The results were less visually impressive than Game of Thrones, possibly because Game of Thrones had a much larger budget. But The Walking Dead’s version of a medieval fight still managed to make the pitched battle between the inhabitants of Hilltop and the zombie armies of the Whisperers overwhelming, brutal, and disorientingly chaotic. And then, much like in Game of Thrones, it was in the aftermath that the real drama began.
Let’s start with the battle, which is inarguably the best in the entire series. Practically everything’s on fire. Hilltop is using catapults that can’t hope to reduce the zombies’ numbers to any noticeable degree. Daryl is still wielding that sick morning star. The best the Hilltoppers can do is run inside through a flaming hole in the wall and use it as an ersatz choking point, where they can kill enough zombies to block it with corpses and buy themselves some time. While Daryl is still up and fighting, Ezekiel gathers up all the children and begins to herd them out… until he notices Judith is missing.
Where is Judith? I’m glad you asked. She’s taking out three zombies all by herself – except it turns out one of them is a Whisperer, who begins begging for her life. The 10-year-old then begins wrestling with a moral dilemma that she’s going to continue debating her entire life: If someone who previously tried to hurt you is helpless, should you kill them to prevent future harm? While Judith desperately wonders what to do, the Whisperer falls unconscious (maybe dies?) anyway, and Earl pops up to take Judith to safety.
Meanwhile, Yumiko spies Magna inside the hoard, covered in blood and guts, clearly having disguised herself and been walking amongst thousands of zombies since the cave-in. It’s insane, but it’s a very plausible level of insane for The Walking Dead, so I’m fine with it. I’m also fine with the idea of Magna being able to hide in the herd because we know there are at least 4,000 zombies in there. As long as she didn’t draw attention to herself and stay in the middle of the pack – which makes the horror even more harrowing – I doubt the Whisperers could pick her out of the crowd. At any rate, Magna shuffles right up to Yumiko…and then Hilltop falls. For good.
After the opening credits roll, the battle is already over. Negan is walking the smoking battlefield, finding the few, wounded survivors and putting them out of their misery with a bat to the head, much to Alpha’s irritation because she wants to replenish her horde. Alpha also wants Lydia very, very badly, and Negan’s quite willing to take the job. Instead, an increasingly surly Beta forces him to learn how to collect walkers to join the mega-herd. Turns out Negan sucks at it, but he is much more successful at accidentally discovering Lydia as she hobbles away from the battlefield.
Negan follows Lydia from a distance, and accidentally runs into Aaron, dragging an unconscious man on a makeshift sled. Aaron drops the sled to kill his enemy-turned-bigger enemy, while Negan says he can explain. Aaron isn’t hearing it, but a few zombies drop by and Negan leaves Aaron to deal with them (this plays less like Negan is leaving Aaron to die and more like Negan is forcing Aaron to keep too busy to follow him). Could Negan have stayed, helped kill the zombies, given Aaron his explanation, and saved everyone some grief? Yes, but it’s the sort of explanation best delivered right before the end credits roll. Can’t spoil the surprise!
We then cut to various groups fleeing the ruins of Hilltop, who got scattered by the battle. It feels extremely reminiscent of how the team was forced to scatter after the Governor ruined the prison back in season three, which gave us some of The Walking Dead’s best episodes. I have no idea how this will resolve – maybe everyone ends up at the agreed rendezvous point next episode, maybe it’ll be the middle of season 11 – but I wouldn’t mind the show taking its time, especially when we get moments like these:
Well, at least we don’t have to worry about whether we should call Thora Birch’s character Gamma or Mary anymore.
Alden, Kelly, and Mary
The three walk down a path, Alden holding the screaming baby Adam in his arms. Mary (née Gamma) offers to help, but Alden won’t have it…until Kelly gives him the flattest of stares. Alden passes the baby to her aunt, and Adam quiets instantly. Later, after Alden and Mary have a moment of minor reconciliation, Mary hears a suspicious number of bird sounds and knows zombies and Whisperers are on their way. After safely getting Kelly, Alden, and the baby in an abandoned van, Mary runs off and makes noises to draw the zombies away, allowing the trio to escape. It works, although Beta shoves a knife in Mary’s gut for her act of heroism. Beta waits for Mary’s corpse to awake so Alpha can have another soldier for her army, but a well-placed arrow from Alden hits Mary in the head, thwarting the Whisperer’s plans, and Beta runs off.
