Credit: Jace Downs/AMC

The Whisperer War has been, thus far, kinda slow. Just the name, The Whisperers, brings with it certain expectations that haven’t quite been met within the first few episodes of the back half to season 9: brutality, game-changing devastation, a threat to shake things up. Instead, we’ve had a circular rotation of the same stuff: routine, a potential side threat of the week that is easily resolved, and the inching forward of a main plot. That’s not to say it’s all been crap, and it’s surely meant as a stage-setter for what’s coming down the road, but it does pose the question of when things will finally come to blows. It speaks more to the struggle of telling a story like this when you’re forced to spread it out over so many episodes instead of honing resources to create a few that are truly great. The time jump happened at the end of episode 5, and the war hasn’t even officially started in episode 13. But this week’s chapter in the Whisperer saga felt a burst of adrenaline from a one-on-one, hand-to-hand brawl between Daryl and Beta, showing what both are capable of.

Alpha’s right hand gave chase to the escaping Lydia and her co-conspirators after the chaos at the base left multiple Whisperers dead. Beta goes to one of their own, who is slowly bleeding out from a bite, to comfort him in his transition to a “guardian.” Despite the physicality of the character, Beta already feels different than Alpha, the kind of person who hits her daughter in front of the group if necessary. He has an emotional connection to members of the community, it seems. He looks after them. It’s a glimmer of humanity that helps explain Lydia’s connection to them. Daryl is still wary of her as they flee through the darkness of the woods while she notes how long they’ve looked after her. Henry, meanwhile, is lost in a haze of love and hormones, rambling about how they’ll run away together off to other parts of this open world without any consideration for, you know, his family and community. Oh, the delusion of young love. In the time of the walking dead, it’s a concept — from him, at least — that not only feels impractical, but annoying.

Henry’s parents, the ones he completely disregards, are setting up the fair — including an “awww”-inducing memorial statue of Shiva — when they run into problems of their own. Jerry and Diane’s group were accosted by a mysterious group outside the Kingdom as they tried to clear the roads. Their armor, weapons, and supplies were taken, and they were given a note to hand to Ezekiel. The group, unknown to the pages of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, call themselves the Highwaymen. They claim the roads surrounding the Kingdom belong to them and if they don’t fork over a crap ton of supplies (supplies the Kingdom doesn’t have to spare), anyone attempting to journey to their community will be turned away. This is the group behind the mysterious symbol tagged to the back of a street sign in the last episode — an arrow pointing towards a straight line, signifying a road heading towards the horizon. Diane, mentioning rumors of stray Saviors wandering in packs around the area, thinks it might be Jed and his followers. Carol shoots that down quickly. Remember when she lit them all on fire this season?

Ezekiel’s initial plan is to attack first, ask questions later. But Carol urges an attempt at peace talks. The Highwaymen could’ve killed Jerry’s group, but they didn’t. They could’ve been more life-threatening in their ransom demand, but they weren’t. The whole point of the fair is to bring communities together, so how do they work with the new groups that emerge? Are they the kind of people who kill instead of compromise? Ezekiel proves they are the latter when they enter the base of the Highwaymen, led by a cowboy played by Angus Sampson. Things start off hostile, but when Carol mentions they have a movie theater, the group is willing to strike an accord. They agree to keep the roads clear for the Kingdom as people make their way to their compound. In exchange, they are offered access to the fair to trade for supplies they need, and also access to their movie projector. It comes at a good time as Tara’s group, including Earl and Tammy keeping watch over the newborn Whisperer, are attacked by walkers after their path is blocked by a fallen tree.

In the beginning, Nabila walks with Carol, surveying the fairgrounds at the Kingdom. She says after everything they’ve done to get to where they are now, there’s no turning back. In the previous episode, Ezekiel hoped that maybe they finally reached a point in their lives where they no longer have to fight. And yet these words turn to red flags when we cut to the main plot involving the Whisperers, knowing what will eventually come for them.

Connie leads Daryl, Lydia, and Henry to a building in which her group used to stash emergency supplies by way of a secret space beneath the floor on the top level. The stairs have already been barricaded, which means if the Whisperers come for them, they will be forced to reveal themselves as walkers wouldn’t be able to climb past the deterrents. Beta does come for them and the trap works. Daryl stashes Lydia in a closet with Dog for protection — not before she and Henry express their feelings for each other. As the group split up to clear out the attacking Whisperers, Henry is stabbed in the leg. He would’ve been killed, except Lydia rushes out after hearing screams, unleashing Dog on his attacker.

The scuffle leads to a face-off between Daryl and Beta, the good guy’s best against the bad guy’s best. The fight is brutal, utilizing the setting — a deconstructed space with exposed foundations and white sheets of cloth obscuring their vision — to create tension. Daryl matches Beta’s brute strength with quickness, but Beta, too, is fast and feral. As Daryl somersaults through a hole in a wall, Beta makes his own path by punching straight through. Daryl can’t take him down head-to-head, so he outsmarts the enemy. Hiding in Connie’s emergency stash space, he pops up behind Beta and shoves him down an elevator shaft. A thud emphasizes the long fall to solid ground.

With Henry injured, Daryl regroups with the others and plans to go to Alexandria to stitch him up. But he knows they can’t stay there for long if the Whisperers track them to the community. Daryl, now warming up to Lydia, says they can all keep running. They’re going to have to because Beta didn’t die. The camera pushes through the cloth curtains and down into the dark shaft where his body lies limp on top of an idle elevator. He wakes with a new ferocity, reflecting his animal nature. And with the fair formally kicking off, Carol, Ezekiel, and Tara are very much aware that Henry and Daryl are not already there waiting for them. There are only a few more episodes left this season and the hope is that the Whisperer War doesn’t fall the way of the Negan war, which held the start of its long-promised conflict till the final minutes of a season finale. Alpha, don’t let us down. Make us feel something again.

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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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