It’s a phrase that’s tossed around too much these days, even by our president, and at this point, it’s losing some of its impact. But, in truth, a certain season of the year is headed for The Walking Dead. There’s both an actual blizzard days away when the fair begins at the Kingdom, and anyone who’s up on the story arc about the Whisperers in the comics knows that snowfall signals this world’s equivalent of a Red Wedding situation. That moment came this week and it left many casualties in its wake, but not the casualties comic readers were expecting.
Robert Kirkman’s series chronicling the Whisperer war illustrated how Alpha, in a major blow to Alexandria, the Kingdom, Hilltop, and the Sanctuary, executed 12 members from across the communities and placed their heads on pikes to mark the border of the Whisperers’ land. Among the victims were King Ezekiel and Rosita. But, just as with much of the TV drama’s story arc, AMC’s show took some liberties with this.
For one, Henry stepped in to hit Carl’s story beats with the whole Lydia romance after Chandler Riggs’ character was killed off the series. Then there’s the Rick of it all; obviously Andrew Lincoln is nowhere to be found in this timeline. Also, the Sanctuary isn’t in the fold anymore. Oceanside stepped up to fill more of that function. So, instead, it’s Michonne, Daryl, Carol, and Yumiko who come across the horrific sight. After a heated encounter with Alpha in the woods, she tells Daryl her group marked the border to their territory. He’ll know it when he sees it. Walking out of the woods into an open field, he and the others spot 10 pikes atop a hill in the distance.
As they approach, their vision sharpens and the heads become clear: they belong to two Highwaymen, including leader Ozzy; D.J., the reformed Savior working for Michonne; three of Henry’s friends, Addy, Rodney, and Frankie; Tammy, wife of blacksmith Earl; and, finally, Enid, Tara, and Henry himself. As Carol glimpses the decapitated head of her son, Daryl goes to her. “Look at me,” he says over and over. “Look at me.” It’s a phrase that adds more weight to the scene by echoing another traumatic loss for Carol — “look at the flowers.”
The reveal was heightened by the strategically handled sequence that cut between those at the fair looking for their missing family and friends to the reveal of the next gurgling walker head. But these characters were still pretty low pickings on the totem pole, reaffirming that anyone with a Melissa McBride-level base salary is pretty much safe from the butcher block. No doubt that’s because the show already lost a few major players due to behind-the-scenes logistics (first Lincoln, then Lauren Cohan, and now Danai Gurira). But it still puts a dent in the “no one is safe” mentality of the show, especially when tackling something so game-changing from the comics. No, some people are safe. After watching so many LGBTQ characters get killed off on various shows, just as they take on more prominent roles in the story, I can’t help but think if there’s some kind of quota. As Yumiko and Magna share an onscreen kiss, Tara is beheaded episodes after Jesus is also killed off. On the other hand, Tara was a kind of “meh” character. The writers definitely made strides with her, but her solo episode to Oceanside during the Negan war is an hour I’ll never get back.
In any case, these deaths served their purpose. The peace and calm of day-to-day life established throughout the episode was overturned, reminding everyone that, no, maybe you’re not done losing for a while.
Alpha was able to pull off this feat in secret by infiltrating the fair, another beat from the comics. She attacked a carriage from Hilltop carrying Hilde and Miles, two characters who make their first and only appearance in the penultimate episode, but whom we still care for given all the anniversaries they celebrated in the opening flashbacks. Hilde was the one who made all those wooden “H” coins for Hilltop. Alpha scalps Hilde and wears her hair and clothes as a disguise to enter the Kingdom. It’s the mask she wears to blend in with the enemy, something she’s skilled at.
Meanwhile, Michonne and Judith arrive with Daryl, Henry, Connie, and Lydia as the fair formally opens for trade. She quickly calls a meeting among the leaders of the colonies to discuss the situation with the Whisperers and to bury the ax from their previous disagreements. Alexandria grants Lydia asylum, but given that Hilltop seems like the prime target if Alpha decides to retaliate, Michonne proposes a mutual protection pact, one that deems an attack by the Whisperers on one community is an attack on all communities. With each colony finally seeing eye to eye, Ezekiel takes the opportunity to bring out the old charter to have each leader sign.
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Outside, the fair is thriving. Kids are skipping down streets, Enid is passing on her medical knowledge, Earl is doing the same for aspiring blacksmiths, and some of the teens are stirring up some drama by telling Lydia that Addy has a crush on Henry. That last part isn’t so much fun, but Lydia ends up shoving goat crap in their faces and, to the point, it’s a normal teen problem, something so scarce in the world of zombies. The sequence of events lulls us into a sense of calm that is soon broken after the colonies plan to send groups of militia over to Hilltop as protection from the Whisperers.
As the first group departs — including Daryl, Michonne, Carol, Magna, and Yumiko — Alpha is already inside the walls. Along the road, they rendezvous with the Highwaymen, who lead them to Hilde and Miles’ carriage. Daryl, Michonne, Carol, and Yumiko split up to follow the tracks leading away from the carriage, while the others continue to Hilltop. This small group, however, are set upon first by the dead and then the Whisperers once night falls. They are stripped of their weapons and taken captive by Alpha, who has quietly already killed the others by this point.
Flashbacks take us to earlier in the day when Alpha seeks out Lydia in the movie theater. Her daughter saved a seat for Henry, but he’s missing ever since he went to go fix what he presumed to be a damaged pipe. Alpha isolates Lydia and tries to get her to come back home, but she refuses. She gives her mother the choice to leave or stay and be killed by the Kingdom’s forces. Alpha leaves, but not before properly disowning her child. “I was just trying to make you strong,” she says, “but you aren’t one of us, you never were.”
Alpha thinks back on this moment as she separates Daryl from the others at gunpoint. When the sun rises, they are still walking until they reach the edge of a cliff. Down below are thousands of walkers, too many to count, and they’re all circling a dead tree in the center of the clearing, like the wildebeests in The Lion King, a CGI blur of moving bodies. Whisperers are among the herd, directing them. This is the Whisperers’ atom bomb. Alpha warns Daryl that if his people ever cross into their lands, they will send the herd to cross over into theirs. That’s when she mentions how she marked their border.
Just before seeing the pikes, they find Saddiq strapped to a tree. Back at the Kingdom, he tells everyone what happened, how he was supposed to die with them but was kept alive as a warning. He chooses not to think of the deaths as Alpha’s attempt to break up the communities, but as a symbol of how the victims banded together to defend each other before they were ultimately killed.
Later, as the snow begins to fall, Daryl takes Lydia to the pikes on the hill. The heads were already removed and she places a necklace made from a wooden “H” coin in the grass, a commemoration for the dead.
Seasons of The Walking Dead are long — more often than not, too long. It leads to situations like the war against the Saviors, which labored through… Jesus, 33 hour long episodes, if you count the head bashings in the season 6 finale. After Rick’s departure from the main story, it feels like the pace is finding its stride again, balancing light moments with heavy material and setting the stage for a battle unlike anything that’s come before. Alpha isn’t like The Governor or Negan. She weeps for her daughter’s banishment but is quick to kill any Whisperer that witnesses her tears. She’s complex, more complex than most villains, and more mysterious, which makes it interesting.
During the fair, Ezekiel encountered Alpha, unaware of who she truly was. “I have a feeling it’s gonna be a hard winter,” she said at the time. So far, she’s right.
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