The Walking Dead Got Scary Again In Its Mostly Excellent Mid-Season Finale

Brains? (Photo: Gene Page, AMC)

The first half of The Walking Dead’s ninth season has been mostly good, something no one could have predicted after the show’s dire, audience-haemorrhaging the last few years.

Happily, the mid-season finale kept up the streak by including a few shockers, an excellent cliffhanger, and only a few instances where you want to punch someone through your screen. But most of all, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I cringed at The Walking Dead — in a good way.

“Evolution” spends some of its time advancing some of the stories that began after the timeskip, but it was mainly about setting up the series’ new big bad, which it does very effectively. We’ll get to that in a second, but let’s knock that other stuff out of the way first. First and foremost, Michonne and Siddiq finally bring the new guys to Hilltop, and in doing so we really see the depth of just how bad things have gotten between the colonies.

When Michonne and the others approach, a Hilltop horseman streaks through the fields, yelling “Riders are coming!” to the people working the fields, who absolutely run in fear. It’s very telling how anyone even approaching is something to be feared, when before people were passing back and forth through communities constantly.

It’s also telling how when Michonne enters, pretty much all of Hilltop hates her. As we learn, whatever the hell went down to destroy the bond between the colonies was Michonne’s call: “I didn’t make the choices I made because I thought they’d be easy - at least they [the Hilltoppers] are alive to hate me.”

Certainly, when Michonne arrives Tara is not at all happy to see her. However, Tara does say the new guys can stay - provided they earn their keep and pending Jesus’ approval once he returns from finding Eugene. And Carol and Michonne have a friendly conversation, implying that Alexandria’s relations with the Kingdom haven’t broken down as much s they have with Hilltop, although Michonne still refuses to attend the Kingdom’s fair. Shortly thereafter Carol leaves Henry to apprentice with Earl.

Back at Alexandria, it turns out Gabriel and Negan have developed a relationship, as Gabe has been playing therapist once a week to the prisoner for years. It was a bit bizarre to see Gabriel apparently trying to teach Negan about mindfulness, but it was nice to see Negan being pretty chill and genial for Negan. Of course he has to be a bit of an arsehole by implying to Gabe he overheard Rosita talking favourably of another man, but when Gabriel finds out Rosita has been hurt and is stuck in unknown condition at Hilltop, Negan genuinely apologizes.

Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ponders the science of smells. (Photo: Gene Page, AMC)

I don’t really understand why Gabriel was prevented from going to Hilltop because he had to stay with Negan; there’s no way or reason he’d have been put under 24-hour surveillance for the last 5-6 years. In fact, it would have been better for Gabriel to go, since in his distraction over Rosita, he fails to lock the jail cell door, and that night, Negan walks out with a smirk on his face.

We don’t see him go anywhere or do anything just yet, but hey, maybe Gabriel’s prison reform program has had some effect. At any rate, all the former Saviors seem to be scattered to the wind, so it doesn’t look like he’ll be raising an army and leading a revolt anytime soon.

If he does, though, I hope the first to die are the teens Henry hangs out with, who are among the stupidest characters The Walking Dead has ever put on screen, and that’s saying something. Finally on his own, perturbed by seeing his mum/stone-cold badass Carol cry when she said goodbye, and immediately discovering Enid is not a potential love interest for him, Henry meets some friendly teens who talk him into hanging out with them that night at some spot outside the wall.

Obviously, in a world where walking corpses roam the land hoping to eat your flesh, it’s an exceedingly dumb idea, but I don’t blame Henry, dealing with the loneliness of leaving his home and his family, for taking a chance on these guys. Also because he doesn’t know what idiots they are yet.

It’s a miracle these kids are alive. I mean, going outside the wall at all is dangerous, but then they play some music (I assume they have a boombox) whose noise would of course attract zombies, and they get drunk on moonshine just to make sure they’re mentally and physically impaired if a zombie does arrive.

Henry gets peer pressured into drinking, but at least he is properly appalled when the kids revealed their coup de grâce: That they’ve dug a big hole, trapped a zombie in there, and are using it as a ring toss. It being a living corpse who can kill you with a single bite. One of the kids even pisses on it.

Joe Ando-Hirsch as Rodney, Kelly Mack as Addy, and Jackson Pace as Gage. (Photo: Gene Page, AMC)

Obviously, Henry has been making some poor decisions here, but shoving the peeing kid to the ground because he’s an arsehole and then leaping in to immediately kill the zombie because even drunk he knows keeping a pet zombie is the stupidest, most needlessly dangerous thing in the world was pretty satisfying. Henry ends up in Hilltop’s jail for two days because he returned home drunk (he even threw up on Tara’s shoes); Earl gives him an appropriate amount of grief and tells him the apprenticeship is over, but I suspect that’s a bit of a “scared straight” ploy, since, as even Earl notes, he’s been in that cell before, too. Still, though, this storyline is annoying as hell.

Luckily, the episode’s main storyline — Daryl, Jesus, and Aaron’s search for Eugene — is so good that it’s easy to ignore that stupidity. The unease ramps up wonderfully, as Jesus first sees a crowd of zombies doing something he’s never seen before: they’re just milling about, instead of walking somewhere in hopes of finding that tasty, tasty human flesh.

They’re not concerned when they later notice the herd has begun heading in their direction, since they can just veer off their path. They’re more perturbed when they realise the zombies have somehow changed direction to follow them again —and doubled their numbers — but Daryl just throws an alarm clock like a timed noise grenade, to make sure the herd heads somewhere else.

