This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 11
The Walking Dead Season 9 has been going from strength to strength since the “demise” of Rick Grimes. Last week exposed a vulnerability that Daryl hasn’t shown since the earliest seasons and gave Henry a good reason to take over Carl’s stories from the comic book. This week, The Walking Dead mines a rich vein of light comedy out of the adventures of Ezekiel, Carol, and the rest of the Kingdom’s cast of random characters in a way that hasn’t been that evident since the early days of the Kingdom’s presence on the show.
On its face, The Kingdom is laughable. After all, it’s a bunch of people gathered around what is basically a cosplaying zookeeper with dreadlocks who they decided to call a king. They ride horses, wear armor, wield bows and spears, and generally live a fairly medieval existence, by choice. The fact that they voluntarily fell in with a guy who was pretending to be King Arthur suggests that these are people who have something of a sense of humor. We’ve seen that with Jerry, but this is the first week that the others in the Kingdom, namely stone-faced Dianne (Kerry Cahill) get to show a little more personality—and they aren’t killed immediately afterwards!
As a group, the Kingdom makes for good, light comedy. Ezekiel and Jerry are positively adorable together, and Carol has just enough of a stone face to make her occasional breaks into something even more charming. Khary Payton is very deft at turning on and off the Ezekiel voice, hamming it up most of the time but letting the bravado slip in the face of a withering glance from Melissa McBride, who plays up Carol’s gruffer tendencies just enough to allow her sweeter moments to shine. Cooper Andrews has never not been charming on the show, with his excitement (and his unusual slang for announcing a pregnancy) coming off as very endearing and his clumsiness being natural, rather than forced.
That lightness courtesy of Matthew Negrete’s script is needed, as the showdown at Hilltop is one of sheer tension. Alpha and the Whisperers standing outside of the walls, breathing heavily through leathery zombie skin masks, and the Hilltoppers on the inside, watching on as they debate in hushed tones from the parapets. Mr. Spock once said the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and that’s the argument Daryl and Tara have; do they turn Lydia over to her mother for more brainwashing and abuse, or do they stand and fight and lose Alden and Luke in the process? Choices, hard choices, are made, but not without a struggle.
The two separate plots are united by a lovely little introductory moment, before the time skip, that details the Kingdom’s eternal optimism for unity between their separated communities. They’re still family, they fought and bled and died together against the Saviors, and differences now serve little purpose.
Ezekiel might be the only person keeping that hope alive, but he’s keeping it not just alive, he’s feeding it and making it thrive with a little help from people like Tara and Daryl, who are willing to cross party lines and strike out on their own to do the right thing, rather than the safe thing. (After all, this is a man who decided to break into a movie theater to steal a projector bulb for movie nights, as a means to expand the reach of his planned fair.)
Two halves that make a pretty complete whole episode, “Bounty” shows both The Walking Dead’s neglected comic streak and its neglected dread streak. Too often in recent seasons, there hasn’t been a real sense of danger to the zombies, or even to the confrontations with armed enemies. Meera Menon provides both, with a beautiful sense of visual flair.
There are a half-dozen stunning shots in this week’s episode, from the reverence with which Khary Payton holds the constitution of the survivor communities and shares a kiss with Melissa McBride in the closing moments of the episode, to the way that a panicking, terrified Connie (Lauren Ridloff) attempts to rescue a stranded, crying baby while being pursued by zombies through a cornfield, the only sound being the sounds made internally by her body as she flees, fights, and tries her best to save a baby that belongs with their enemies the Whisperers.
It’s stunning and resonant, sold well by the actress and delivered with skill and deftness by the technical crew. The decision to make it completely silent, save for the sounds you hear from your own body when you plug your ears makes it even more terrifying, and gives a glimpse into what life must be like for someone with a physical hardship in a world in which hearing something sneaking up on you is the difference between life and death.
Dangerous or not, Connie does this not because it’s the smart thing—it’s not—but because it’s the right thing. Daryl refuses to give Lydia over to Alpha because it’s the right thing. Ezekiel risks the lives of his friends and loved ones to bring their communities together because it’s the right thing, for his people and for their people as a consolidated group. Henry goes to rescue Lydia because, in his mind, it’s the right thing (and Connie and Daryl go to rescue him for the same reason, with Connie’s expressions and the way she writes down her communication with Daryl only further emphasizing the point that she’s doing this despite the risks).
Enid and Henry’s brief confrontation wasn’t a highlight of the episode, but it was a good telling of the whole point of the episode. Surviving isn’t enough. Despite Alpha’s opinion, people are not animals, doomed to live and die like animals. The world still belongs to humans, and it’s up to humans to make it a world worth living in. It’s not enough to keep living if you cannot live with yourself. JSS might be a good short-term strategy, but it makes a hollow, sad person.