This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 16
The biggest threat to humanity in the wake of the zombie apocalypse isn’t the random hordes of walkers that occasionally show up, or the skin-wearing thugs who kidnap and kill their friends. The biggest threat is the world around them.
Rivers rush and surge unchecked, knocking down bridges. Trees fall, blocking roads and making travel and trade difficult. The land refuses to yield food. Rainstorms and animals ruin the few crops that the land begrudgingly gives up. Summer burns, spring allergies wreak havoc, and now winter is here. And winter is dangerous in a society where electricity is based on solar power and the most efficient heat comes from indoor fires.
So how did they turn Georgia into a winter hell-scape? I’m not sure; winter was a little colder in the South than we’re used to, but there wasn’t another polar vortex situation that I remember. Either way, the winter looks brutal and it makes for one of the more interesting looking episodes of The Walking Dead in a long time. I can’t remember when the show’s leaned hard into the difficult winters of Virginia—it’s incredibly hot in the summer and can have blizzards in the winter thanks to its unique combination of mountains and ocean—or any other weather challenge aside from the storms that led to the destruction of Grimes Bridge.
Accordingly, the wintry setting allows Greg Nicotero and the special effects team to unleash a whole new set of walkers that haven’t been seen thus far on The Walking Dead, and I have to admit that they’re very cool, if you’ll forgive the pun, and it builds on tricks that we’ve seen previously, and gives them new wrinkles. The Kingdom is fallen, and with the blizzard approaching, it’s up to Ezekiel, Carol, and company to lead the people of the Kingdom to Alexandria and Hilltop to ride out the rest of the winter.
The Kingdom’s been struggling for awhile, and while the fair seemed to be successful, a few days of celebration and trading won’t fix broken infrastructure, and as someone in an old house, with every passing winter, more pipes begin to decay. There’s only so much that can be repaired in pieces, and after a catastrophic failure of the boiler system that kept the Kingdom functional, riding out the storm is not possible.
Things aren’t much better in Alexandria, because solar panels only provide electricity when the sun is out. In a blizzard, they’re simply giant metal plates waiting to become shrapnel (if you’re lucky). So while the Kingdom is having to trek through a blizzard to get to safety, the people in Alexandria are having to do the same thing, after one of their three safe-houses falls victim to poor fireplace maintenance. With the Kingdom, the journey is a terse trip across enemy lines, due to a lack of supplies and the downed Grimes Bridge, the quickest way to get to Hilltop and avoid freezing to death requires cutting across Whisperer territory and sliding across a frozen river. With Alexandria, it’s a tense body line shuffle between buildings, akin to the outdoor scenes in The Thing.
In both cases, it’s a chance for Greg Nicotero to show off his sense of visual style and his ability to spring zombies from cool traps. The scenes of Alexandrians sneaking through the snow really reinforce the difficulty of the blizzard, with the blowing snow whipping across the scenes and completely killing the survivors’ ability to see more than a few feet in front of one another—that’s doubly reinforced when Judith disappears into the snow chasing after Dog, and Negan disappears in search of Judith.
It feels a lot like The Thing, in a good way. As for the Kingdom, their trek through the wilderness yields a few awesome-looking shots, and a lot of interesting zombie attacks. The zombies coming out of the snow feel akin to the zombies that came out of the mud in previous seasons, but the best shots were the ones where the zombies “emerged” through the fog of the blizzard not as attacking threats, but as frozen-solid corpsesicles. It was just delay enough to create the impression that the standing walkers were Whisperers sent to stop the encroachment on their territory, but not long enough that the silhouettes overstay their suspenseful welcome.
Nicotero’s direction works well, and it’s supported by another strong, smart script from Angela Kang and Matthew Negrete. Nicotero creates tension with his set-ups and his shooting style, and Kang and Negrete create tension by highlighting the dangers that these communities face. Winter as a threat is a bit novel, but even in our current world, when temperatures get dangerously low, people die (and we have power, heat, and insulated clothing at our disposal).
Michonne and the Kingdom’s impromptu war council pushes the threat of the weather and the lack of supplies to the forefront; if these people are desperate, then the average boot on the ground must be in a barely-controlled panic. Ezekiel, in his bookend segments and in his moments in the middle, is able to gather everyone together with the force of his personality, even when he’s breaking down and slipping out of character in private.
The actors, given good material to work with, do the material justice. Khary Payton is one of the show’s more solid performers, and one of the things he’s best at is his ability to occasionally allow Ezekiel to slip out of character, and replace the King with a zookeeper from Georgia; the King has to keep things together for his people, even when he’s falling apart faster than his relationship with Carol. Carol is distraught, barely holding herself together, and able to confess it in quiet moments to Zeke and Daryl, even when she does the right thing and keeps Lydia from killing herself (a wonderful moment between Melissa McBride and Cassady McClinchy gives them both a chance to breathe, and to begin to establish a relationship between the two beyond Henry).
In many ways, episode 15 was the big season finale episode, and like Game of Thrones, the last episode of the season is more about dealing with that fallout and setting things up for the next season. This is a change in formula from Scott Gimple’s time in charge of the show, and it works successfully to end this season and nudge towards next season while putting a satisfactory cap on Season 9’s theme of the modern world breaking down, gives Negan a little more freedom to be trusted by the cast, and adds just a bit more to the weirdness of the Whisperers.
All in all, it’s a successful, entertaining episode. “Successful and entertaining” is also a good description of Season 9 as a whole. The changes in cast and crew have revitalized the show, and given things an unpredictability and energy level that’s been missing. Season 8 ended up being kind of an exhausting slog, but season 9 has been strangely refreshing. Here’s hoping that it pays off in increased viewers for The Walking Dead Season 10 and a continued run at the top for Angela Kang.