Eugene, Carol, Yumiko, and Magna
The genuinely traumatised Magna needs to take a rest. While Eugene despairs over the few radio components he was able to save from Hilltop, Magna tells Yumiko that Connie also made it into the horde, but they were separated in the throng, and now her fate is unknown. Carol, wracked with shame over how Magna has suffered because of her obsession with Alpha, decides to head to the rendezvous on her own – which utterly enrages Yumiko. She demands that Carol apologize instead of leaving Magna behind yet again, and when Carol starts saying some bullshit about how tough the world is, Yumiko punches her in her goddamn face. I won’t weigh in on the punch, but Carol was absolutely trying to downplay her role in what she did to Connie and Magna, even to herself, and she deserved to be called out for it.
In her heart, Carol knows it too; she sets out by herself, eventually coming to a log where she seems to seriously contemplate letting the severed torso of a zombie bite her until Eugene arrives and takes it out. Then the two have a discussion about her obsession, where it’s clear Carol is fully aware of how many people she’s hurt or even killed, and that she’s infuriated all her friends, but she doesn’t care – she’s only upset she doesn’t have anything to show for all the misery she’s caused. That’s it. It’s chilling and infuriating and it’s very hard to concentrate on Carol giving Eugene a pep talk to go see his radio buddy in Charleston afterward.
Judith (Cailey Fleming) has a very bad day.
Earl and the Kids
Last but not least is the fate of Judith and all the other kids. Daryl, Rosita, Jerry, and his wife run to the cabin where either Daryl or Ezekiel were supposed to take them…but there are no kids to be found. Instead, they’re someplace else with Earl, who’s trying his best to keep them from worrying by talking to all of them like they’re 5-year-olds. Then he closes the door to the kids’ room, nails a giant spike to the underside of a table. and prepared to slam his head into it because a zombie took a sizeable chunk out of his arm in the battle. Judith, of course, catches him just before the blacksmith can do the deed. Earl’s never had much screen time, but it’s pretty rough to hear a man ask a 10-year-old girl to protect a group of children from himself, just in case.
When Judith promises and leaves, Earl slams his head into the spike, killing himself… but not destroying enough gray matter to prevent him from turning into a zombie. When Judith goes to investigate, the corpse of Earl grabs her. Happily Daryl, Jerry, and Ezekiel arrive and find the kids; when Daryl enters the building he finds Earl’s defunct zombie and Judith in a ball against the wall. He simply goes to her and holds her. Yes, she wounded (maybe even killed) a Whisperer in self-defense in the heat of battle earlier in the episode, but this – even though Earl had become a zombie, she was forced to kill someone she knew and cared for, who had been a living person less than half an hour ago – was a lot worse. All of this at age 10.
Alpha (Samantha Morton) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have a heart-to-heart.
Negan, Alpha, and Lydia
This would be a more-than-powerful enough note to end the episode on, but “Walk With Me” has one more moment up its sleeve, when Negan surreptitiously approaches Alpha to tell her he’s found the thing she wanted, i.e. Lydia, tied up in a cabin, safe from the prying eyes of the other Whisperers who still believe Alpha murdered her months ago.
On the way to finally finish the job, they have a curious conversation. Alpha starts talking about how she wants Negan to become the Alpha of a second pack to continue spreading the good word of, uh, wearing people’s faces and walking with things that will eat you if even slightly mess up even once. Negan replies by telling Alpha about his wife, about how much she suffered from pancreatic cancer and its treatment, how much he loved her – and how, when she died, his lack of concern for anything, including himself, helped him survive.
