Even for those who knew it was coming, and even for those who have read every issue of Robert Kirkman’s source material, it was impossible to prepare for the shock of this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, which delivered a stunning, gut-punch of an ending to the penultimate episode of the ninth season. The comparisons the show made to the Red Wedding leading up to this episode were apt. Like Game of Thrones so often has, The Walking Dead dropped the hammer in the second-to-last episode of the season, likely knowing that viewers never would have expected it from a show that typically saves its biggest moments until the finale.
By the time it was all said and done, Alec, Ozzy, DJ, Frankie, Tammy Rose, Rodney, and Adeline were all killed by The Whisperers, their heads decapitated and impaled on spikes for Daryl, Yumika, Siddiq, Michonne, and Carol to find.
And then came the big names on that wall of spiked heads: Enid, who had sweetly made her relationship with Alden official earlier in the episode. Then Tara, who only wanted to get back to The Hilltop and prove herself a leader. And, finally, there was Henry.
Henry has been the most hated character on the entire show this season, and while most fans aren’t terribly sad to see him die, I think we all forgot about what it might do to Carol, who had already witnessed the mercy-killing of one zombified child in Sophie, had to kill another surrogate child her own in Lizzie, and here had to find her adopted son’s head on a spike. Carol’s reaction, however, isn’t nearly as haunting and heartbreaking as Daryl’s attempt to shield her eyes from the sight of Henry’s zombified head.
That poor woman, who will now have to go through this again. I don’t know if she can repeat the grieving process again, and while Melissa McBride is a rock on this series, I am half worried that the same fate that befell Carol early in the comic’s run — death by suicide — may arrive in next week’s season finale.
Let’s back up, though. “The Calm Before” — what many comics readers thought would be the first episode of two before the season ended with heads on spikes — began with a couple we haven’t seen before from The Hilltop heading to the fair and celebrating their anniversary. They’re glowing and full of hope as they depart. Unfortunately, they never make it to the fair with the little wooden medallions the wife has been busy making over the years. The Whisperers grab the couple on the way and kill them. In fact, Alpha takes the wife’s blond hair and turns it into a wig, disguising herself so that she can attend the fair herself, claiming to be someone from Alexandria.
At the fair, everyone is in great spirits. Ezekiel gives a great speech talking about enacting the vision put forward by Rick and Carl. There is a lot of revelry. When Michonne arrives, the four communities — The Hilltop, The Kingdom, Alexandria, and The Oceanside — all agree to sign a mutual protection pact. An attack on one is an attack on the rest of them. King Ezekiel signs it along with Carol — who signs it as “Queen Carol.” Tara also signs (her last act as leader of The Hilltop), as well as Gabriel, who Michonne makes Head of Counsel, probably so that she wouldn’t have to sign the charter and reveal her last name (some of this show’s mysteries will always remain a secret).
The Fair, meanwhile, goes well … until it doesn’t. Several of the communities’ “fighters” head back to The Hilltop to protect it from a surprise attack from The Whisperers, but on the way, they learn about the attack on the couple. Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and Yumika split off to see if someone is still alive, but they’re attacked themselves by Beta and The Whisperers, who eventually outnumber them and hold them hostage.
However, it’s all a misdirect, because back at the Fair, Alpha finds Lydia during the movie, gets her alone, and reminds her of how weak she is. Lydia stands up to her mom this time, though, and says that all she has to do is scream and the entire community will have her back. Alpha reluctantly leaves her alone, but as she’s headed back to her camp, she abducts several people from the fair. It’s not clear how she managed to do so, but eventually she and The Whisperers overpower and kill their captives before placing their heads on spikes, used to mark The Whisperers territory.
At this point, Beta lets Daryl, Carol, Michonne and Yumiko free, which is when they find Siddiq, beaten and left behind to tell the story of what happened. Siddiq directs them to the spiked heads and, well, it’s a horror show.
The episode does, however, end on a somewhat hopeful note. Daryl and Co. return to The Fair, where Siddiq relays the story of what happened. However, instead of telling them the story that Alpha wants them to hear, Siddiq tells them a story about a group of people that fought with one another and for one another. What they did “was more than brave, because they defended each other, and they sacrificed for each other. And some of them, they didn’t even know each other. But they fought like they did. Like they were family. Until the very end.”
RIP Ozzy, Alec, DJ, Frankie, Tammy Rose, Rodney, Adeline, Enid, Tara, and Henry.
— Props to showrunner Angela Kang for all the misdirection these last few episodes. In the comics, it’s Luke, Ezekiel and Rosita who are the major deaths. She teased us into believing that she might stick with the source material by revealing Rosita’s pregnancy and then giving her a sweet moment with Eugene in this episode. Comic readers probably thought it was her goodbye scene. They killed Tara off instead. Meanwhile, I’m sure many of us assumed that instead of Luke, it would be Alden who was killed. It was neither. It was Enid, which came as a complete and total shock. Likewise, rather than killing off Ezekiel, Kang killed off Henry, which was a huge surprise because he had taken over Carl’s storyline from the comics. That storyline apparently will pass to Lydia?
— The Hilltop loses another leader, which is interesting assuming that Maggie makes a return next season. In either respect, being the leader of The Hilltop seems like a cursed position: Gregory. Maggie. Jesus. Tara. Who will be next? Daryl? Magna?
— One of many sweet moments in the episode came when Judith met Carol for the first time in years and still remembered her. “I’ve been drawing pictures of you since I was little,” she said.
— In a conversation between Connie and her sister, Kelly, we learn that Connie lost a child of her own.
— Eugene and Rosita’s work on the ham radio is likely a nod toward a future storyline, in which they can communicate with either The Commonwealth or perhaps Rick Grimes, leading to Michonne’s eventual departure from the series to be with her husband.