There’s a moment in “Morning Star” that, while not coming close to undoing the damage Carol’s done this season, at least attempts to get us to further understand where she’s coming from. Carol is trying to reconcile with Lydia, who mentions that she’s sorry Henry died and that Carol hates the world because of it. Carol gazes into the distance and murmurs, “I had a whole life.” She didn’t just lose Henry; she also lost her husband and her home in the Kingdom. She had the closest thing to domestic bliss that people on “The Walking Dead” could hope to achieve, and it all came one after another, leaving her with nothing. Lydia tearfully says, “I remember,” and in that moment we do, too.
It’s a good scene, one where two characters relate to each other in a way that plays off their shared history and makes them more sympathetic to the audience. The problem with “Morning Star” is that it wants to be a whole episode of scenes like that, but nearly all the rest of them fail to make an impression. The issue is twofold – there are too many characters featured in this episode to get more than a few minutes of screen time, and most of these characters haven’t had much development in the past, so there’s little this rushed episode can do to change that.
Take Yumiko for instance. Her estranged girlfriend was trapped in a cave-in, and her only role this week is to idly speculate that Magna and Connie are probably dead, then pop up at the end to apologize to Kelly for saying that out loud. It’s understandable that in a big ensemble episode like this the more prominent characters would get more screen time, but the newbies really need some focus sooner rather than later. Connie’s the only one who’s made any lasting impression so far, and she’s trapped underground at the moment.
Also getting the short end of the stick this episode is Alden, who has a full-on meltdown when Mary tries to get close to her nephew. His anger at Enid’s loss is understandable, but one would hope that he would be a bit more sympathetic to a defector from a sinister cult, considering he was originally a Savior (albeit a sensitive one). Instead he’s stuck with one-note rage. It’s another case of the show foregoing something more nuanced and interesting to just flipping a character’s switch to “asshole” because they’ve suffered the show’s most recent Major Trauma. It’s repetitive and exhausting.
In a surprising leap to what appears to be the season’s endgame, Alpha has commanded her horde to march on Hilltop, and we spend most of this episode checking in with everyone as they prepare to fight an overwhelming force. Daryl gets the most focus as he makes a child-saving pact with Ezekiel, reassures Judith, and comes to an understanding with Carol. That last one, where Carol asks Daryl not to hate her and he says he never could, is the usual emotional brevity Daryl usually displays, but in the context of this hurried episode it feels like just another box being ticked rather than any real catharsis. Daryl and Carol are cool again, check.
Also cool are Carol and Ezekiel, who get to share the screen for the first time in ages. Carol finds out about Ezekiel’s cancer, but the reveal doesn’t elicit much more than a shrug from Carol, who’s looking to hook up with the King again before the Whisperers attack. Afterward, Carol seems the most relaxed and relatable she’s been in months, so it’s too bad Ezekiel’s been handed a likely death sentence — he’s the only one left who can still coax a smile out of her.
Meanwhile, Eugene has fallen in love with Stephanie, the mystery radio lady. Rosita arrives at Eugene’s control room just as Stephanie is calling but assumes she’s someone from Oceanside and decides to play matchmaker. This involves daring Eugene to kiss her so he’ll realize how much he prefers Stephanie.
It all culminates in Eugene singing an a cappella cover of Iron Maiden’s “Where the Wild Wind Blows” over a montage of Hilltoppers preparing for battle, which manages to come across even sillier than it sounds. Stephanie sings back and gives Eugene coordinates for a meet-up and he happily tells Rosita he has a date as they go off to the big battle. The whole story really undercuts the tension the rest of the hour is trying to build, but at least Eugene isn’t pining after Rosita anymore.
Fortunately, the battle commences before the episode’s end, so we can exit on a strong cliffhanger. Hilltop’s various defenses are not enough to hold back the horde, and as Daryl’s fighting force retreats, the Whisperers unleash a wall of flame to cut them off. It’s a great set-up for an all-action follow-up episode, where the show is much more comfortable.
-No getting around it: Negan looks really silly in his Whisperer mask. Guess not everyone can pull off the look.
-Daryl realizes Negan’s with Alpha when he finds the roads out of Hilltop have been blocked off. Because only a diabolical brain like Negan’s could come up with “make sure they can’t escape.”
-For a second it looks like Negan manages to convince Alpha to convert Hilltop rather than murder them, but Alpha reveals that she’ll convert them… to zombies! But hey, Negan’s cool with whatever. He’s definitely not planning on betraying Alpha, no sir.
-The wave of rodents fleeing the forest to indicate that the horde is near was a nice touch.
-“You okay?” “Nah, I got cancer.” No words lost between Daryl and Ezekiel.
-Still no sign of Michonne, although there’s nothing stopping the show from doubling back in time to depict her weapon-finding mission and then have her be the cavalry that Hilltop desperately needs.