[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Walking Dead” Season 9 Episode 15, “The Calm Before.”]
This Week On “The Walking Dead”
“The Calm Before” is complicated. On the one hand, it’s an effective piece of horror, skillfully playing out the dread of what, exactly, Alpha is going to do as reprisal for her stolen daughter, culminating in a truly memorable and ghastly image. The performances are strong, many characters are reunited, and it’s a vastly superior hour (plus) than the last big shocker episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” But as another chapter in the ongoing narrative, it just makes me want to throw up my hands. Here, again, is another pile of agonizing misery for our heroes. Here, again, the audience is strung through the emotional wringer so a new Big Bad can prove how super dangerous they are. It’s an exhausting and exasperating hour of television. Between this episode and “Scars” last week, the show’s as dark as it’s ever been.
Man Is The True Monster
I’ve spent the last several weeks making exaggerated jokes about how something terrible was going to happen at the fair, because the show has trained us to always expect the worst, especially when it looks like things might be going right for our heroes. And lo and behold, the episode ends with Alpha establishing a “border” (which doesn’t make a lot of sense, aren’t the Whisperers nomads?) by killing a number of significant characters and placing their zombified heads on pikes. The casualties are significant, including promising newer characters introduced this year, like Brett Butler and Ozzy the Highwayman (who wasn’t around long but made a great first impression), to more established veterans like Enid, Tara, and Henry.
The show gives Henry the big final reveal treatment, probably because Carol is in the group that finds the border, but it’s Tara that really stings the most. She’s long been a personal favorite, and her new role as Hilltop’s leader seemed to finally position her to receive the prominence that Alanna Masterson has long deserved on this show. But these deaths are meant to hurt both the characters and the audience, and it’s a struggle to be that invested in what happens next. Presumably our heroes fight the Whisperers now, just like they overcame the Saviors (albeit hopefully in fewer episodes). But I can’t help wondering past the end of that conflict and wondering what atrocity will be committed to show how dangerous the next Big Bad will be. Maybe Ezekiel is skinned alive while Carol is forced to watch? The fact that an idea like that isn’t outside the realm of possibility is just exhausting. Such is the nature of “The Walking Dead.” It’s a well of endless misery with no bottom.
But as mentioned, the execution of the turn is effective. Alpha’s presence at the fair (complete with wig from a scalped Hilltopper) immediately sets off alarm bells, and our heroes spend a great deal of time reaffirming their connections and then basically all doing the “I’ll be right back” horror trope. Henry’s got to go check on that pipe, Siddiq will tell Michonne his big news when he sees her back at Alexandria, etc. For a hot second, it seems like Ezekiel will be one of the victims, since he actually has a prolonged interaction with Alpha, as she tries to act normal and can’t quite succeed. It’s nice to see Morton stretch a bit more in the role, and her final scene with Lydia is particularly strong, as she realizes she’s truly lost her daughter. She manages to hold it together until she’s back at camp, shedding a single tear and of course killing the Whisperer who accidentally witnesses her moment of weakness. Got to keep the sheep in line!
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
A Shred of Humanity
It should be said that before things go south, the fair is really nice. It’s been ages since we’ve seen all these characters share screen time, and it’s been even longer for the characters themselves, so it’s a relief to see everyone together again. Plus Eugene gets knocked into a dunk tank and Jerry pretends to be a horse, so, bonus.
The most significant development is that the various community leaders come together to discuss the Lydia problem and agree to offer her asylum. Tara is justifiably nervous about retaliation against Hilltop, which leads to a weird speech by Michonne about how many of them weren’t trusted when they first showed up, but now they’re all friends. Which wasn’t the argument Tara was making at all, but she winds up agreeing with Michonne. It’s frustrating that even when our heroes do the right thing, it’s for weird nonsense reasons. The argument for protecting Lydia could be won or lost on the merits, if anyone actually engaged with it seriously, but Michonne’s switch has flipped from “mean” to “nice,” so that’s the end of it.
The upside is that this discussion leads to Ezekiel pulling out the charter, which everyone agreeably signs. It’s the episode’s big feel-good moment, and it delivers. Michonne deferring to Gabriel to sign on behalf of Alexandria is a nice touch. It’s curious that everyone wouldn’t want to make a big show of it in front of the whole fair, but it’s still a victory in a time where those are hard to come by.
The episode’s final scene is hard to swallow, as Siddiq is spared by Alpha for absolutely no reason other than to convey that before they died, the victims all came together to fight the Whisperers, even though they were from different communities. It’s a borderline hilarious last-minute attempt to find a silver lining, especially because the divide between the communities has only ever been attributed to Michonne’s withdrawal into Alexandria. It’s nice of the show to insist that these deaths won’t lead to community in-fighting, but as far as we know three of the communities have all been square with each other over the years, with Michonne as the lone holdout. It’s a solution in search of a problem.
- The decapitation border is a big moment from the comics, which I have not read. Apparently, the victim line-up was quite different, but such changes are par for the course at this point. It’s interesting that the show feels compelled to stick with those big events, but is perfectly content to change the characters. Doesn’t matter whose heads are on those sticks, as long as there are some heads on sticks.
- The reveals of the victims, with oblivious people at the fair wondering about the whereabouts of each character, was particularly effective. Alden scanning the crowd for Enid as he performs his number with Luke was probably the most devastating.
- It is kind of funny how Alpha seemed to know how important each character was and ordered them accordingly.
- Poor Hilltop can’t hang on to a leader to save their lives. Who’s even left there that has a speaking part? Is it Earl’s time to shine?
- Pro tip to the “Walking Dead” social team: comparisons like this do you no favors.
- Jerry gets to declare the opening of the First Annual Inter-community Reunification Fair (or FAIR Fair), plus he survives the episode, which frankly was a big surprise.
- Looks like Rachel runs Oceanside now. She doesn’t have much to do this episode besides say, “Oceanside’s down,” but she’s there.
- All this talk about the movie and it’s a Baby Huey short. Brutal. Beggars can’t be choosers, but jeez, not even Tom and Jerry? Anyway, the feature was “Sliver” and you can’t prove me wrong.
- When Ezekiel says that Henry’s taking a girl to the movies tonight, Carol says, “Everything you just said sounds completely impossible,” which is supposed to be a commentary on the old-world amenities they’ve managed to resurrect for the evening, but can also be interpreted as a sick burn on Henry.
- Still mad that the show treats Henry as the big final kicker in the head line. Justice for Tara, who flipped Rick off that one time and was thus one of the show’s top 3 characters.