This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 8
The Walking Dead season 9 midseason finale had one of the creepiest set pieces the show’s ever done. Throughout the episode, it’s been established that the herd chasing Daryl, Eugene, Aaron, and Jesus is something different. It starts out simple, with some creepy aimless wandering in a field. It gets creepier from there.
The herd grows, but more than that, it chases. All the little tricks that Daryl knows to draw a herd away, alarm clocks and fireworks and his barking dog, don’t work to keep these new walkers in line. The herd has a mind of its own, and motivations that will come as quite a surprise for the survivors that are being chased.
The thought alone is enough to terrify Eugene enough to hide in a spider-hole, shaking and clutching a knife. It’s not a herd, it’s a smart herd. They’ve been searching for him, and they keep coming back to look for him. Eugene, always thinking ahead, has decided that the walkers have started evolving, and while it sounds crazy, Rosita wakes up from her sickbed and bolts into action immediately, because she knows just how bad this threat is for Eugene, and for the rest of the survivor communities.
That’s a credit to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script. The threat level of the herd grows as the episode deepens. It starts off just looking weird, and the characters get to have conversations about the oddity of the behavior, and get to speculate about it while it just continues to grow and grow.
With every reappearance of Daryl, Aaron, and Jesus, things just get a little bit worse for them, and the herd gets a little more ominous. The three characters talk about the strangeness, but it’s not overwhelming, and it isn’t hammered home too hard. It’s strange, but not so strange that they’re immediately suspicious of it. However, when their methods to distract the herd keep failing, it only gets weirder, and the tension grows.
There’s more tension than just the three having their weird zombie adventure. There’s a surprising amount of tension at Hilltop, between Michonne, the Hilltoppers, and Carol. They’re all friends still, but their friendship has clearly been strained, and the incident that caused the strain is something no one discusses openly, but dances around. That works better than simply putting a button on things, and it doesn’t give the episode a break from stress while still giving the zombie herd a chance to breathe.
Even Henry meeting some new friends and bonding over a bottle of moonshine and a walker trapped in a pit has a little bit of weirdness to it, if only because of his flirtation with Addy and the disrespectful, bored way the teens play games with a dangerous zombie; at least he understands that these things are dangerous and aren’t meant to be trifled with.
The tension doesn’t blow off in the final scenes of the episode; if anything, it gets worse, and sets up what is probably the show’s most effective half-season cliffhanger. The walkers have trapped Eugene, Aaron, and Jesus in a spooky, fog-covered graveyard. They shamble over in small groups. Eugene tries to dig the gates of the cemetery free while Aaron and Jesus fend off zombies. Jesus mops up the walkers, showing off his martial arts skills, while Aaron and Eugene help out as they can.
Then the walker advance stops, and the whispering starts. Michonne and Magna show up to help free Eugene and the others, and the zombies come in earnest. Jesus starts showing off with martial arts moves, Jackie Chan-running up a walker and turning in mid-air to strike another one down. It’s very cool, and very flashy, the kind of thing that works great on a brainless opponent.
Jesus goes to mow down one more zombie with his sword, only to have that zombie duck, slide in behind him, and stab him in the kidneys from behind, with an ominous warning that he’s messing around in places where he doesn’t belong. That’s when a new breed of “walkers” come rushing out of the shadows with weapons, and Michonne, a returning Daryl, and Magna open up with arrows and projectiles.
It’s an incredible final scene. The smoke-filled graveyard, the ominous rumble of thunder in the background, the way the zombies seem to just keep coming, the sudden shocking turn of the skin-clad Whisperer turning on Jesus with a threat and a knife, all brilliantly done by director Michael Satrazemis. The cemetery is old-school horror, right down to the billowing fog and the ominous shapes shambling up out of the darkness.
It’s not the sort of scare that The Walking Dead usually does, and as such it’s a refreshing change of pace that’s sold brilliantly by Josh McDermitt’s terrified performance. Eugene was a coward before, but he’d grown into something sterner over the seasons. That he’s back to terrified, and talking about the walkers evolving, is enough to put a fear into everyone around him. And that’s before the “zombies” start picking up weapons and showing tactical thought patterns.
The Whisperers are established immediately as a threat, but it’s greater than that. The death of Jesus isn’t so much important to the story—Jesus and Tom Payne have been woefully underutilized throughout the character’s stay on the show—but because of what it means. There’s a new adversary that is able to hide in plain sight until the time to strike is right. They’ve taken Carol’s use of the zombie horde as camouflage and perfected it. They’ve taken Rick’s use of the zombie horde and changed it from a siege weapon to a tactical nuclear weapon.
While not every episode of The Walking Dead season 9 has been a five-star classic, the first eight have been some of the most solid work in the program’s recent history, and showrunner Angela Kang’s first half-season has been a decided improvement over the last two seasons. There’s a sense of danger, and now that the Rick Grimes saga is over, the beginnings of a sense of unpredictability that the show has been sorely lacking for years now. At its best, anyone could die at any moment, and only a few major characters were protected by plot armor. Most of those characters are gone now, and if that means The Walking Dead can take risks again, so much the better.