Eventually, they find Eugene hiding in a small cabin. But he’s terrified — much more terrified of zombies than we’ve seen anyone be in a long, long time — because not only has the herd been actively searching for him, they talk. Obviously there’s some scepticism - but then that same group of zombies is right outside, having followed Daryl, Jesus, and Aaron again. Since Eugene’s leg is still busted, the group can’t get far enough ahead of the zombies to get clear so Daryl stays behind to draw them off.

At this point, while we know the zombies are acting unnaturally, the only weird thing we’ve seen them do is mill about. So it’s an excellent shock when Daryl uses firecrackers to try and attract their attention, and the zombie herd just ignores it. In fact, they change directions away from the firecrackers to keep chasing Jesus, Aaron, and Eugene. Watching zombies stop shambling one way and start shambling in another direction isn’t really an awe-inspiring visual, but Norman Reedus’ “oh, shit” look makes it work.

The zombies get so close that the trio desperately heads into a cemetery through a crack in its wall, so only a few zombies can get in at a time; when they discover the gate is locked, and prepare to make a stand. The few zombies that approach them are easily handled, but the cemetery, the fog, and the ominous thunder keep things tense, even when Michonne, Magna, and Yumiko fortuitously arrive to help open the gate, while Jesus holds the zombies off.

The minute the slow-motion fighting starts, you know Jesus is done for. Honestly, I think it’s the biggest stumble of the storyline, since it telegraphs his death so completely, although as a showcase of actor Tom Payne’s martial arts skills and swordwork it’s great. Thankfully, the speed picks back-up for one of the scariest moments the show has given us: The gate is open, Eugene’s out, and Aaron yells for Jesus to come on. With only two zombies between him and the others, Jesus casually slices one, and then tries to take out the other. But the other zombie ducks, and sticks a knife right in Jesus’ back.

Jesus (Tom Payne) in less doomed times. (Photo: Jackson Lee Davis, AMC)

Seeing one of the series’ zombies, who have been mindless monsters for nine and a half years, show that much speed and cunning was an “oh, shit” moment for me, and I even sort of knew what was coming. Seeing the others in horrified shock that everything they thought they knew about their world had suddenly changed, that the omnipresent threat of the zombies had, in just a few short seconds, increased exponentially sold it perfectly.

The fact that the dead have been a lesser danger than the living for most of the last five seasons gave it so much impact, and the fact that The Walking Dead transmogrified into almost solely an action TV series for about the same time made the scare much, much scarier. Even the revelation that the zombies haven’t actually evolved, but instead are living people who are wearing the skins of zombies and hanging out with them like total weirdoes doesn’t lessen the moment.

I’d argue that it’s so damn creepy that it makes the show’s cliffhanger, which should be pretty basic (the main characters are trapped in the cemetery, surrounded by zombies, how unusual), more effective because now they’re surrounded by zombies and completely insane people. It was certainly effective to prevent me from noticing how contrived it was that Michonne shows up at the exact right location, at the exact right time — and that somehow Michonne never realised Magna and Yumiko being about 30 seconds behind her — until after the episode was done. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind plot holes, as long as I’m being entertained enough that I don’t notice them in the moment.

It helps so much that the show has found some compelling antagonists again. The Whisperers, (as they’re called in the comics), are peak Walking Dead nonsense—of course what would happen after a zombie apocalypse is that a community would form bonded by their shared love of sewing corpse faces to their heads and wandering among zombies — but man, the show’s needed that ridiculousness for a long while.

That the Whisperers have felt like a genuinely new type of antagonist, at least for now, has been a huge help. Right now they feel like the bad guys in a slasher flick — incomprehensible, unreasoning, motivated only by the desire to kill. I almost hate that we’re almost certainly going to get to know them and have their mystery taken away.

Sure, the episode wasn’t perfect, but really, can The Walking Dead ever be? We’ve always gotten a few tremendously good episodes tucked into even the direst of seasons, but the show’s also had its troubles even in the best of times. Maybe I’ve been Stockholm-syndromed by the last few years, but this first half of season nine is exactly as good as I need The Walking Dead to be.

All I need is to enjoy the show is for the storylines to keep progressing, the mysteries to be intriguing, and the main characters not to be malevolent idiots. (Or at least most of the main characters; let’s not go too far.)

I don’t know if that’s going to be enough for all you folks, let alone good enough to attract all those former viewers. But now, for the first time in forever, I can say I would keep watching The Walking Dead even if I weren’t doing these recaps. And that’s enough for now.

Aaron (Ross Marquand) displays his “oh shit” face. (Photo: Gene Page, AMC)

Assorted Musings:

  • I’m not going to bother to check this, but I’m pretty sure that this was the first Walking Dead finale in quite some time that super-sized its time, which 99% of the time it didn’t need. Showrunner Angela Kang has kept most of the episodes at a regular hour or close to it, and it’s helped things immensely because there’s less time for the show to waste.

  • Magna is ready to fight the entirety of Hilltop, just like she was willing to fight all of Alexandria. Lady, you’re five people against 50, minimum. The odds are not in your favour.

  • I liked Alden’s less clean-cut look better. The show should definitely change him back to meet the aesthetic tastes of one person.

  • Interesting how the super-smart Eugene can only theorise about the zombies’ increased intelligence, while Negan brings out the hard science of how smells are particles so technically Gabriel, who has to clean out Megan’s bedpan, has some of Negan’s shit in him.

  • I have exactly zero ideas how the Whisperers are not only directing the zombies, but keeping them from getting distracted, and I’m definitely going to need an explanation. “Because they hang out with them” will not be a sufficient answer.

  • After one enemy is defeated, a much more powerful enemy shows up? I’ve seen enough Dragonball Z to know how this Negan thing is gonna play out.

  • I understand Jesus’ death is very sad for them, but it would be pretty hilarious if they stuck his body in a cave, blocked it with a big rock, and then opened it back up three days later.

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