This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 15
As a general rule, I stand against expanded episodes. Unless it’s a cinematic quality show, and you’re putting extra budget on screen, it never typically works out. Historically, that’s never worked out for The Walking Dead, as it doesn’t work out for most of the shows on Netflix. That was under the old regime. Under the new regime, the extra-long penultimate episode of Season 9 is a stellar exercise in taking a television show and making it look like an event.
To the credit of director Laura Belsey, she does just that. The cinematography seems to be turned up even more than usual, with a few little subtle shots—a particularly good, brief overhead shot of Carol, Daryl, Michonne, and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) as they’re surrounded by a group of Whisperers after slicing and dicing through several waves of zombies. Even something relatively simple, like the four characters reuniting, or walking through a field, look beautiful, and the sequences at the fair crackle with lightness and fun; it truly feels like a new beginning, as Ezekiel intones in his opening speech to kick off the fair.
And then Alpha shows up in her most devious disguise yet. At Samantha Morton is first visible on screen, all that happy mood evaporates and is instantly replaced with a feeling of dread, and all the good things that have been happening for Henry and Lydia, Carol and Ezekiel, Gabriel and Rosita and Eugene immediately get subsumed by that instant stomach-tightening dread. Everyone’s laughing and smiling, Ezekiel is making polite conversation with an unknown person from Alexandria—who knows enough to ask after Carol and mention Michonne—and all the while the viper is in their midst, waiting to strike.
Meanwhile, what happens is pretty historic and important to the four communities. Once again, they’re drawn together. However, it’s not so much a group of people getting together to fight against a superior threat, though the Whisperers are crucial to bringing them all together. What reunites the survivor groups is something much more meaningful and human, their relationships with one another.
These are people, as pointed out in Geraldine Inoa and Channing Powell’s script, that have a lot of shed blood shared between them, and bonds of true love forged over time. They’ve forgotten this, as Michonne explains, and have been distracted by keeping themselves safe. But they’re not four communities who occasionally work together, they’re four communities who brought down an army, fought and died as one in service of bigger things, It’s natural that it should bring them together while their initial pair groups begin to fracture slightly.
“The Calm Before” is full of sweet character moments. Henry and Lydia have a kiss. Henry is reunited with his parents. Daryl gets to act civilized and spend time with other humans, even trusting Dog to Connie. Connie has a beautiful reunion with her sister Kelly (Angel Theory) that is a credit to both actresses as their grief and sadness and love is communicated solely through American Sign Language. Such communication is capable of great emotion, and both Theory and Lauren Ridloff do a stellar job of communicating without it becoming something too showy, as often seen by those viral videos of sign language interpreters at heavy metal concerts.
That all this happens while Alpha watches, sneaking among them, plotting her retribution, only makes it all the more poignant, because it emphasizes that she doesn’t simply select targets at random, she’s going for maximum impact with a minimum body count. She’s not simply looking to cut the head off a snake, she’s looking to kill the snake by using a thousand well-placed cuts, as well as sweeping up other people who are unlucky enough to try and get involved at the last moment.
Too often, decisions have been made on The Walking Dead due to behind-the-scenes drama or for shock value rather than under the guise of telling the best possible story. The events of “The Calm Before” could be more shocking, but they will have a serious ripple effect in a way that will make the death of Carl seem like a sneeze in a glass of water.
The events of this episode will reverberate across all four communities in a way that hasn’t been seen since the war with the Saviors, except with a little poignancy because it allows the characters to grow and change, to deal with something and grow from that, be they little-used side characters or some of the show’s main leads.
That’s a credit to Angela Kang’s guiding hand; she’s able to stun the viewers and yet also not lean on shock for the sake of shock. Certainly, there’s a shock or two to happen at the end of the episode, but as the finale triggers and all the pieces begin to fall, it doesn’t feel like something as rash as, say, Glenn’s death at the hands of Negan. This is something akin to watching a string of dominoes falling, with the destruction yielding a beautiful pattern (albeit this pattern is far less beautiful and far more poignant and grisly).
It’s up to Siddiq to weave this tale not on sadness and death, but on a hopeful note, as he spins a beautiful tale of love, people working together, fighting for one another, even if they’re strangers to one another, that doesn’t stop them from struggling, trying, uniting out of something other than fear or pain. Avi Nash has a difficult task with this monologue, and he absolutely nails it over footage of the last battle between the overwhelmed and surrounded survivors and the Whisperers.
Ezekiel mentions in his opening speech that the fair, and the greater cooperation for defense and trade it brings about, is the dream of Rick and Carl Grimes made life. Even the Whisperers, with their cruelty and aggression, can’t snuff out the greater thing that the fair has put into motion. It’s up to the outsiders—Siddiq, Lydia, Ozzy—to remind those who have been struggling all along as to what they’re actually fighting for, and against.
The Walking Dead rarely deals in taut emotions, preferring to manipulate with big pushes and pokes. “The Calm Before” has that in spades, but the creative team is able to dial it back, sprinkling moments of hopefulness in front of Alpha. Unlike Lydia, who was taken in by it, she’s repulsed, and while it doesn’t show on her face, it shows in her actions, and her talk with Daryl at shotgun-point. The very same incidents strike two related people totally differently, and in the denouement of the episode, the very things that lend sweetness and happiness end up causing the greatest in bittersweet pain.