even smiles when she initially sees Carol off in the distance), Carol quickly makes her disappointment known about Michonne’s refusal to help the other communities.
Henry, he has a good heart. He sees his world falling apart, and he wants to help — Carol
I read Ezekiel’s letter, and I’m sorry for your troubles — Michonne
You can still help. We really need this fair. If Alexandria would just send a delegation — Carol
I’m sorry. I am. I didn’t want to turn you down. You of all people. But, we’ve had our troubles too. You know that — Michonne
I know what you went through, and I get why this is hard for you. But, we’ve all lost something. You and me, we’ve both lost children, but we’ve kept going…for each other. We’ve always been a family — Carol
We still are. But, Kingdom is Kingdom. Hilltop is here. And, Alexandria is there. And, in between, there’s a whole lot of broken world. And, we cannot pretend otherwise. We’ve got to take care of our own now. That’s just the way it is — Michonne
That’s a shame — Carol
Whatever happened during that time jump, it had to be something horrific, and given how overly-cautious Michonne is now, it appears it may have been her fault. Either way, given what we know is coming, hopefully those bridges can be mended very soon.
However, the most important thing that happens at the Hilltop in relation to tonight’s narrative is Rosita finally waking up. If you recall, Rosita was unconscious when she was found, and so, no one knows about the “whispering” and the abnormal herd she and Eugene encountered. This includes the search party that has already been out there almost a day searching for Eugene, and so, when Rosita realizes all of this, needless to say she becomes hysterical.
Rosita, whatever’s going on, they can handle it — Siddiq
No, they can’t! They have no idea what they’re dealing with — Rosita
While this may not have seemed important at the time, Michonne learning from Rosita the real danger Daryl, Aaron, Jesus and Eugene are facing prompts her to make a critical move at the end of the episode, likely saving many lives in the process.
A FEROCIOUS INTRODUCTION TO A NEW FOE — AND A PAINFUL GOOD-BYE TO A FAN FAVORITE
With the foundation now laid, let’s now get to the really good parts of the episode. So, you may be thinking — what makes tonight’s episode so damn good that it pulled you back from the ledge, Mary, and made you want to continue to watch? Yes, part of it is the Whisperers arc itself, but a storyline wouldn’t have been enough to keep me tuned in. Instead, it’s **how** the Whisperers are introduced, and even more importantly, the overall choreography and atmosphere of the episode. I’m a child of the 70’s and the 80’s, and I can recall the days of the good, old-fashioned horror movie. I can remember watching Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and being mortally terrified. Or, sitting on the edge of my seat while being introduced to Night of the Living Dead. A more recent example is The Sixth Sense, which scared the piss out of me while having virtually no gore. Unlike Nightmare on Elm Street and the Friday the 13th movies and their dozen of sequels, these movies didn’t rely upon gruesome scenes and shock value in order to scare its viewers. Instead, they used pure horror and the build-up of tension, keeping the audience completely oblivious as to what would happen next.
This is what makes “Evolution” so great — which after 8 years of the show trying to upstage itself for the goriest walker kill ever, is a welcomed breath of fresh air. I mean, first we had Dale being disemboweled by a walker’s bony fingers in season 2. Then, we had Noah being ripped apart in the gruesome revolving door scene from season 5. Come on, this show is more than “1000 Ways To Die By Walker.” It all begins tonight with Jesus (Tom Payne), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and Aaron (Ross Marquand) out looking for Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and we know from the promos, that they, indeed, find him — primarily thanks to Dog and his super-sensitive nose. That’s good, but now, night is falling and there’s also a herd in the area. Had this been all the group is up against, it would have been a cake walk, because these people have encountered herds many times before. However, as we saw in the episode 2 weeks ago, the walkers in this herd appear to be “whispering” to one another, and as Eugene explains after he is found, “This wasn’t a normal herd. When they passed us by, we could hear them. They were… whispering to each other. I know how it sounds, but Rosita heard it too, and she’ll corroborate.”
It is at this point when the group is about to head back to their horses that things start to get freaky-deaky. We have a thunderstorm in the dead of night, very thick fog, and a herd somehow, someway tracking our small band of survivors while whispering to one another. Creepy AF. Oh, to top it off, they decide to try and evade the herd by going through a graveyard, even after Eugene’s stark warning, “This is a bad idea. We’re going to get lost in here!” Ya think? This all starts about halfway through the episode, and trust me, you’re going to be a basket case from here on out.
The big mistake the group makes is while they have witnessed this herd behaving erratically and not like any herd they’ve ever seen before, they continue to employ tactics with the assumption this is a normal herd. Daryl decides to stay behind and tries to use noise distractions like firecrackers to divert the herd, giving the rest of the group the chance to escape. As expected, it doesn’t work, and the herd continues to stay on course. They go through a relatively small opening in the wall of the cemetery, thinking the herd won’t be able to follow, but of course, it does. By the time they realize their mistakes, everything has hit critical mass. They are now surrounded by the herd, and the only way out is through an old, rusty gate that they can’t get open.
