When we last saw our not-so-merry band of heroes a few months back, things were looking rather grim on all fronts. Back in A-town, an emotionally unstable Negan escaped captivity by simply strolling through the unlocked door of his jail cell. The situation was even worse out in the wild, as Michonne and Daryl’s group found themselves in a graveyard with some folks known as the Whisperers — a knife-wielding gang of sick sonsabitches who ride with zombie herds and blend in by wearing masks of rotted flesh. Sweet finishing moves weren’t enough to save poor Jesus, who looked rather deceased after being stabbed in the back. Turns out that Jesus is definitely dead, the Whisperers are real bad news, and Negan’s gone softer than Eugene’s love handles.
Let’s begin with Judith Grimes, who I’m guessing is now a polarizing character, what with her precocious dialogue, her shocking lack of adult supervision, and her ability to hold and fire a gun with enough recoil to knock any kid the ground. Me? I’m on Team Judith, and thought her exchanges with Negan were among the highlights of the episode: From her opening line as Negan climbs the fence (“Thought you were smarter than this. Guess not.”), to her quick dismissal of his attempt to make a deal (“How ‘bout no,” she says with a wag of her pistol), it was fun watching Judith’s sass genuinely warm Negan’s dark heart. Her compassion and snappy banter are more than he deserves, with that sob story about how everything’s changed so much while he’s been stuck staring at the same four walls. Boo hoo, dude — you’re a murderer. Judith’s endorsement might be his only chance to change hearts and minds.
Sheriff Judy lets Negan go, but sagely warns him that there ain’t nothin’ outside those walls, and through a series of scenes, the former Big Bad learns she was right. A brief tangle with an extra-crispy walker ends with his meager supplies ruined. A drink from a nearby stream ends in a barf sesh. Even when Negan scores a minor win (a leather jacket from the menswear store with the subtle slogan, “Be the Man You Were Meant to Be!”), he loses (attacked by dogs and a zombie, offends PETA by locking said zombie inside to feed on said dogs). Even a return to the Sanctuary is one long, depressing, sad trombone moment, as Negan whistles into the emptiness and witnesses what’s left of his legacy: trash, rats, and a few old pals who are roamin’ and moanin’. Which direction should Negan head toward now: back to his old ways, or ahead to a new life? Good thing Judith let him keep her compass (so subtle, TWD).
In other “stuff I endorse” news, Luke is growing on me. He’s awkwardly endearing, and although he’s one lousy zombie killer, Luke is totes on board for a bomb musical collab at Zeke’s faire with Alden on vocals. Could Alden be the post-apocalyptic Adam Levine? Doubt he has the ink or the abs for the job, but hey, maybe his falsetto ain’t half bad after a couple of drinks. His thing with Enid seemed a little creepy at first, but she’s now in her 20s and a doctor and can’t spend the rest of her (very possibly short) life mourning Carl. Speaking of couples — who saw the Siddiq/Rosita hook-up coming? (Stop it, none of you did.) That makes way more sense than her thing with Gabe; it also breaks Eugene’s heart, knowing he’s at least third in line for her affection, now that Rosita has a bf and a baby daddy.
Then there’s the stuff I don’t like, which is, in a word, youths (with the exception, for now, of Judith). Kids are such rich storytelling devices, because their exuberance, hormones, angst, and underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes give writers an excuse to make them do the dumbest things. Take Henry, whom I was really beginning to like until this episode. Before we get to his soul-searching, it’s probably worth mentioning that Michonne’s crew escaped the graveyard in dramatic fashion and Daryl found a clever way to sort out the Whisperers from the “original recipe” zombies — if you shoot one in the leg with a crossbow and they howl in pain, they’re human. Daryl and Michonne capture one of them alive and bring her back to Hilltop for an interrogation, which initially reveals nothing. (They also share a brief, touching moment, apologizing to each other for not finding Rick. Seems Daryl’s bond with his brother from another mother is now just as strong with Michonne.)
With Jesus gone and Tara now leading Hilltop — never saw her as a leader, but here we are — Daryl is tasked with being Tara’s consigliere. His first move is to give that Whisperer lady the business and, as Michonne suggests, to get answers by any means necessary. Daryl’s bad-cop routine works to some extent, but aside from learning her mom is also a Whisperer, most of what she says sounds like fake news. (Only ten in her group? Really?) Leave it to Henry to whine about Daryl’s rough treatment and plead that she’s “just a girl” — one who says that murder is “just what people do now.” Well, Hank, your bid has been extended indefinitely, as Daryl delivers a great line: “You want to know where your place is here? It’s right where you’re at for as long as it takes for you to wise your ass up.” For his trouble, Henry learns the girl’s name is Lydia. This odd friendship is one to keep an eye on, which is exactly what Daryl will do.
Points to Daryl for that verbal beatdown, but the best exchange of the night arrives courtesy of Judith and Negan, after she takes out his hog and sends him skidding across the asphalt. “I told you there was nothing out there,” she says.
“You sure as shit did,” says Negan.
“Language. I’m a kid, asshole.”
Should be quite a scene when Judith and Negan arrive at the gates of A-town, assuming they can get there without incident. No such luck for Luke and Alden, who’ve stumbled into a trap set by what’s either the still-living members of Slipknot or a large posse of Whisperers, led by a shotgun-slingin’ woman who’s got to be Lydia’s mom. Not sure I’m ready for Negan’s transformation into one of the good guys yet, but the thought of him teaming up with Judith and taking out these skin-mask freaks is a good first step on his road to redemption.