This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 10 Episode 8
“The World Before” leaves The Walking Dead in a strange spot. On one hand, it sets up a couple of effective cliffhangers, but on the other hand, it also seems to drag its feet a lot getting to those cliffhangers, introducing a new character out of the blue and taking what feels like a long time to get the other characters trapped in their cliffhanger situation. In between that, there are a lot of probing conversations between characters about feelings, usually bookended with a big hug and teary eyes after the fact.
The emotions playing on the surface make sense. The survivors have been trapped in a stressful situation for months, if not years, and the uneasy peace they’d maintained with the absent Whisperers is now officially gone. The Whisperers have drawn blood, and it might have been the most important member of the community that was killed by their sleeper agent. A town ravaged by illness doesn’t want to bury its only real doctor, and with Siddiq being put under the ground courtesy of Dante (Juan Javier Cardenas), it’s a sign that the war is going to be escalating sooner rather than later. It’s more than just trees collapsing and waves of walkers now; the already paranoid survivors have extra reason to be paranoid thanks to the potential for sleeper agents to be within their midst.
Anyone who joined at any time, before or after the fire, could be a potential Whisperer in disguise, and no doubt that paranoia will only be doubled after the Oceanside community finds a mysterious stranger named Virgil (Kevin Carroll) trying to steal one of their boats. That Virgil saved Luke’s life in the library earlier in the episode isn’t much to go on; Dante had saved presumably dozens of people’s lives before being activated and ordered to start sowing the seeds of paranoia and illness among the people of Alexandria. Stopping one guy from getting eaten is a pretty easy way to gain friendship, if that’s what he wants, but Virgil doesn’t want that, all he wants is to go back home to his fortified island home.
The montage of just how Dante came to be turned by the Whisperers and put to work in Alexandria is a very deftly handled cold opening from director John Dahl. Alpha brings him into her confidence, promises him a place of honor among the pack, and then turns him loose with a plan on how to infiltrate a group of survivors and slowly make his way into Alexandria. She admonishes him, never forget your real home, and he refuses to do so, even when confronted by Gabriel for what he’s done to his family and their group as a whole. Carol and Aaron planted the seeds of doubt into Gamma; Alpha has been lying about Lydia’s death and no doubt has been lying about a lot of other stuff.
Dante has done the exact same thing in Alexandria. He’s put into the minds of Gabriel, Rosita, and others in leadership positions a doubt. Their way of life, the thing they’ve struggled so hard to maintain… is it just an illusion? Are they lying to themselves and others about whether or not their society is sustainable and is it cruel to maintain the fiction despite threats from within and without? The leaders are nothing if not fallible and human, and pushed to their collective breaking point even before one of their best friends is killed right in their walls.
Rosita loses her edge, and Gabriel loses his temper. Seth Gilliam remains one of the show’s more underrated performers, and he’s given something of a wet blanket role on the leadership council, so when he snaps during his confrontation with Dante and explodes on him, it’s a look at just how stressed out everyone is, and how thin the veneer of civilization is for this group of exhausted murderers.
All of them, no matter how clean their hands, have become, as Virgil puts it, comfortable with violence. But there’s a difference between violence and murder, and Gabriel, because he’s stabbing an unarmed, restrained man repeatedly, might cross that line in a moment of lost control. It’s an interesting angle explored in Julia Ruchman’s script, and it’s a good example of how Alpha uses the truth to make a lie into something even more potent.
Dante knows what the weaknesses of the community leadership are, and he’s been exploiting them through sabotage for months. He’s able to pick at them at their weakest places, and while they know they’re being exploited, it’s difficult for them to push back very hard because, deep down, they’re all worried he might be right.
So, they cling to one another, even as their ability to relate to one another falters. They turn to one another, hug one another even tighter than before, all the while they strain to put their feelings into words that make sense. Carol and Daryl, the tightest pair on the show, can’t talk to one another without snipping. Carol and Ezekiel, who used to be married, stare at each other with words unsaid between them. Rosita and Eugene, who have been together for the longest time of any pairing on the series, have one of the most awkward post-funeral conversations ever put to film after Eugene helps Rosita dispatch a small group of zombies outside the walls of Alexandria.
Michonne, in her discussion with Virgil, quotes the late Rick, who in turn quoted the Hadith with the statement, “My mercy prevails over my wrath,” before falling into tears. The victory of mercy over wrath in this world isn’t always a given, particularly when dealing with people who want to end a community’s whole way of life and descend to the level of brutish beasts. Perhaps the way to beat the Whisperers is to meet them on their level and out-mean them. If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fight for. If a group has something to lose, then they’ve got a reason to fight until there’s nothing left to save. It’s not about windmills and walls, it’s about family and friends; the Whisperers don’t have that, and the survivors do.
Gabriel might not fight to save himself, but he’ll fight to save his friends and family. He might not kill out of rage, but he’ll kill because a loved one was killed and the rest threatened. Daryl might disagree with Carol’s motivation in going after the horde, but he’ll follow her just the same to try to keep her, and the rest of them, out of trouble. He’s not successful, but he tries. Gabriel isn’t successful in holding back his rage, but he tries. That’s the cornerstone of the survivor’s collection of city-states; they might not be able to bring back the old world, but they’ll try to live like people and not Whisperers.