This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 9
Zombies on The Walking Dead are only a threat to our survivors when they’re in large groups. Anything smaller than a herd tends to be easy pickings, more or less, if one of the main characters isn’t alone or caught unaware due to shooting-related hearing loss. Various attempts have been made to make the zombies more of a menace, from the massive well zombie in season 2 to the zombie torso attached to another zombie seen in this episode, but they usually don’t work as a real threat.
The Whisperers have changed that. From the first moment a zombie pulled out a blade and attacked Jesus, zombies are dangerous again, and throughout “Adaptation,” that secondary threat looms large in every scene involving a walker. Whether it’s connected to the Whisperer attack or not, every time a rotting ghoul appears on screen, there’s an expectation that they’re going to turn out to be a secret human, capable of fighting back against an opponent who is taking them less than seriously.
This makes Negan’s brief foray into freedom something that feels threatening at every moment. Whenever a walker appears on screen during “Adaptation,” the viewer is never quite sure how to feel. Will this be the easy sort of walker that Negan has killed hundreds of, or will this be a Whisperer? That adds an extra layer of dread with every walker interaction throughout the episode, and those shambling groups are no longer just annoyances, but potentially lethal in a way that they haven’t been since the first season.
Wisely, Greg Nicotero plays this up at every possible moment. It’s difficult to distinguish between a regular walker and a person hiding behind the mask of one, and that’s deliberately muddled by the actors. Nicotero plays up the weirdness of zombie movements, the way they hide in plain sight by becoming part of the background—a shambling distant presence—and the Whisperers pantomime zombie walking so perfectly as to be indistinguishable from the real thing until there’s no time to react to them. At several points, they’re just background movement, until it’s too late and characters are surrounded or forced to confront an attack from thinking, logical opponents.
Part of the situation’s stress comes from dramatic irony. We know that not all these walkers are real zombies, but the characters (aside from those fleeing the Whisperers) don’t know that. Negan, Luke, Alden and the like are going out thinking it’s a normal search and rescue mission, with normal enemies. It’ll either be people or zombies, both of which have established patterns of attack.
Knowing the threat firsthand, the fleeing Daryl cleverly figures out a way to determine zombie from human via arrow to the knee. The other characters in these situations don’t have that advantage, so when Luke and Alden see zombies behaving strangely, they don’t see a threat so much as an opportunity to study their rotting enemy, and that lures them into trouble.
That’s reinforced in Corey Reed’s script. Luke and Alden are almost cavalier about the zombies. Been there, done that. Negan also. Luke and Alden are even comfortable enough to chat with one another while killing walkers, and Negan pauses to have a bit of a relationship with one found in the Sanctuary, who was formerly someone named Big Richie.
The conversations illuminate a lot about the characters; Luke is more of a survivor than you might think, and has good interpersonal skills that make him something of a natural peacemaker. Negan gets to have some pretty interesting character moments, particularly with Judith (Cailey Fleming is growing on me) as he exits and returns to Alexandria; she’s clearly taking on the role Carl once played in his life, and the scenes are enjoyable. Negan talks to her on her level, but never talks down to her, because he respects her and cares for her—and he knows she’ll shoot him if she has to.
Without cooperation in the communities, and without the ease of travel provided by automobiles, the news of the Whisperers will spread slowly, but as more people come into contact with them—and are captured by them—word will spread and undoubtedly it will bring the people back together again (or at least closer together than they have been).
Alden and Luke, brought together simply because Luke volunteers to help earn his keep, have a fun budding friendship that reinforces Luke’s likability. Dan Fogler has a lot of easy charm, and when Luke’s attempts to make friends seems a bit strained, it doesn’t feel unnatural. He seems like just one of those guys, and he’s good playing off Callan McAuliffe. Norman Reedus is similarly good, both in his interactions with Matt Lintz and the captured Whisperer Lydia (Cassady McClincy), showing more of the charisma and range that the character had prior to Daryl’s transformation into PTSD-riddled grunting loner.
Angela Kang’s time as showrunner has been tumultuous. Losing the main character on any show creates problems, and the loss of an important secondary character at the same time doesn’t help. Still, The Walking Dead has a deep bench of characters we know and are familiar with, and with improved focus on character relationships and quality of writing, that will be the show’s biggest strength going forward.
As I said in my recent article for those pondering a return to The Walking Dead, it’s not a new show, but there is a renewed focus on building and improving on neglected familiar characters, while bringing new characters—both protagonist and antagonist—to refresh the universe. Hence, Alden and Luke, Negan and Judith, Daryl and Henry and Lydia: familiar faces and fresh ones, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, who can take what still works about the show and go forward with strength, rather than trying to turn The Walking Dead into something it’s not.