The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang had one of two choices where it concerns the guiding philosophy of The Whisperers: Leave it unexplained and allow viewers interpret it on their own, or provide a meaty backstory that spells it all out. In the comics, Robert Kirkman largely chooses the former: The Whisperers are just a hugely messed up cult, and there’s no real rhyme or reason to why. In this week’s episode, “We Are the End of the World,” Kang chooses the latter approach. The danger in doing so is that Kang needed to conjure up a guiding philosophy for The Whisperers that’s even more twisted than what Kirkman left to our imaginations. My assessment? It’s probably a draw, but mileage may vary depending upon the individual viewer’s imagination.
The backstory, set 7 years in the past, is intercut in this week’s episode with a present storyline that’s designed to show how the backstory informs the present one. Seven years ago, Alpha and Lydia met Beta in an abandoned building while fleeing a zombie horde. Alpha and Beta did not hit it off immediately, but they eventually found that they enjoyed killing zombies together. Alpha also saw in Beta a broken man, someone deeply damaged by the loss of a loved one, the identity of which is unknown (friend? Boyfriend? Brother? Son?).
Based on the surrounding imagery, I’m going to assume this is someone Beta met — and grew very close to — in a rehab facility before the apocalypse. In any respect, even after his friend — who I will call Happy — is zombiefied, Beta can’t seem to let him go, choosing to keep him locked up in a room, which is something we’ve seen with both Hershel and The Governor in past seasons. When Alpha sneaks into Beta’s room searching for Lydia, she comes upon Happy-zombie and kills him, much to Beta’s dismay. Beta loses it and starts destroying things.
Alpha, however, calms Beta by essentially introducing him to her guiding philosophy: She believes that we are all monsters, that we are all zombies, and that the only way to survive is to rid ourselves of our emotions and walk with the dead. The best way to prove one’s commitment to the cause, in fact, is to sacrifice someone we love. In this case, Alpha sacrificed Happy for Beta, but because Beta wants to maintain a connection with Happy, he skins off his face and uses it as a mask. Thus, the Whisperer masks are born (in the case of Beta, he has another very good reason for wanting to keep his face covered).
Meanwhile, in the present, we see that philosophy put into action with a new character played by Thora Birch, Gamma, and Gamma’s sister (because most Whisperers do not have names, we’ll call her GS for “Gamma’s sister.”). GS’s baby is the one that Alpha sacrificed to The Hilltop last season, and GS is still reeling over the loss. When she loses it while roaming with walkers, Beta nearly executes her, but Alpha gives her another chance, because — though she is not supposed to feel emotions — she still has sympathy for GS’s loss of her daughter, even though Alpha is the one that orchestrated it. In fact, Alpha is still hurting herself over the loss of Lydia — she couldn’t bring herself to kill her own daughter last season, and Beta calls her out on it after finding that Alpha essentially has a hidden shrine dedicated to her daughter.
Alpha admits that she’s still hurting — “you’ll never know what it’s like to lose a daughter!” — but makes Beta insists he won’t tell the others. Meanwhile, when GS loses it again after seeing a zombie with a front pack on, a horde converges upon her. Gamma sacrifices her own sister to the zombies to save Alpha, which earns Gamma a name (“Gamma”), a rarity among The Whisperers.
This is essentially what we are dealing with. The Whisperers are being brainwashed by Alpha and Beta into believing that “living” is a fantasy, which is why the Alexandrians pose such a threat to them. When the Whisperer pack sees that the Alexandrians lead happy and peaceful lives, it gives them hope. For a Whisperer, hope is the worst possible thing. It is incumbent upon Alpha and Beta, meanwhile, to ensure that the Whisperer pack never allow their emotions to surface, but in Alpha, there are cracks because she still intensely feels the loss of her own daughter, Lydia.
That is the backdrop as the episode concludes where last week’s episode ended: With Alpha look up above a cliff and eyeing Carol, who knows a few things about losing children.
— Gamma is a character invented for the TV show, and an interesting wrinkle in the storyline. She’s completely committed to Alpha, but when she finds out that Lydia is still alive and that Alpha is not fully committed to her own cause, there will be some interesting tension.
— So, Beta has been wearing the same dead guy’s skin as a mask for seven years? How does he keep it in such good shape? Is there some sort of chemical that allows for the upkeep of human skin?
— Next week’s episode features what I suspect will be one of several showdowns between Alexandrians and The Whisperers this season.