As anyone who’s been living through the zombie apocalypse knows, everything falls apart eventually. Fortifications. Relationships. Communities. Morality. Anything people can build can also be destroyed…and unfortunately, that includes the civilisation that Rick and so many others worked so hard to establish.
“Silence the Whisperers” is a very thoughtful episode of The Walking Dead, which is not an adjective that normally gets used to describe the show. Obviously, it isn’t close to the level of, say, Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but this time, the major threat to the various colonists isn’t from zombies or the Whisperers, but themselves.
That’s not to say that Whisperers and zombies aren’t still threats—when a tree falls just before a surprise zombie attack at Hilltop, the Whisperers are blamed immediately by its angry inhabitants—but it’s the fear of and hate for the Whisperers that starts causing the real damage at Alexandria.
It begins when season nine bully Gage, Margo (the new leader of the Highwaypeople), and some other kid who presumably has a name which I can’t remember start hassling Lydia, cruelly teasing her by putting a burlap sack with eyeholes on their heads to mock her origin. There have been plenty of bullies on The Walking Dead before, of course, so what’s most disturbing here is that Whisperer-hating Aaron is there, seeing it all, and just letting it happen.
Instead, it’s the increasingly redeemed Negan who’s there for Lydia, telling her not to fight them, but to “kill” her tormentors with kindness—arguably the most anti-Saviour-era policy he could advise, but one he’s told her on more than one occasion. Of course, when Daryl spots the two of them talking, he breaks them up immediately, more because he knows that fraternizing with Negan will only cause people to hate Lydia rather than his distrust for Negan, although that’s certainly a factor. Lydia tartly replies that Negan gets her, just as she and Daryl come to their shared home and discover someone has graffitied “Silence the Whisperers” on their door.
Hate speech is never a good sign, obviously, and Lydia doesn’t even try to the kindness approach. Instead, she plops down next to them at lunch, starts gutting a whole squirrel so that blood sprays on Gage’s face, and gives them a big, whispered “Shh.” Again, none of Alexandria’s leaders try to defuse the increasingly tense situation until Daryl pulls her out, and foolishly asks if Lydia can just avoid her tormenters. Lydia justifiably storms off.
That night, everything goes to hell. After dark, Gage, Margo, and Other Jerk assault Lydia, restraining her and beating her, even as she desperately reminds them she’d abandoned the Whisperers long before Alpha put their friends’ heads on spikes, that she loved Henry, that the Alexandrians are her people now, all of which only infuriates the attackers more. It’s an immensely disturbing scene—certainly more than any graphic death by zombie—and if you were still waiting to get on the Good Negan bandwagon, watching him burst onto the scene, throw Margo to the side, pull Gage off Lydia, and hold and console her then and there, well, hop on board.
There’s only one problem: Margo is dead.
Negan killed her when he threw her to the side to protect Lydia; by the hefty “squelch” sound effect that accompanies her landing, her head presumably landed on a rock. And now, even though neither Negan nor Lydia was at fault—because Margo was the actual attacker—the two most hated people in Alexandria are seen as killers of one of “the good guys.”
Lydia tries to defend Negan, but the Alexandrians want blood. However, Daryl believes Lydia and later goes to confront Negan in his cell, resulting in what is one of The Walking Dead’s best-written conversations ever. I could honestly quote the whole thing, but here’s a snippet of Negan talking to Daryl, right after he says he’s not at all sorry for killing an arsehole who was beating a kid:
“But you already know that, don’t you? You came down here to look me in the eye because you don’t know what to do with me. Shit, all that time you spent trying to kill me you spent fantasizing about my death, all that time you actually tried to kill me, and now look at you? You’re not so sure.”
Negan also wryly loves the irony that he started believing in Alexandria’s way of life and moral code, and now he’s going to be executed for actually doing the right thing. When Daryl says he’ll get a fair trial, Negan scoffs. But we’ll never know, because the next morning, when Gabriel goes to the jail to talk to the accused, Negan is gone. This, of course, is only going to make things much, much worse in Alexandria, and Lydia quickly confesses to letting Negan loose and marches right into the cell—even though Daryl knows for a fact Lydia didn’t do it.
