However you feel about the first half of this season, you have to credit The Walking Dead for taking some gutsy chances right out of the gate: not one, but two major time jumps; Rick’s goodbye with a twist; Maggie’s disappearance with absolutely zero hoopla; Carol and Eugene’s bold hairstyle choices; and now, the death of yet another main character as Jesus bites the dust. His demise is so shocking that it’s almost easy to overlook that there are now homicidal people living with zombies and wearing dead skin masks. Also, Negan is loose at A-town, which is a huge whopping deal. But did I mention the murderous wackjobs who are stealing a page from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs?
Let’s begin with the fact that Hilltop is lousy with youths gone wild, as Henry learns quickly upon his arrival. Given the fact he killed a few people as a kid, you’d think his chances of being a total basket case are rather high. But Henry is likable and only mildly annoying, which is saying something—especially after meeting the trio of teens who befriend him. First there’s Gage, who remembers Henry as the “kid with the stick” from “the war,” which means Henry has a shot at appearing in the eventual Ken Burns documentary on the zombie apocalypse. Behind Addy’s glasses and friendly demeanor lurks a come-hither flirtatiousness and lust for booze. Then there’s Rodney, the horndog who’s ready to take up fishing just so he can live out his soft-porn dream of being the only male at Oceanside. (At least we know Oceanside still exists.)
To be fair, kids will be kids, and can you imagine the smartphone withdrawal they’re suffering from? Not sure how they figured out a way to sneak off from a fortified compound or keep their clubhouse a secret, but teens drinking in the woods is a true sign of life returning to normal. What’s not normal is the walker they’ve turned into a carnival game; it fell into a pit and now the kids take turns trying to toss ropes around its neck for kicks (nice touch with the dart sticking out of its skull). Henry unwisely jumps into the hole, killing the zombie and everyone’s buzz. The cost of their hijinks: Tara’s boots and almost Henry’s internship with Maggie’s attempted-murderer-turned-town-smithy. To the kid’s credit, he adopts a “no snitching” policy and doesn’t rat out his friends. Look, we know seeing your mom cry and leaving home has you stressed out, Henry, but we also know this is all Enid’s fault for making out with Alden.
Meanwhile at A-town, Negan’s adjusting well to his life sentence. His jail cell has a window, he’s got a ball and a baseball glove, and Gabe began visiting him once a week back when that idea wasn’t so popular. Gone are the shadows and the unkempt beard and the headbanging, yet the constant ballbusting and mind-screwing remains, with Gabe on the receiving end: I hear your girl talkin’ and it ain’t necessarily about you. And I love it when you empty my bedpan and my ass particles go straight up your nose. Still a class act, that Negan. Yet something funny happens when the priest admits he’s the reason Rosita was hurt: Negan looks genuinely concerned. Making matters worse, Gabe can’t go help her because he’s on Negan-sitting duty. Was Gabe so distraught and distracted that he simply didn’t notice that the cell door wasn’t fully locked? Free-range Negan is not a good thing. On the one hand, he has come a long way since he wept for Lucille six years ago. But the shit-eating grin on his face as he exits his cage suggests he’s not quite ready to play nice.
Even more troubling is the situation with the herd that’s stalking Eugene and his search party—or is it multiple herds? Now we know what Daryl’s been doing for all these years after Rick vanished; he’s been collecting an arsenal of zombie lures, including fireworks and a clown-face alarm clock. Dog proves to be an expert tracker, though I question whether a barking animal is an ideal hunting companion when walkers are drawn to sound and living things. (Also pretty sure the current ranking for “deaths that would result in mass revolt from Walking Dead fans” is, in order: Daryl, baby RJ, Dog, Judith, and everyone else tied for a distant fifth place.)
As if talking zombies weren’t troubling enough, Rosita’s freak-out when she wakes up and the resulting look of shock on Michonne’s face (with slow close-up and dramatic music!) confirms that everyone should be afraid of what’s out there. Once the search party locates Eugene, they decide the best course of action is to split up. When does that ever work? Much to Daryl’s horror, the herd ignores his Fourth of July display. These ain’t yer grandpa’s undead, folks. But could Eugene be right, as the episode’s title suggests—are the zombie brains flickering with new life?
Short answer: No, silly, of course not. As Aaron, Jesus and Eugene flee from the herd, their first mistake is running into a cemetery. Their next bad move is making a stand, as J&A go full action hero; credit Jesus for the kill of the night when, after Aaron shoves one toward his pal for some reason, Jesus slices its leg and drives his heel down onto its head, which explodes against a gravestone in SLOW MOTION. Then Michonne arrives—along with Magna and Yumiko, who are earning their keep through life-threatening combat—and Jesus treats us all to even more sweet slo-mo carnage.
His star turn, along with all the talk of Jesus as a leader, should have been a clue that tragedy was around the corner. Aaron wisely tells him to get the hell out of the graveyard, but hey, there’s only two walkers left, right? The first goes down easily, but the second zombie ducks his sword, spins behind him, and stabs Jesus in the back. “You are where you do not belong!” whispers the Whisperer, as a bunch of other Whisperfolk come sprinting in with knives in hand. Daryl arrives to help finish them off and discovers the awful, seemingly impossible truth—these are not zombies who’ve learned to talk. This is some crazy Edward Gein shit.
That revelation begs a million questions about how it’s possible to wear a zombie face and live among the undead without ending up on the menu (and without puking from the stench of #datzombielyfe). I’m guessing the Whisperers are like ranchers, but instead of herding cattle, they’re walker wranglers who move them along and then duck away to do stuff like breathe and walk normally and speak at normal volumes and sleep and eat meals that don’t involve entrails. (I’m also convinced that the story of the entire season is hidden in the opening sequence. Note the ominous sound and sight of the windmill turning just before Negan escapes. And the noose—presumably the one that Gregory swung from? And the helicopter and that lone zombie…and Lucille. What clues for the second half of the season are hidden in there?)
As the camera floats up and the fog swirls through the cemetery, we hear more whispering: “They’re trapped” and “Keep them together.” Between this new threat and an old one, it’s a solid cliffhanger that raises the stakes for the final eight episodes—and should make Zeke’s faire a lot more interesting.