In most situations, an episode that comes after a big cliffhanger without following up on said cliffhanger feels like filler, especially on “The Walking Dead,” a show whose percentage of padding has been steadily increasing every year. “Stalker” might not let us know what’s going on with Connie, Magna, or Carol, but it more than makes up for that by delivering two taut, exciting plots and ratcheting up the tension of the Whisperer War.
It’s remarkable that 10 years in, “The Walking Dead” hasn’t had a full-blown slasher episode until this week, but that’s just what “Stalker” is, as Beta invades Alexandria on a quest to find Gamma/Mary. True, you have to clear the astronomically high hurdle of believing Dante really managed to dig a secret murder tunnel without anyone noticing — seriously, they might as well have given him canonical superpowers considering how many nefarious deeds he managed to pull off in his short stint in town — but once you do, Beta’s infiltration is genuinely exciting stuff. Director Bronwen Hughes brings a visual panache not normally seen on this show, and things like the glimpse of Beta blowing out a candle in the background as a couple of redshirts have typical tough-guy talk in the foreground, or the voyeuristic shot through the windows as Beta kills a houseful of Alexandrians, help to build the dread. Beta hasn’t had all that much to do this season, so everything he pulls off this week is a reminder of what a genuine threat he is.
Alpha also gets to shine this episode as she and Daryl finally go one-on-one when he accidentally stumbles upon a small Whisperer party while trying to find another way back into the cave. This is the first time we’ve really gotten to see Alpha mix it up physically with one of our heroes, and she’s just as adept as carving up Daryl as she is one of her underlings. She even manages to sink one of her knives deep into Daryl’s leg, which works out for him when he’s cornered by zombies and weaponless (the spray of blood as Daryl yanks the knife out is impressive). It’s rare for us to see Daryl in such dire straits, and helps to sell that Alpha’s a physical threat as well, even if she’s spent most of the season playing mind games.
The two end up at an abandoned gas station and since they’re too wounded to fight, they have a little chat. And since it’s these two, the talk naturally turns to Lydia. Alpha, of course, believes the pain she inflicted on Lydia was worth it because it made her strong. Daryl insists Alpha never loved her, which is like waving a red flag at a bull, but then Lydia herself arrives to end the stalemate. Alpha begs Lydia to kill her and assume control of the Whisperers, but Lydia’s made her choice – she’s with the communities, who might not be perfect, but are at least human. There wasn’t much of a doubt which side Lydia would choose, but her moment with Alpha gives them the face-to-face reckoning they haven’t really had, and it well-acted besides. It’s nice when Samantha Morton gets a chance to drop the hamminess that’s mostly defined her Alpha performance to get an emotional truth. In the end, Lydia can’t kill Alpha, but she can’t stay with her, either, leaving her with a message: “Your way is not the only way.”
Lydia’s not the only one choosing sides this episode, as Gamma officially defects to the communities to let them know their people are in trouble in the cave. Unfortunately for her, the people in charge of Alexandria are Gabriel and Rosita, who are both still reeling from Sayid’s death. Rosita seems to have full-blown PTSD (and who could blame her?), while Gabriel is going to the dark side, ranting about how they need to get more Whisperer prisoners so they can torture them into abandoning the cause. Despite these significant roadblocks, Gamma is actually able to gain Alexandria’s trust, first by admitting that she’s the one who killed her sister, and later offering herself to Beta in order to save Rosita by threatening to commit suicide, knowing that Alpha wants her alive more than anything.
Of course, the audience realizes Gamma’s on the level before our heroes do when she’s visited in jail by Judith the Redemption Pixie. Gamma tells Judith her real name is Mary and admits that she joined the Whisperers because she and her sister made a lot of bad decisions and eventually needed someone to make those decisions for them. Cults prey on the vulnerable, and who’s more vulnerable than desperate people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse? It’s an illuminating scene, laying out why a run-of-the-mill person would follow Alpha, considering the drawbacks to Whisperer life. And while a little Judith goes a long way, her refreshingly blunt assessment of Mary’s problems (“You met the wrong person first”) is accurate. Judith’s role of seeing things the battle-wearied adults around her can’t is probably the best possible use for her. This show could use someone who always sees the good in people.
• Such a relief to not have to worry about Carol this episode.
• Credit where it’s due: Rosita and Gabriel both recognize the other is coming unglued. By the end of the episode they seem to have reached an understanding. The power of human relationships prevails!
• Daryl looked… really messed-up this episode. Not sure if those wounds are really going to get the treatment they need in the middle of the woods.
• Mary’s lengthy sigh of resignation when she realizes how deep a hole she’s in with Gabriel and Rosita is pretty funny. She really didn’t know about Dante, guys! She knows it sounds implausible!
• RIP Laura, the last remaining non-Negan Savior. (Alden doesn’t count, he was always sensitive.) Sorry you only got like five lines this season, Laura.
• Points off to Mary for not shooting Beta in the face when she had the chance, allowing him to do the classic “the dead killer lurches back to life” bit. The slasher clichés are too powerful to resist.
• Mary’s points are restored for getting one over on Beta. “Step towards me.” Drag him, girl.