This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 12
I try to avoid reading what other people think of The Walking Dead. Part of that is simply self-preservation. The comments section at Den of Geek tends to be wonderful folk with interesting things to say, but that is not the same everywhere else on the Internet. As such, I am uncertain of the groupthink regarding the Whisperers, so I can only speak for myself when I say that they are the most interesting group of villains, visually and creatively, the show has had since the beginning. In one fell swoop, they managed to make human antagonists more interesting—taking the basic idea of the Junkyardigans and executing it well—and to make zombies more of a threat—by making a mob of otherwise dumb rotters into camouflage in a way more effective than even Carol’s one-woman assault on Terminus.
The crucial difference between Jadis’s Junkyard Gang and the Whisperers is in dedication to the gimmick. Jadis and her followers talked weird, and dressed like extras from Mad Max, but they were otherwise human. They had walls. They had social units. They had families and defended themselves from a central home base. The Whisperers are anything but; they speak in full sentences, but they live and behave like animals. That is on display throughout the scenes in which Henry pursues, and is captured by, the Whisperers.
The crucial bit to their performance, as actors and as characters, seems to be in body language. That aspect is sold incredibly well by the body language of Cassady McClinchy, who has Lydia moving with the shuffle and listless head of a walker while dressed in clean clothes and looking bathed and cared for. She doesn’t look the part, and at the same time, she does look the part, minus a leathery zombie mask and a few layers of dirt and grime. When put together with the rest of the gear, they’re indistinguishable from actual walkers, but seeing it out of its element like this drives home just how much work Alpha and all her nomads put into looking, and acting, like the dead.
It’s more than just slapping guts on a poncho, it’s becoming the apex predator in a new universe. The body language is one thing, but the lifestyle is another. Under the leadership of Samantha Morton’s Alpha, they have a set of rules. They live and travel in a pack, and there are a lot of little details that go along with that. They speak in whispers, mouths hidden by leather masks. They walk and shuffle like walkers. They eat as they travel, and seem to refrain from any permanent dwellings, living in the woods out of their packs and tents. They settle disputes not with debates, but with quick, violent combat.
That’s one of the smarter points of LaToya Morgan’s script. They don’t simply explain these things; Henry doesn’t turn to Beta (a massive Ryan Hurst) for an information dump, we see two of the Whisperers challenge Alpha for supremacy after they decide that she’s changed the rules, and we see Alpha dispatch them with absolutely no hesitation, removing a head and gutting another in remorseless, mechanical fashion. Alpha doesn’t seem to revel in it, she simply does what she needs to do to maintain control over her pack and quash any potential dissent. The flashbacks from “Omega” didn’t do Alpha justice. She’s willing to bend the rules for her daughter (or perhaps just for inside information on Hilltop) because she’s the one who makes the rules, and challenge and healthy debate is an option. The Whisperers are as much a dictatorship as Alexandria, just without the illusion of a town council that votes to make decisions overruled by Michonne.
Just as Alexandria and the Whisperers are a little more alike than they might seem on the surface, so are Michonne and Alpha alike. Both are willing to bend, one when it benefits her and the other when she realizes that she’s essentially become like her late partner at his worst. Both operate a stunted society; the Whisperers are animals who don’t settle down out of fear and the Alexandrians hide behind their wall and leave behind their old bonds out of fear. Both Alpha and Michonne have cut people’s heads off. Both possess a great deal of love, and a great deal of anger, though Michonne channels hers into being protective and Alpha channels hers into abuse and domination.
In her own, quieter way, Samantha Morton is the villain we were promised when Negan first appeared. She’s more dangerous, because she doesn’t need numbers to accomplish her mission. She has a gimmick like no other thanks to the Whisperer skin masks and ability to stalk without drawing attention to themselves. And, in Morton’s hands, Alpha is more of a threat than Negan ever was. Negan would talk (and talk and talk) and eventually crack a head open, but the whole point of Negan was he tried not to do these things. Alpha is crazy enough to cut off the head of one of her own people and abandon a baby to be eaten by “the hungry ones” that she keeps as pets.
Morton’s performance is no less enthralling than early Negan. She’s more deft with her physical performance than Jeffrey Dean Morgan—aside from Negan’s leaning habit—and her eye acting is incredible. Just seeing her eyes peering out from behind that impassive mask, and the way she’s able to use that sweet whisper to soothe and menace at the same time without any real change in inflection is impressive, and Michael E. Satrazemis deserves credit for emphasizing both her small stature and her impressive command of her people. She’s small, but she’s dangerous, and she slinks until it’s time to strike with sudden, shocking violence. In true Southern fashion, she’s a viper in a petticoat, or so the voice would have the world believe.
“Guardians” is one of the most well-rounded episodes of The Walking Dead Season 9, and it’s a fine return to form for a show that has shown marked improvement under the direction of Angela Kang. Both the A plot of Henry and the Whisperers and the B plot of Michonne’s dealings with the people of Alexandria and their drama are successfully balanced against one another, with all elements working and Samantha Morton turning in another stellar performance. It was entertaining, brutally violent, suspenseful, and well paced.
The Walking Dead certainly isn’t an unassailable ruler of cable television, but no one’s going to be able to dethrone it any time soon, either. The show lacks the unstoppable aura of the good old days, but it’s still shambling along, cutting throats and controlling its own destiny. Like Alpha, it seems that the only thing that might stop The Walking Dead is the creative team’s own hubris and the network’s greed.