By this point, we’re down to the last 4-5 minutes of the episode, and I know the first time I screened it, my blood pressure must have gone through the roof. It is that scary, and it’s that stressful. Once surrounded, the group does put up a pretty good fight. Aaron gets quite a few kills in, while using his prosthetic arm to hold off walkers. However, the real VIP is Jesus. Talking about the ultimate fight scene. Whoever did the choreography and designed this sequence deserves an Emmy for these scenes alone. Using a combination of sword and judo moves, you would think just by looking at him that Jesus could take on that entire herd single-handedly. It is also about this time that the group gets some unexpected help. Remember how I said Rosita waking up and informing the others about the “whispering” herd would prove to be extremely valuable? Well, it pays off when not only Michonne, but also Magna and Yumiko show up to help — the latter to “earn their keep” like Tara said they’d have to if they wanted to stay at the Hilltop.
With the additional help, they then start to work with Eugene to get the rusted gate open, while Jesus continues to hold the walkers back. This will turn out to be a fatal mistake. As Jesus is about to swing his sword towards one particular walker, the “walker” dodges the strike, swings around and stabs Jesus through the chest. In this heart-wrenching moment, the “walker” whispers in Jesus’ ear as he’s dying and delivers a strong, spine-chilling message:
You are where you do not belong
Jesus then falls lifeless to the ground, and that’s when it all hits the fan. By now, the rest of the group is on the other side of the gate, but when Aaron completely freaks out after witnessing Jesus being killed, he opens the gate back up and the rest of the group follows, taking out all of the remaining walkers/Whisperers in a massive killing frenzy.
At the same time, Daryl catches up to the group and puts an arrow in the brain of the Whisperer who gutted Jesus. While the remaining Whisperers retreat, the group uses that down time to examine the “walker” that Daryl had just killed. While it may not surprise those who are avid comic-book readers, it will probably surprise the general audience to learn that the walker really wasn’t a walker, but a person wearing a zombie “suit.” The group has just learned a great deal about a potential new foe (unfortunately, at the expense of Jesus’ life), but there’s no time to ponder this information. Almost as quickly as they had retreated, the Whisperers begin doubling back as we hear them saying “They’re trapped,” “She’s going to kill them” and a whole slew of other creepy and ominous things.
Holy shit. WOW.
In preparation for writing this review, I decided yesterday that it might be helpful if I went back and re-read some of the comics from the earlier part of the Whisperer arc, especially since I was a bit rusty on how they were introduced in the source material. That turned out to be a good move, because I ultimately made a startling discovery. When I screened tonight’s episode for the 1st time early last week, I had assumed that the storyline of Jesus being stabbed was brand new material and had no origin in the comics. That’s actually not true. In the source material, Jesus and Darius (a minor character that is never introduced in the TV series) are sent out to find Ken, whose television counterpart is Eugene in tonight’s episode. Darius is stabbed by a Whisperer, but unlike Jesus, Darius survives the attack. Because I had already screened the episode, as I read the comic, I quickly realized how much the original comic-book scenes had fizzled compared to what we watched tonight. The television writers took a few very lackluster scenes from the comics and made something truly phenomenal and perhaps one of the most memorable episodes of the entire series. I don’t care how tough you are, those last few scenes are scary AF, and you know damn well you were scared. What’s more, while it sucks that Jesus was killed, his death has a much bigger impact than if he had survived as Darius had. It sends a strong message to everyone that these Whisperers are a serious threat and aren’t just some people playing dress-up with zombie skins. Kudos and plaudits to Angela Kang and everyone else who worked on this episode for a job well done.
The only negative thing I can honestly say about the episode is Aaron’s reaction to Jesus’ death made absolutely no sense, given what the audience had seen of the two thus far. Sure, if you’ve read the comics, you know Jesus and Aaron eventually become a couple. And, while there may have been hints that the 2 men had grown close, with their secret meetings and Jesus training Aaron, they were nothing more than that — just hints. So, when Aaron wigs out and sobs over Jesus’ body at the end of the episode, while that should have been a touching emotional scene, it kind of falls flat. After all, the audience can’t connect with you and share your feelings of grief and loss if they never really knew a relationship existed in the first place.
Even so, this is a relatively minor complaint, and the stellar writing and storytelling far outweighs it. If tonight’s episode is any indication, this could end up being the best season of the entire series. I’m pumped. I’m excited. And, February can’t get here soon enough.
The Walking Dead will return for the 2nd half of season 9 on February 10th at 9/8c on AMC.
Critic Grade — A
Geeky computer and math nerd by day and TV fanatic by night. My beats are The Walking Dead, The Strain, Person of Interest, Z Nation, and anything that most people would call freaky. Editor-In-Chief and Lead Writer of TVGeekTalk.com