Warning: Discussing this episode requires delving into some SPOILERS.
Season 9, Episode 15: The Calm Before
PLOT: While communities reunite at the Kingdom fair, the Whisperers are plotting to ruin their good times.
REVIEW: AMC’s The Walking Dead hurt me a bit with the penultimate episode of season 9, even though I went into it knowing that tragedy was approaching. I haven’t read the comic book source material past the first TPB, but it’s hard to avoid story spoilers while keeping an eye on the Walking Dead online fan community, so while King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) has spent a large portion of this season working toward a fair being held at his Kingdom community, I knew that once we reached the fair something terrible would happen. The comic book readers have been talking about “heads on pikes”, put there by the Whisperers, the recently introduced group of people who move among herds of zombies by wearing masks of zombie flesh. The comic book fans had the knowledge of which characters were killed in the book so their heads could end up as part of the heads on pikes collection – an assorted dozen – but the TV show drifts away from the source material often enough that it was safe to assume that we’d be seeing a very different collection of heads once the event happened on AMC.
In The Calm Before, the Kingdom has its fair. Members of several different communities are there to participate in the fun and games; Hilltop, Alexandria, and Oceanside are all represented. The leaders of these communities come together for the first time in about five years and make a formal agreement to watch each other’s backs. They have hope for the future. It seems like this is going to be a rare happy episode of The Walking Dead.
Then the Whisperers abduct ten people from the gathered communities. They kill them, decapitate them, and put their heads on pikes as a warning to these groups who are attempting to return to the old ways of life not to stray into their territory, where they embrace what the world has become and live with the dead.
It’s not often that I’m bothered by a character death on this show, because I tend to enjoy the drama of these tragedies and like The Walking Dead’s brand of “carnage candy”. The majority of the characters are expendable as far as I’m concerned. I was sad to see Glenn go back in the season 7 premiere, because I had enjoyed following his relationship with Maggie since season 2. I disagreed with the decision to kill off Carl Grimes in season 8 because his presence was too important to the story of Rick Grimes. I never envisioned a day when Rick Grimes would be written off the show, but he’s been gone for a while now, so killing off Carl didn’t mean much after all. Most of the people who end up on pikes were completely expendable, even if a couple of them were played by actors I liked seeing on the show. But there was one death tonight that really disappointed me. The death of someone who has been on the show for several years, a character I have been rooting for. Tara (Alanna Masterson).
Recently Tara had been promoted into a leadership role, which I was glad to see happen. I was interested in seeing where that storyline was going to go… But it came to a dead end tonight, thanks to the Whisperers. She wasn’t the most popular character around, in fact there was a lot of mocking and complaining when she got her own episode a couple seasons back, but I’m going to miss her. She’s the only one of the ten I’m really sorry to see go, and I did not expect her to make her exit at this point.
Another death had an impact on me not because I cared about the character, but because of the heartbreak it’s going to cause for a different character I care about. Carol (Melissa McBride) had finally been given the chance to live a happy life in this season, and that just got torn apart. She has been devastated again and I feel bad for her, while also being eager to see how she’s going to carry on from this episode.
The “heads on pikes” scene is, of course, the standout event, it’s the thing most worth talking about in this episode, but it is preceded by something interesting. A sequence in which Alpha (Samantha Morton), the leader of the Whisperers, infiltrates the fair by killing a woman and stealing her hair and fashion sense. She walks the streets of the Kingdom, even interacts with Ezekiel. It was kind of creepy seeing her take on a different identity to move undetected among the more civilized characters, and this also gave Morton a chance to show a different side of her devious, deadly, dirtbag character, so it was a great to have this in the episode on the way to the big reveal.
In previous seasons, the “heads on pikes” moment would have been one of the final scenes in a season finale. Like Rick leaving the show in a random episode earlier this season, the fact that we have a full episode left to watch after this one is a great example of new showrunner Angela Kang deciding to shake up the show’s formerly predictable structure. Things like this are appreciated, even if I’m not happy that Tara’s not going to be around for the season finale.
BEST ZOMBIE MOMENT: Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carol, and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) take down a bunch of zombies together, and do so very quickly.
GORY GLORY: The heads on pikes aren’t extremely gory, they’re just zombified heads on the top of wooden poles with a bit of blood on them, but it’s the most prominent and memorable effect in the episode.
FAVORITE SCENE: Siddiq (Avi Nash) tells the story of what happened in the moments before the decapitations.