But when he tries to get Lydia to leave the jail, she won’t because she feels safe there—just as Negan voluntarily returned to his cell after the possibly-Whisperer-caused zombie attack in the season premiere. Negan knew people would start looking to punish an old enemy because they couldn’t fight their new enemy, and Lydia knows that with Negan gone, the Alexandrians will take out their anger and fear on the one scapegoat they have left.
Lydia’s safety is paramount, and not just because she hasn’t done anything wrong. As Michonne reminds Daryl earlier in the episode, the only thing that has kept Alpha from annihilating them all with her Zombie Bomb is because her daughter is inside Alexandria’s walls. If Lydia leaves or Alpha somehow learns she’s in danger, they are doomed.
“Silence the Whisperers” is an episode about bullies—the arseholes bullying Lydia, Alpha bullying the colonists, and Negan, who used to bully the colonists—and repercussions. On their way to Hilltop, Michonne tells Judith there are some bullies you can live with, but there are others who will never stop taking what’s yours.
Negan had to be stopped back in the day, and Alpha needs to be stopped now. And despite Daryl and Negan’s futile suggestions, no matter what Lydia did, Gage, Margo, and Other Jerk were never going to leave her alone. However it played out, it was always going to end in tragedy for somebody. It was true with Negan, and it’s already true with Alpha and the Whisperers, too.
But the episode is also about those internal fractures that weaken the whole. The fear of the Whisperers is threatening to overcome the civilized society forged in Alexandria. Magda and Yumiko’s relationship has begun fraying because of the latter’s control issues and Siddiq’s PTSD is getting worse—much worse—to the point he may now be useless in an emergency.
The most poignant example is Ezekiel, who Michonne spies riding alone as she travels to Hilltop. When she catches up with him, he’s standing on a ledge, dead-eyed and hopeless, not jumping purely because of the inertia of sadness. He’s lost the Kingdom, Carol, Henry, even his tiger Shiva, and all he feels is his loss and his failure. (Kudos to actor Khary Payton, because he captures that faraway, sick look of utter depression perfectly.) But when Michonne reaches out to him, it draws him away from the ledge, literally and metaphorically.
Desperate for connection, Ezekiel impulsively kisses Michonne, who takes more than a few beats to pull back—as she says later, she hasn’t kissed anyone over four feet tall in six years—but it’s her empathy that helps him. It was last mentioned a long, long time ago, but Michonne lost her first child in the zombie outbreak, and for a while, she was attacking zombies primarily in hopes they’d kill her, and she and Ezekiel bond over how much harder it is to recover after losing everything a second time. It’s a pretty clear comparison between the power of coming together in compassion and the danger of coming together in fear and hate.
Unfortunately, the latter is much more prevalent in Alexandria, even as people realise the massive zombie attacks on all three colonies (Oceanside’s occurs off-screen) can’t be a coincidence. As Carol tells Daryl, all the turmoil over Negan and Lydia and Margo is just a distraction, because the real enemy is outside. She’s not wrong, but she’s not exactly right, either. Because there’s a very real enemy inside Alexandria, too, and it’s not Negan or Lydia.
I want to apologise in advance if I missed something here. This season’s episodes have been dark—like literally, visually dark—and a significant portion of this episode looked practically pitch black, so it was often tough to tell what was going on.
Judith is frighteningly adorable in this episode, and then she’s also devastatingly effective when it comes time to take down the zombies attacking Hilltop. But she’s also preternaturally wise when she suggests the Whisperers may be trying to tire them out with zombie attacks so they ’re even weaker when the real assault begins. I love Daryl, but I have to revise the mantra: If Judith dies, we riot.
Your Walking Dead Jukebox: The song that opens and closes the episode is Gordi’s “Heaven I Know.”
Michonne says a relationship between her and Ezekiel never would have worked out because they’re both too stubborn. I’m sorry, Michonne—did you meet Rick Grimes while you were dating him for those four years?
Yumiko used to be Magda’s lawyer! I like the way that fun fact was tossed off so casually.
It’s genuinely funny how instantly Gage and Other Jerk’s accusation that Lydia somehow led them to an ambush where only Lydia was harmed falls apart under a single question from Gabriel.
I’m so happy AMC’s promotional images included a photo of Luke’s crazy-arse gear mace, because it’s spectacular. If the zombie apocalypse hits, it would definitely be my weapon of choice, because it looks just brutal.