This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 10 Episode 12
In the earlier incarnations of The Walking Dead, the show made big, bold moves, whether they fit with the continuity of the comic book or not. Owing to instability behind the scenes, and actors wishing to move onto other work, The Walking Dead was no stranger to killing off major characters when it fit the story they were trying to tell.
There were no helicopter flights to nowhere or van trips with Georgie; people died, and usually in horrible ways. Some of these deaths were expected—some actors with expiring contracts were pretty certainly doomed by season’s end due to acrimony with producers—and others were huge surprises; generally, it felt like no one was off limits, except for a few characters who ended up dead or off the show in later seasons for reasons that ended up not being off-limits to the ax.
It’s been awhile since The Walking Dead has done any major pruning, but a violent clash between Hilltop and the Whisperers is as good a reason as any to have some folks die. After all, this is a war, and wars usually result in death, dismemberment, and destruction. Given the rate of the fires burning at Hilltop last week, the wooden fortress and community won’t last very long, and this week’s episode doubles down on that by throwing in random explosions among the chaos of combat. (Hilltop, if I remember correctly, was distilling ethanol for engines, and just plain distilling, hence the kabooms.)
Greg Nicotero has earned himself a regular seat in the director’s chair, because very few people on the show’s staff have the eye he does for sheer spectacle. The combat, especially, takes a cast of dozens and makes it look like a cast of thousands, with Carol raining arrows down from above and Aaron’s shield wall holding back the walkers streaming in through a hole in the fortifications. Earl and Alden launch munitions from their catapult overhead, and, for awhile, it seems like the walls will hold long enough for Hilltop to stand.
Indeed, Aaron’s delaying action works, as they pile up bodies high enough to barricade the remaining members of Alpha’s horde outside and the melee forces inside handle the Whisperers that sneak in among the dead. In the darkness and chaos, it is much harder to tell who is a Whisperer and who is just a normal corpse, and they use that to their advantage. Hilltop’s defense is only undone by time and the effect of flames. When another wall goes down, they’re forced to retreat and the day is won for the Whisperers, albeit it a Pyrrhic victory.
Somehow, The Whisperers best Hilltop and still come out worse for wear by the end of the episode than the demoralized, decimated survivors straggling out of the woods towards a gathering place.
With his ability to master special effects scenes, Greg Nicotero does wonderfully throughout the episode, particularly later on when he cuts Negan and Alpha’s approach to a neglected cabin where Lydia is “hidden” and Lydia’s own desperate attempts to escape from the cabin that she’s tied up in. It’s cut just enough to make it frustrating to watch, in a deliberate manner.
Lydia struggles and fights and eventually gets free, about the time Alpha and Negan, who delay to have a conversation, reach the porch of the cabin. Lydia bursts out the door, and the expected surprise reunion of mother and daughter doesn’t happen. She’s in an entirely different cabin, and Negan’s whole slow, deliberate trip was part of an altogether different plot, which comes out of nowhere.
However, the lead-up to that particular discussion, and the entirety of the episode, is a good example of the sort of writing that can keep things interesting even when walkers aren’t storming the walls. The brief moments where Alpha and Negan take turns psychoanalyzing one another, with Negan in particular getting right to the heart of what he’d call Alpha’s bullshit, is very well written by Eli Jorne and Nicole Mirante-Matthews.
Jorne in particular has a good hand when writing for Negan, making sure not to slack on the Neganisms but giving him, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a little bit more subtext than some writers have in the past. (Jorne wrote the wrenching Negan solo episode “What It Always Is” earlier in the season, and Mirante-Matthews wrote “We Are the End of The World,” a solid showpiece for both Alpha and Gamma/Mary.) Even the side-plot adventure of Mary, Alden, and Kelly leaving together and forming a slightly awkward group before Mary leaves the other two with Adam to lure some walkers away was done well, not pushing too far into soap opera territory, even when Alden is essentially pouting and refusing to turn Adam over to Mary for comfort.
Solid performances abound, with Morgan and Samantha Morton continuing to be spectacular. Melissa McBride, Eleanor Matsuura, and Nadia Hilker hold together a couple of scenes that could have easily been standard arguing back and forth. Hilker, in particular, gives great exhausted PTSD face as she details the events of how she escaped from the cave and Connie didn’t. The few things that seemed strained, like Earl’s escape with the children, were very limited in scope and moved quickly enough to keep things from bogging down, or had a good enough payoff to avoid damaging the episode in any way.
Other good things aside, only one thing is really going to be talked about in the online chatter around this episode, and it’s not Connie. Alpha might have been the only thing keeping Beta and the rest of the Whisperers even slightly restrained. She might have known all her talk about being beasts was nothing more than a load of beast excrement, but Beta is one of the more dangerous people left in this world: a true believer. The bounce of that head at Carol’s feet might have just made the Whisperer war even bloodier than the sack of Hilltop.