Well, that was exciting!
“The Walking Dead” usually holds its big events for obvious milestones — premieres, finales (half-season or full), and penultimate episodes — and tends to drag out everything in between before getting to the exciting bits. “Walk With Us” throws all of that out the window, with enough significant developments and disruptions to the status quo to fill several episodes, let alone the 12th entry of a 16-episode season. There’s a giant battle, two honorable sacrifices, and a final, intimate confrontation that changes the entire dynamic of the war. There are a few too many holes for the episode to be a complete success, but it’s another very strong showing in a half-season that’s had way more good than bad.
We kick things off with the battle for Hilltop, and here’s the shocker: the good guys lose. Sure, victory always seemed unlikely, but how many times has this show pulled out a miraculous last second save? Not so this week, as despite a valiant defense, Daryl’s forces are no match for Alpha’s horde and are forced to retreat, beaten and scattered into the forest, with the Whisperers hot on their heels. The battle itself is top shelf action — plenty more bodies than we’re used to seeing, both in depicting the overwhelming size of the horde and also proving that more than 10 people live at Hilltop. The result feels like a truly chaotic climax, with plenty of stand-out moments – Judith killing her first human being, Eugene abandoning the battle to try and rescue his radio, and Yumiko spotting Magna among the walkers. Obviously, the show can’t work at this scale all the time, but this sequence proves it’s worth it when the situation calls for it. And the loss of Hilltop is a big deal indeed.
Unfortunately, there are still things to pick at. After last week’s cliffhanger saw our heroes on the outside of Hilltop’s walls with a wall of flame blocking their retreat, everyone is somehow now inside the grounds and the mansion and various shelters of Hilltop are wholly ablaze. It’s not inconceivable that they could have made it back within the walls, but it’s still a jarring leap from what we last saw. And speaking of leaps, all our favorite characters being able to escape Hilltop strains credulity to the breaking point, but fortunately the episode is busy enough that there’s no time to dwell on it.
The various survivors are grouped together for maximum drama, starting with Mary thrown together with Kelly, Alden, and baby Adam. Fortunately, the “Alden is being a dick to Mary” storyline gets immediately nipped in the bud as she turns out to be the only one who can quiet the shrieking child, and when zombies are near, Mary lures them away from the others. Unfortunately for her, after defeating all the walkers she takes a moment to bask in the sun shining through the trees onto her uncovered face, a move that basically screams “imminent death,” and lo and behold, Beta materializes to fatally stab her. It’s a shame, since Thora Birch is a strong performer and a reformed Whisperer integrating into one of the communities probably had some narrative juice, but from another perspective, Mary served her story purpose (especially since Alpha lying to the Whisperers about Lydia being alive doesn’t seem like it will factor into the remainder of the conflict) and goodness knows the cast is overstuffed as it is. Alden grants Mary one last kindness – he shoots her in the head the moment she rises as a zombie, keeping her from joining Alpha’s horde. One final act of mercy for the woman who sacrificed herself.
Also getting a heroic sendoff this week is Earl, who manages to get the kids out of Hilltop but gets bitten in the process. His makeshift suicide device – a rail spike jutting out of a table — is appropriately grim and he shares a nice moment with Judith before the end, assuring her of her bravery before accidentally botching the suicide and requiring Judith to put down his zombified corpse. (How the other kids, who are all of 10 feet away behind a single curtain, didn’t hear absolutely everything is a mystery for another time, but since the kids are just mute extras it’s less of a concern.) When Daryl finally arrives at the scene, all he can think to do is hold Judith, but that seems like enough.
Of course, the biggest surprise of this episode is saved for last, when Negan’s long game is revealed. He capitalizes on Lydia’s affection for him, allowing him to get close enough to capture her before she realizes he’s working with her mother. Now it’s been obvious from the beginning that Negan was working Alpha in some way, but it was unclear to what exact purpose. As Negan leads Alpha to where he’s ostensibly holding Lydia, he takes the opportunity to get a few last digs in about how Alpha’s worldview is crap that she doesn’t even really believe in, considering how she handled Lydia’s defection. When Alpha discovers the house Negan led her to is empty, she turns to him in shock and he quickly slashes her throat. She bleeds out in his arms and he gives her one last gentle kiss as she dies.
It’s the most shocking moment “The Walking Dead” has pulled off in some time. Even the whole “heads on pikes” bit from Season 9 was somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that something terrible was going to happen at the fair. But this death, coming as it does in the middle of the back half of the season and completely shifting the dynamic of the conflict between the Whisperers and the communities, is something else. Will the Whisperers still be a threat with their leader dispatched? Presumably Beta will still be able to rally them, but now there’s a wonderful sense of ambiguity.
Incredibly, it’s still not over. Negan brings Alpha’s severed head – reanimated and helplessly snapping like her victims last year – and rolls it to the feet of his surprise benefactor, Carol. Hands up if you completely forgot about the “Who released Negan?” mystery, and kudos to the show for not making much of a to-do about it so this moment could land with the proper impact. What the heck happens now? For once, the answer isn’t obvious.
• Yumiko clocks Carol for getting Magna and Connie hurt, and you can’t say she didn’t deserve it.
• Oh, Magna’s alive! She lost track of Connie, though. Now that she and Yumiko have reunited, maybe we can start getting invested in them.
• Shout out to Earl and Alden’s catapults. Cool catapults, guys!
• Negan’s half-assed attempt at pretending to be a walker is one of the rare moments when his smarmy attitude is genuinely funny.
• Aaron spots Negan with the Whisperers and Negan obviously doesn’t have time to explain his whole mission.
• Confirmed: Beta is some sort of TWD Universe celebrity, since a Whisperer recognizes him once Mary tears his mask. He must have extremely recognizable jowls, because she didn’t do that much obvious damage. It would be incredibly funny if Beta were eventually revealed to be actor Ryan Hurst, playing himself.
• Eugene heads off to make his meeting with Stephanie. Good idea, there are still four episodes left to fill!