The Walking Dead
It’s been a long week, friends, and I think it’s safe to say that any escapism — even of the apocalyptic variety — is welcome now. (When a show about zombies qualifies as feel-good entertainment, you know we’re in a strange place.) If you need a break from reality, this week’s The Walking Dead delivers the goods. The extended opening sequence is a nail-biter, aiming for a Game of Thrones–esque level of cinematic flair and almost getting there. But the Battle of Hilltop is just a warmup for what follows. First, Mary’s reunion with her nephew ends permanently. Then comes the double whammy, like a one-two assault from Frowny McTwoknives: Negan kills Alpha, then presents her chattering head to his co-conspirator, Carol.
Before we dissect all of that mind-blowing business, let’s review the collapse of Hilltop and the ensuing fallout. The crisis has escalated quickly since last week, as we see that not only is the Hilltop fence in flames, so is the mansion and seemingly every other wooden structure in the compound. The good guys are launching projectiles with catapults and Daryl is really getting the hang of that morning star, but the stunned look on Carol’s face as she surveys the scene says it all. For a moment, it seems they might hold their ground — an intense aerial shot reveals the pile of dead that’s so massive, it’s holding back the other zombies from getting inside. But one of the many explosions blows another hole in the fence, and more walkers stream in. Once the entire compound’s in flames, I’m not sure what’s worth fighting for, but the second undead wave finally sends Daryl and company to the exits (but not before Eugene can try to save his radio equipment).
The assault itself feels a bit like a poor man’s Battle of the Bastards from GOT, and the day after looks like every battlefield post-mortem you’ve seen, as the victors comb through corpses in search of survivors (like that poor Hilltopper with one arm who gets Lucilled). The only difference is that I don’t recall piles of groaning heads in Saving Private Ryan. A little comic relief comes as Alpha hands Negan off to Beta, who gives him the Whisperer equivalent of janitorial duty: Go wrangle some more zombies to replenish the Horde. Negan calling Beta “Frowny McTwoknives” and “such a dick” is only topped by his failed attempt to wrangle a hoodie-clad zombie.
The first clue that Negan’s got something up his leather sleeve is when he sees Aaron. Aaron’s immediate reaction is to draw a sword and get ready to rumble, but Negan has something to say: “I can explain. I’m not …” He never finishes his thought, because some walkers appear and Negan scurries into the woods. Running away seems like an odd choice, but we later realize that Negan saw an opportunity and had to move fast (and alone). That opportunity: Lydia, limping and a most easy target.
The “everyone split up” plan is less annoying than usual this time out, thanks to compelling subplots across the board. Miko saw Magna riding dirty with the Horde and learns that her gf was separated from Connie as they fled the underground. Escaping death by cave collapse and life with the Horde gave Magna time to self-reflect, and she agrees they should uncouple. Miko also takes out her frustrations on Carol’s face.
Eugene has a friendlier chat with Carol, revealing his radio crush and the “Brobdingnagian proportions” of their planned secret meeting. (Translation: it’s a big deal.) Carol’s in a no-shits-given kinda mood and tells ol’ mullethead to go for it. Hey, why not? Compared to what she’s done and is about to do, meeting a stranger far from home after you’ve revealed the location of your not-so-safe zone doesn’t sound all that risky.
Then there’s the kids. Who will save the kids? Not Zeke, who’s discovered conveniently buried under a piece of sheet metal near Hilltop. It’s also not Earl, who gets credit for escorting them to safety, but loses points for getting bit. That leaves Judith, master of the samurai sword and wide-eyed heart-melting looks, with the task of protecting the children and making sure they don’t end up as Earl snacks. All of this comes after she made her first human kill at Hilltop; sure, it was a Whisperer, but Judith was clearly shaken by murdering a guy who was pleading for mercy. Tough day, kid, but if she loses her taste for slayin’, it won’t be for long.
We haven’t even mentioned Mary, who sets a jaw-dropping series of events in motion. She’s working hard to convince Aiden she deserves baby-sitting privileges and put a merciful end to Aiden’s “creepy baby voice.” When walkers sneak up on them, as they are wont to do, Mary sacrifices herself to give Aiden, Kelly, and the kid shelter in a van. It’s a bold move and it works: She takes out the zombies and looks to the sky, covered in blood and reveling in her victory. That’s when you know she’s in trouble, and sure enough, Beta appears out of nowhere and fillets her like a fish. Before she croaks, Mary claws off half of his mask, prompting a nearby Whisperer to freak out: “It’s you! Your voice sounded familiar, but …” Beta slices him, too, but now we’re left to wonder, who is Beta? Must be someone who sounds recognizable. We also know he went to rehab, thanks to that photo of him with the now-dead counselor in the smiley-face tee. My money’s on a singer for a metal band or pro wrestler.
You figure we get one death of a major character per episode, at most, so the resolution of Negan’s kidnapping scheme is one that I did not see coming. Last week, I said he’s a Daniel Day-Lewis–level actor if he’s been working for the good guys all this time. Well, hand that man an Oscar; he even turns on the tears as Alpha says she knows Negan wishes his “whyf” could have taken him with her when she died. It sure seemed like something was up given the way we cut back and forth between those two and a struggling Lydia. But I did not expect Alpha would go out by way of Negan’s knife and a kiss good-bye. The look on her face was almost as shocked as the one on mine. (Why he needs to lead her to an empty shack just to slice her throat is a mystery. But it made for good TV.)
Before you can catch your breath, we learn Negan wasn’t on some rogue solo mission. He throws a sack on the ground and out rolls Alpha’s zombie head — to a waiting Carol, whose cold reply is simply, “Took you long enough.” Like Alpha sending Doctor Dante to attack from within, Carol beat Queen A at her own game. Think back to when Negan was in jail: Lydia said she was the one who set Negan free, but Daryl knew she was lying. Has he suspected Carol was his liberator all along? Does she have an endgame that’s bigger than just revenge? Is Beta ready for a promotion? Will Negan go back undercover? With four episodes to go and only one Big Bad remaining, expect more unexpected twists — perhaps none bigger than how, in season ten, this show about the dead has found new life.