This is a spoiler-free review of Episode 15 of Season 9. Already seen the episode? Read on for full spoilers following its UK broadcast.
Before the airing of this episode, The Walking Dead’s official Twitter account tweeted an image of Walder Frey from Game of Thrones. Speculation ran rampant over the potential for The Walking Dead to air an episode as shocking and unforgettable as Game of Thones’ Red Wedding. Aside from three references about the near arrival of winter, The Calm Before is just as shocking and brutal, but is it as unforgettable?
It’s the day of the First Annual Inter-Community Reunification – or F.A.I.R. – and the communities are back together again, after a long period of separation and distrust. They agree that any threat on one of them is a threat against them all, as they sign Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) charter and prepare for a new future together. But, as we have seen time and time again in this show, as soon as any happiness falls upon our survivors, something awful is bound to happen. The episode is tense, as it lures us in with some bait before a switch, leaving everyone gaped mouthed.
Alpha (Samantha Morton) is an uncaring, unflinching monster able to be vicious and wicked, executing a black-ops level style infiltration and extraction. When the Whisperer’s didn’t get Lydia (Cassidy McClincy) back in Chokepoint, the deal where no one had to die is over and Alpha makes that message abundantly clear. Morton revels in this role, able to show both ruthlessness and sympathy, with and without her extra skin. Her ability to flip through emotions is genuinely scary and Alpha is probably one of the creepiest villains we’ve ever seen, regardless of how she chooses to dress. The problem is, she is just another big baddie for our heroes to contend with, and, as we’ve seen repeatedly before, after some loss and some bloodshed, the ending is inevitable. It is even alluded to, as the community leaders meet – they have fought off armies together, so what is one more? If the plot is going to stay the same, the story needs to change.
After a slow start, the episode quickly picks up the pace and features an excellent close-combat battle with some walkers. This scene is shot in close-up with quick cuts, thrusting limbs obscuring the view to generate a real claustrophobic feeling and the overhead shot looking down on the circle of corpses around them is memorable. From here, the episode ramps up to reveal a fan favourite panel from the comic book. What is interesting is that the TV series likes to follow the comics closely in narrative, but it is happy to mix up the characters. Sometimes, this is an obvious choice – killing off your major TV stars probably isn’t best for business, but if you’re going to make changes, they need to be meaningful and have a real effect on the rest of the cast. Take, for example, the death of Jesus in the mid-season finale, which has had no effect on the rest of the season, with no characters acting any differently or having grown from the experience. It was a death for shock’s sake. Characters need to grow and evolve, their ideals and traits cannot be forgotten, the newly signed charter has to mean something – otherwise, everything will become forgettable.
The Walking Dead Season 9 is available on Sky Box Sets and NOW TV until 9th November 2019. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month (until 9th October 2019, when the price rises to £8.99), with no contract and a 7-day free trial. Season 9 is available until 1st May 2019.
Entrails and innards (spoilers)
– In what has become tradition in the Walking Dead, a season cannot end without killing off a character – it’s as though the writers cannot think of any other way to be shocking. The Calm Before follows that trend with the surprise being that it’s happened with an episode still to go. Unlike the times this has happened before, there is at least a meaning behind this episode’s tragedy and one that will have a real effect on the survivors. The death is genuinely surprising and upsetting, but for it to have a lasting effect, there needs to be more than just shock and revenge.
– “Lynn, I’ve pierced my head on a spike!” Alpha marks a border between the Whisperers and the communities land using the still animated, undead, severed heads of several survivors. In the comic books, these heads were from some pretty big-name characters, the headliners being Rosita and Ezekiel. With the TV series’ bizarre love-square over Rosita’s (Christian Serratos) baby, it seemed certain she – or at least one of those claiming paternity – would pop up here. Instead, we get mostly a meh reveal, until the end.
– Following the horror trope of “I’ll be right back”, The Walking Dead kills when survivors are happiest. Let’s go through the pike deaths: The Highwaymen – going to see a movie at the Kingdom and were happy. Tammy Rose (Brett Butler) – her husband was due to retire, they had adopted a Whisperer baby and were happy. Kingdom Teens – living in a world without tuition fees, got one over on Lydia (before being smeared in the face with goat dung) and were happy. Frankie (Elyse Nicole DuFour) – no longer part of the Saviours and was happy. Tara (Alanna Masterson) – relishing life as the Hilltop’s boss and the reunification of the communities and was happy. Enid (Katelyn Nacon) – has just called Alden her boyfriend for the first time and was happy. Henry (Matt Lintz) – was about to take a girl to the movies and was happy.
– Tara’s death, though, was surprising: she is one of the longest serving characters left in the show and was the new leader at Hilltop. Who is going to want to take on that poison chalice, after Maggie, Jesus and now Tara? She was also one of the characters you could rely on for some light relief that isn’t as on-the-nose as Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and, although not the roughest and toughest, someone who was a sensible and practical leader. She hadn’t been given a lot to do in her time on the show, but was always around. When she was given the leadership at the Hilltop, her role could have grown more, but, instead, her time was cut short.
Henry, however, was a real surprise. The show has spent all season building him up and making it looked as though he was going to be replacing Carl Grimes in the comic book storylines. Matt Lintz had done a super job of moving away from the annoying teenager roles we’ve been given in the show and was standing out as another leader for justice and what is right. Alpha was right to pick him to both get revenge on Henry for taking away her daughter, but also as a punishment for Lydia’s betrayal. His death could perhaps signal the show taking a step away from the comics and generating its own content – after all, the show is very close to overtaking the source material.
– Alpha’s biggest mistake came from not killing Carol (Melissa McBride), Michonne and Daryl (Norman Reedus) when she had the chance. She knows that these, or at least Daryl, are the strongest fighters and leaders at the camps, so leaving them alive only puts herself in danger of retaliation. Alpha, at least, had a backup plan if the pike deaths were not message enough. She shows Daryl a horde of thousands of walkers that she can control. If the survivors cross into her land, she will direct the horde to their camps. That size of a horde could easily wipe out the structures and communities that have been built, but at least the survivors know that if they want to survive, all they need to do is don some walker skins.
– The movie that was shown at the Kingdom wasn’t really a movie, but a cartoon short of Baby Huey. We can briefly see Baby Huey pull the mask off his tormentor revealing it to be a fox – The Walking Dead mimicking itself.
– When Connie (Lauren Ridloff) and Kelly (Angel Theory) are reunited, they share some emotion over abandoning each other but Connie reveals that she couldn’t have let that Whisperer baby die. She still has hurt feelings over something that happened in her past that she thought she was over. It is another excellent example of how, merely using sign language, these characters can deliver something powerful and touching.
– How do you fight a monster like Alpha? We’ve seen Godzilla vs Mothra, Freddy vs Jason, Alien vs Predator, all monsters fighting monsters. In that case, perhaps there is a monster (or former monster) lurking beneath the streets of Alexandria, just waiting for a chance, an opportunity to be free again and find meaning in their life. Enter Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the only man who can do what needs to be done and one man the Whisperers know nothing about.