Warning: contains spoilers for The Walking Dead season nine
What Negan did in The Walking Dead season seven premiere was brutal and unforgiveable. Taking a bat to the skulls of Abraham and Glenn while their friends watched was the show’s cruellest act – no mean feat in a world of gore, cannibalism and extreme violence. It was too cruel for some viewers, who flinched and turned away, starting an exodus that leaves the US ratings at less than half what they once were at the season four to five peak.
Had those viewers kept watching, they’d have seen something extraordinary – not only the series revitalised after a lengthy time jump, but an act crueller and more destabilising by far.
When Negan murdered Glenn and Abraham, it was an army general’s barbaric demonstration of power over prisoners of war. After Rick’s group carried out a mission that executed several Saviors, they were captured during an evasive manoeuvre. When Negan took the advantage, our characters were an infantry unit in combat and fully aware they were under threat. Negan’s violence was barbarous, but it took place on a battlefield of sorts.
In season nine’s penultimate episode The Calm Before, our survivors suffered not just two losses, but ten. Antagonist Alpha (played by Samantha Morton) and her group of Whisperers murdered multiple victims and displayed their heads on spikes to demarcate a land border that mustn’t be crossed.
Though the aftermath was grotesque, unlike the gratuitous focus on the gory prosthetics in Glenn’s murder, these murders weren’t leered at tastelessly. Viewers were shown the fight beforehand, then the result, but not the grisly deaths themselves. They didn’t need to be shown because what they represented was more devastating than any blow from Negan’s baseball bat – not battlefield warfare, but terrorism.
That’s the new kind of menace the survivors are facing in season ten, The Walking Dead producer Denise Huth explains to Den Of Geek. “It’s not a threat showing up at their front gates hammering on their door the way Negan did.” says Huth. “It’s out there, it’s the ghost, the big-bad hiding out that could literally strike at any moment and completely destroy their world.”
Alpha certainly didn’t hammer on the door before killing her victims. Wearing the scalp and clothing of a Hilltop woman, she infiltrated the Kingdom fair disguised as one of them. She walked among them, observing their world, and when greeted by King Ezekiel, was able to mirror their civilisation back to them with smiles and soft words. She took advantage of existing division among the groups to go unnoticed. Her strike took place in peacetime at an event that symbolised the unity of a new and hopeful future.
Negan killed beloved characters at night, with everybody’s eyes on him; Alpha did it in daylight while everybody was looking elsewhere. His threat is direct; hers is insidious.
“They’re definitely very different fights,” says Huth. “The Whisperers are such a different kind of threat than Negan was.
“At the end of last season, they really thought they were safe, they thought they had created communities and enough of a structure that they could handle anything that came at them and then all of a sudden, Alpha shows up kills a ton of them right under their noses. There’s a different level of paranoia this year.”
Huth agrees with showrunner Angela Kang’s description of season ten as a kind of Cold War. “There’s this uneasy peace,” says Huth. “A Cold War feeling of having two communities that are in conflict and have a border. It’s a very different way of telling a conflict story on this show because our characters know what they stand to lose and they’re in a very different place than they were when they fought Negan.”
All-Out War with Negan and the Saviors – particularly Rick’s decision to leave Negan alive as a symbol – had left the group splintered. “They survived a war that ultimately they won, but it didn’t come without loss,” Huth tells us.
“Carol in particular is hugely traumatised by losing Henry, losing the Kingdom, her marriage ending … She is haunted. I think they’re all haunted by what they lost,” explains Huth. “You see it certainly with Siddiq as well, he was there that night when all of those people were killed and he was the only one to walk away so there is a lot of survivor’s guilt, a lot of PTSD.
“They have gone through some incredibly traumatic things and don’t really have an outlet for it. They’re not going into war, they can’t just jump into vengeance, they can’t jump into a fight, they just have to go back to living their lives and hope that they can maintain that peace and they don’t lose anyone else.”
Season ten finds the characters “in a place of pain and fear and anger” says Huth. “They don’t know where the next strike is going to come from, and that reality is incredibly painful. They’re very hesitant to just dive right in to another fight again, particularly with a threat like Alpha and her horde of Walkers, that’s something they’re not sure they can come out the other side surviving.”
The Walking Dead season 10 returns on Monday the 7th of October at 9pm on FOX UK.