“It was my strength,” he tells Alpha. “Now, I am dead to this world, but you – see, you are pretending. You think it makes you strong to say emotions aren’t real, that we are animals. That is bullshit, and you know it. And now you claim you have to kill your own daughter, your own flesh and blood…” Negan genuinely gets choked up at the idea of Alpha killing family, when he would give anything to have his loved one back. They approach a small cabin in the words, as Negan keeps awkwardly trying to convince Alpha not to kill Lydia, but Alpha is dead set on it: “I have to do it because I love her.” And then she plants a big smooch on Negan, throws open the cabin doors, discovers it’s empty, turns around in surprise, and then Negan slits her throat. He holds Alpha as she dies in a moment The Walking Dead manages to make tender. Smash-cut to Negan dropping Alpha’s severed, zombified head at Carol’s feet. “Took you long enough,” she says.
It’s a hell of a twist for the season’s main villain to get offed in episode 12 of 16, so it’s definitely effective. Plus, in a vacuum, the twist makes sense: Carol sent Negan in as a spy to earn Alpha’s trust to get her alone and kill her. It complicates matters when Negan begins to feel a bit of empathy for the broken human being that is Alpha and tries to talk her out of killing Lydia, but upon realising she’ll always be the kind of woman willing to murder her daughter, Negan finishes the job.
However, if you begin to examine it even a little, things get weird and potentially dumb. When did Carol and Negan gin this plan up? Did anyone else know this was happening? (I sincerely doubt it.) If this plan was already in place, why did Carol freak out and chase Alpha so hard she fell into a cave? Was Negan so wholeheartedly joining the battle against Hilltop part of the plan? Was giving Alpha the idea for the blockade and personally shooting fire arrows at Hilltop part of his deep cover? Was Carol so far gone she was willingly going to let Hilltop fall if it meant I would give Negan a better chance at killing Alpha? (I hate that the answer is probably yes.) Are Carol and Negan so single-minded about killing Alpha that they truly believe the threat of the Whisperers is over and their army of zombies is just going to amble away? And given that Negan actively participated in destroying Hilltop during his secret mission, how could all the people who didn’t know about his secret mission willingly let him back into their communities?
I guess I can sum these all up in one question: Does The Walking Dead know what it’s doing? I have to imagine the show has some decent explanation for some of these shenanigans. But I can’t imagine we’ll get through next week’s episode and think, “A-ha! The Walking Dead knew what it was doing the entire time!” Still, with four more episodes left in the season and the Big Bad dead, I have no idea where the show is going to go, and that’s an exciting place to be. Now to find out if the show has any idea where it’s going.
“What, me worry?”
- Guys, so many things explode in Hilltop. Why are there many explosive things in Hilltop? Why are they located in so many different places?
- Gamma rips part of Beta’s mask off, and a fellow Whisperer sees part of his face and says, “It’s you!” in a surprisingly pleased tone. Beta almost instantaneously kills the man, so his secret identity is safe. But I’m pretty darn excited to find out who’s under that mask that would get so many people so excited he has to hide it 24/7. Is it Woody Harrelson? Pete Buttigieg? Ryan Lochte? Zach Braff? So many options!
- Waking Dead pulled a classic switcheroo when it kept cutting between the cabin Negan was leading Alpha to and the one Lydia was tied up in, trying to make us think they were one and the same. It became obvious pretty quickly they were different (since none of the loud noises Lydia made came from the cabin Alpha was approaching) but I wondered why Lydia was tied up at all. I assume Negan caught her and tied her up to keep her out of the way and prevent other Whisperers from finding her, which would have ruined his plan. It’s a leap of logic, but one I’m completely fine with making.
- Is that a shotgun that Carol finds by the log? Was it somehow left by Negan to indicate their rendezvous spot, or is it a sign from God she should keep killing anyone she thinks needs killing, no matter the cost to others?
- The scene of Negan trying and failing to get a zombie to pay attention to him was pretty good, but not as good as Negan calling Beta “Frowny McTwo-Knives.” This may be how I’ll need to refer to him from here on out, especially if he’s going to take charge of the Whisperers.