Invoking The Red Wedding is not something a show should do likely. That was the episode that left me raged out and ready to quit Game of Thrones. So when folks started comparing the last few episodes of this season of The Walking Dead to that unforgettable episode, I was expecting a memorable wrap to this season. And yeah, it completely delivered.
The high water mark for Walking Dead tragedy has always been The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be. That was when Rick and company had their first traumatic encounter with Negan. I think it’s safe to say The Calm Before has seized the top spot.
Right away this wasn’t feeling like a typical episode. Showrunner Angela Kang had already done the impossible in resuscitating this season to heights of TWD’s glory days while navigating the loss of the series’ main character. Regardless how this last episode plays out, I’m putting Season 9 along the absolute best of the series.
One of the main improvements this season has been the sense of dread and removal of the invincible covering around certain characters. Yes, characters have been killed off before — important ones too — but we kinda get a heads up or general guide from the comic book. In my case, I’ve felt in the ‘know’ about this storyline ever since I stumbled across this figure at Toys R Us.
Through a flashback, we meet a couple who stumbled onto Hilltop and celebrated a few more anniversaries among the community. Hilde was the one who carved out the Hilltop coins. She wrote an H on them for home and for hope. Their hope ended when they ran into Alpha, who started scalping Hilde. In a larger sense, hope would be killed by the end of the episode.
Ezekiel is in rare form as he announces the start of the fair. He’s atop a balcony channeling his stage roots with a large paper mache tiger next to him. He honors Rick and Carl and even Jesus who all paved the way for this moment. And this deserved a big, bombastic proclamation. The communities were together again for the first time in years! It was a fair of new beginnings indeed.
But there was still some uneasiness behind the scenes as Carol was prepping her search party to find Henry, Daryl and the others. Proving Ezekiel and The Kingdom Can’t Lose, the gates open and Daryl, Michonne, Henry, Connie and Lydia arrive. Cancel the search party! Carol isn’t sure Judith remembers her, but Judith says she’s been drawing them her whole life. ‘You’re carol and you’re the king.’ OK, I kinda love how everyone is on board with recognizing Ezekiel’s royal status.
Time for an impromptu leader’s meeting. Tara knows Alpha and the Whisperers will retaliate against Hilltop with Lydia back. Michonne correctly points out folks weren’t keen on Tara at first since she was #TeamGovernor initially. They’ll form a mutual protection pact — a strike against one community is a strike against the others: U-N-I-T-YYYY. And yeah, it was also awesome that Carol signed as Queen Carol. I don’t remember Rachel from Oceanside, but she’s agreeable to the plan and just overall down so I like her. Michonne has Gabriel sign as the head of the council. This is such a feel good moment for everyone you know it won’t last.
For now, let’s enjoy this admittedly amazing fair. It’s got everything from singers, vendors, demonstrations, a dunk tank and candy apples! Connie and Kelly talk about Connie running off without saying goodbye to save the baby. Every goodbye could be the last one. Fair point. Connie is such an amazingly complex character and I want to know all about her past trauma with a baby/child. The Bros — Rodney and Alek — tell Lydia that Addy is their friend and she likes Henry so back off.
Daryl asks Connie to watch Dog and I’m sad she won’t be joining the first crew to help protect Hilltop. Answering my immediate question after the first scene, Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Yumiko and the others come across Ozzy and another Highwayman. Their patrols found the aftermath of the attack on Miles and Hilde. Michonne and Daryl make the smart call and split up and send the others to Hilltop. Carol and Yumiko roll with them and I think this might be one of the more competent foursomes we’ve seen in TWD in years.
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It doesn’t take long for them to run into a slew of walkers and then get surrounded by Whisperers. Uh-oh. And now Beta comes out saying all they had to do was give them the girl.
Oh that’s why Alpha was scalping Hilde. She needed her hair and dress to get into the fair! That’s not good. Ezekiel introduces himself to Alpha and I’m all ‘I don’t want to reenact the figure with your head on a stick Zeke! Run away!!!’ Who wants to watch a movie?
My imagination is a terrible thing as I envision Zeke’s head on a stick midway through the first reel. Lydia has been holding a seat for Henry when Alpha slides over and takes it.
At this point my DVR ends the recording. This was the opposite of completely cool. Somebody at AMC had to consider having a big episode on Day 4 of March Madness would result in a ton of people watching this on a delay, right? Wrong. This sent me in a cone of silence of spoilers until I could catch the replay. But seriously guys, let’s give the DVR recording crew a heads up next time, huh?
Alpha doesn’t ruin the movie for everyone and talks to Lydia outside. This isn’t real time as Alpha is relaying this to Daryl by a scenic overlook with a herd of walkers and Whisperers ready to steer them along. That’s a show of force. Gonna go ahead and call it here. Negan had this quirky charisma and was a little too entertaining. The Governor was too sane and Terminus had awful table manners. I’m pretty firm in declaring Alpha the series’ baddest villain. And that’s even before the end of this episode.
She tells Daryl that there won’t be any issue so long as his people don’t cross into her borders. She’s marked it so they won’t miss it. Lydia is too soft and she doubts Daryl can protect her, but Alpha hopes she’s wrong. As she reflects on this conversation, a Whisperer stumbles in and catches her tearing up. This is when eye contact is a bad thing, son. One less Whisperer for Daryl and crew to deal with.
Daryl reunites with Carol, Michonne and Yumiko and find Siddig beaten and tied to a tree. He’s in bad shape, but clearly is apprehensive about something. He leads them to a clearing where they find Alpha’s boundary. As promised it’s hard to miss. There were a lot of heads on sticks, now the mystery is who’s gone. The reveal on this was beautifully — and arguably cruelly done. These were characters of meaning who’d been around for a while or were written like they’d have a long future on the series.
First up it was Ozzy, his fellow Highwayman and DJ. Then we started getting clips at the fair of people questioning where friends were. First up was Frankie, Rodney and Addy. Then Tammy Rose! OK, these are all lower tier guys. Tough losses yeah, but no one that would lead to a ‘oh no they didn’t kill off that character’ Like Tara or Enid? Yeah, like Tara or Enid. Oh crap, they killed Tara AND Enid. You bastards! And just to really twist the knife, there’s one last reveal — but it’s not Ezekiel. Lydia tells him Alpha was here and now she can’t find… oh wow, they actually killed Henry! But in the cruelest gesture of all, Alpha didn’t finish the job so everyone’s decapitated head has turned into a walker to really taint their final memory.
That was the shocker. Tara and Enid were actual meaningful losses character wise, but Henry seemed like he had so much more to do storyline wise. Killing him off was a ballsy move — the kind we haven’t seen from the series without some advance warning like actor X was leaving the series this season.
While that could have easily been the ending, there’s one more crucial moment that really seals this as one of the series’ shining moments. Siddiq explains how they had all been captured, but Ozzy, DJ and random Highwayman showed up to give them a chance. These strangers from various communities fought together as a family until they were overwhelmed. Alpha kept him alive to frighten the others. Instead, Siddiq uses it as a rallying cry that together the communities are at their strongest. I can almost hear how Andrew Lincoln would have delivered that address and it really makes me sad Rick Grimes isn’t around for this storyline.
Lydia and Daryl go back to the boundary where she places the H coin at Henry’s pike. Just as the first snowfall begins. Winter is coming for The Whisperers. What a fantastic episode! It’s probably time to start ranking episodes, but off this immediate impression, it’s easily Top 5. And we’ve still got the season finale to go!
Rating: 10 out of 10
Photo Credit: AMC