I’ve been waiting for approximately three months to use the headline “Scareless Whisperers,” because I like to mix my pop culture references (zombies and George Michael!), I’m a sucker for cheap wordplay, and I thought the chances were good that these skin-mask wearing freaks would be creepier in theory than in reality. Welp, if tonight’s episode was any indication, I was way wrong. Thanks to a clever bit of storytelling, the backstory of Lydia and her momma, the leader of the Whisperers, is one of the most compelling tales we’ve heard on this show in a while. It even breaks through Daryl’s rugged exterior and speaks to his inner wounded child. It also distracts from an utterly dumb side story with the Newbies and Henry’s continued teen-brain stupidity.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a juicy flashback that reveals substance and depth of character, and Lydia’s story of growing up in the shit-hits-fan era turns out to be more complex and tragic than expected. The opening scene sets the tone as Henry jogs Lydia’s memories — a ragtag group of survivors in a Baltimore basement shelter listening to emergency radio broadcasts after 23 days of a living hell they don’t understand. Little Lydia only knows that people are getting sick; she’s waiting for the doctor to make everyone better. But Frank, her bearded bully of a dad and a poor man’s Julian Edelman, breaks the news to his baby girl: “Nobody’s coming.”
Good thing Lydia has her momma to comfort her, call her “bug,” sing an old Groucho Marx chestnut, and flex her bicep tat. In the present day, Henry asks what happened to Lydia’s pops, and we see a quick flash of Frank’s mouth filling with blood. “My dad was a stupid man,” Lydia says. That’s harsh, brah. But hey, your momma got you this far, right?
Lydia’s autobiography unfolds as Henry continues to bond with her and Daryl transforms from eavesdropper to hard-ass to softie. The NSA–style surveillance of Henry’s convos comes to an end when Daryl hears the kid telling Lydia about the Kingdom and other Top-Secret Survival stuff (why not just give her Georgie’s Civilization Rebuilding Handbook while yer at it, ya dumbass). That prompts Henry to call Daryl an asshole, which leads Daryl to offer Lydia meds for her bum ear and get spit on and attacked for his trouble. Again, these dang youths!
Maybe Daryl just has a weakness for damaged cases who don’t bathe, but soon he too is listening to Lydia’s yarn. Something strange is going on, though, as details in the story change without explanation: Frank told Momma he was shaving his beard because the world is over and he’s doin’ whatever the hell he wants, but now we see him still bearded and it’s Momma with a bald head. When one of their companions loses his cool, it’s Momma who snaps, as Frank did earlier (and then she snaps the guy’s neck, or strangles him — either way, dude’s dead). Now it’s Frank who’s holding Lydia and singing to keep her calm.
Daryl knows from abuse, so when he sees the bruises on Lydia’s arm, he senses the only truth of her story was that moment when Frank comforted her. Now this is making sense — didn’t it seem odd in the beginning of the episode that Frank told his wife to “grow a pair”? That’s because Lydia’s mom has spent years twisting the story into one giant memory pretzel that the girl is only now beginning to untangle. Frank, it turns out, was the good guy all along. In retrospect, it’s not such a surprise that Momma, with her taste for necrofashion and abuse, was the villain in this story. (Note the wickedly evil twist that the first whisper of the Whisperers was Momma putting a finger to her lips to shush Lydia just before she murdered Frank.)
For a while there, Henry was a fast climber on my list of Characters I’d Like to See Eaten. All his whining about Lydia was bad enough, but when he let her out of jail to eat worms and flirt, I’d had it with him. Think about it — this entire storyline was triggered by Enid’s rejection of his schoolboy crush, which led to his moping, acting out, landing in the hoosegow, and pining after the first available age-appropriate female despite her homicidal tendencies. But the kid redeems himself when he bonds with Daryl, sharing Carol’s hair-origin story. Her long locks this season aren’t a tribute to Legolas after all; they’re a sign that she feels safe for the first time in her adult life (and that’s saying something, given the current state of the world). The survivor’s bond that connects Daryl, Lydia, and Henry (via his mom) is unexpected and powerful.
Meanwhile, the Newbs decide to risk the goodwill they’ve built at Hilltop to sneak out in the middle of the night and look for Luke. These four geniuses try to follow tracks through the woods with a flashlight, and then they figure hey, this is probably a good time to get into our feelings. A zombie inevitably sneaks up on them, which prompts the most unintentionally hilarious line of the night, courtesy of Yumiko: “Hey! It’s too dark and dangerous to look for Luke.” Does anyone say “no shit, Sherlock” anymore? They begrudgingly decide to come back when they have, like, y’know, a plan — until Kelly the kid sis starts to cry about how she can’t leave Luke. Not sure what’s more ridiculous, the sisters saying they’ll be fine in the woods surrounded by walkers and who knows what else, or the other two being like, “Cool, catch you on the flip, we out.”
Luckily for the sisters, the creeper we noticed in the shadows was a Hilltop guard sent by Tara to bring these fools home safe. But you know this can’t end with a quiet homecoming, and sure enough, the Whisperers appear just in time to separate Kelly from her sister, who has no choice but to run for cover. What’s surprising is that Lydia seemed to speak the truth when she said her mother wouldn’t come for her — when the Whisperers lose someone, she explained, it’s like they never existed. But there’s Momma in her bald, filthy glory, all dead eyes and dirty lips, announcing her Official Supervillain Alias and her demand: “I … am Alpha. And we want only one thing from yeeew. My daw-dah!”
That certainly puts Daryl in a pickle. No way he just gives the kid up. But is Lydia lying about her group’s intentions? Or does Alpha’s twisted love for her daughter trump all? The survivors clearly have the numbers, the defenses, and the firepower to handle the Whisperfolk. But the emotional entanglements between the girl, Henry, and Daryl — along with hostages on both sides, presumably — spell serious trouble. If Alpha’s introduction is the beginning of something horrible, perhaps the “omega” in the episode’s title suggests the end of peace and tranquility.