Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It appears we know what incites the war between The Whisperers and everyone else. It’s not necessarily that Hilltop kidnapped the daughter of their leader and slaughtered some of their people. Even someone as merciless as Alpha is willing to make some concessions to get her back. It’s what happens after.

Alpha and her Whisperers remain planted outside the wall of Hilltop, threatening conflict if Lydia isn’t returned. After last week’s reveal of the abuse this woman inflicted on her daughter over the years, it’s not that simple. And yet, Alpha has Alden and Luke. She hasn’t killed them, even though she says she wanted to. Instead, she parades them out front as a fair trade. More than fair, as Alpha reasons. Hilltop gets two of theirs for the price of one Whisperer. In spite of memories of his own abuse, Daryl is forced to turn over Lydia, but it’s a question that propels him, Henry, and, surprisingly, Connie to embark on a mission that threatens to shatter the peace they’ve maintained.

There’s still so much we don’t know about what happened in the time period after Rick’s presumed death and now. We get flashbacks from Ezekiel of Jesus and Tara riding to meet him, Jerry (then an expectant father), and a short-haired Carol to stock up on meds from the Kingdom. It’s from a time after Tara decides not to return to Alexandria over some still mysterious reason, but she managed to steal the charter all the communities signed as their set of laws. Cut to now and the laws Daryl abides by is a single rule of survival: as Enid says to Henry, “You live with it by staying who you are, by not letting the bad things change you.” For Daryl, “the world is just s— sometimes and you live with it.” What if you can’t live with it? What if you’re like Henry, who still retains idyllic concepts of right and wrong, who still remains untouched by a lot of the horrors that most of the others around him have faced?

So Henry, who initially tried to hide Lydia before she volunteered to go back to her mother, decides to sneak away after her, prompting Daryl and Connie, someone else who says she can’t live with this decision, to follow suit. If they succeed in rescuing Lydia, this feels like a good enough reason for conflict with the Whisperers.

With Jesus dead and the colonies still disparate, Hilltop finds itself scrambling. Tara may be the leader, but she doesn’t feel like the leader yet. Magna’s group disobeyed her easily, and now others are equally ready to do what they think is best above her decrees. Compare this to the Whisperers, a group that has ultimate cohesion, and Hilltop seems ill-prepared in comparison.

“Bounty” balances the severity of this main story with the lightness and comedy of Ezekiel’s mission. He goes off to hunt elk with Diane, Jerry, Carol, and a party of troops, but his mystery side mission is to retrieve a projector bulb from an abandoned movie theater crowded with walkers. When the world ends, art, specifically film, is a necessity for Ezekiel. It brings back a sense of wonder and imagination. The act of luring out the dead with the sounds of a boombox brings about a joyous scene involving the whole squad bobbing their heads along to the funky jams of their “Mission Mix” tape, plus a lot more eye rolls at Jerry.

It’s a moment contrasted by the Whisperers and what they consider to be necessities in this world. Art certainly isn’t one of them. As Daryl goes outside the walls to tell Alpha she’s not getting Lydia — before he realizes she has Alden and Luke, of course — he hears the sound of a crying infant. He spots the babe held in the sling of one of the Whisperers. Alpha explains that they have babies just like the rest of the animals living in the wild, but family isn’t a necessity. Silence is. As a group of walkers start accumulating nearby, they are drawn to the wails of the child. With a single nod from Alpha, the mother is forced to put the baby down on the ground as food for the dead. Alpha calls this natural selection. “To live with the dead means to live in silence.” This propels Connie, who was still hiding among the corn, to reveal herself. She snatches the baby and flees back into the field before the walkers can devour it, another contrast between one group’s value of life and another’s of death.

As Connie weaves through the stalks, the sequence plays out from her perspective. Corn leaves brush past as the camera hurries through the soundless field. Walkers stumble along Connie’s path and she does her best to fend them off one-handed. It’s the fear of knowing the dead are drawn to the sounds of the baby in her arms that fuels her until Daryl, Kelly, Earl, and Tammy are able to find her and bring them back inside the walls. It’s the kind of sequence that will hopefully permeate throughout the rest of the season. The midseason premiere played with a gothic graveyard setting, last week’s origin story for Alpha tapped into the unreliability of memory, and this week took a nod from films like A Quiet Place, Hush, and Bird Box, which prove that restrictions placed on characters can often bring about more inventive horror — and, more generally, more inventive storytelling.

Daryl and Tara are forced to give Lydia back, but Lydia agrees to it. She’s still convinced that maybe her mom really does care about her. Maybe she’s changed and wants to apologize for the way she treated her. Maybe she’s doing it to protect Henry, as evidenced by the kiss she gives him before leaving. Once daughter is reunited with mother, however, those hopes are dashed. A swift strike across the face is Lydia’s punishment for forgetting to call her Alpha instead of “mamma,” and the young girl is carted back to their base.

Whatever hope we were left with from Ezekiel’s “Cobra Strike” excursion to the scene of Tammy and Earl cuddling their new baby (the one Connie saved) now sinks into the newly dug pit in our stomachs. It’s a pit formed from a simple gloating smirk on Alpha’s face as she walks away, coupled with a naive comment from Ezekiel to Carol in another scene: “Maybe we’re done losing for awhile.”

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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