“Evolution” caps off the best half-season of The Walking Dead in recent memory, offing a (fairly) major character and solidifying a cool, scary new threat in the meantime.
This recap of The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 8, “Evolution”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
All this positivity has been getting me down recently, so here are two things I don’t like about this ninth season of The Walking Dead. The first is Michonne (Danai Gurira). Her stony-faced isolationist rhetoric is starting to get on my nerves, and because the show is playing coy with the real reasons behind the fracturing of Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom, her general attitude is starting to become obnoxious. And the second thing is Henry (Matt Lintz). Admittedly I’ve always hated him, but “Evolution” proved I hate the sulky older version just as much, perhaps more, than the sulky younger version. At least he had age as an excuse then.
Luckily, I like just about everything else. Angela Kang taking over as showrunner has been the best thing to happen to The Walking Dead in a long time, and “Evolution” capped off one of the best half-season runs in the show’s history. And it did it by just being better. No gimmicks, no tricks, no arty structural flourishes or bizarre contrivances. Sure, the timeline leapt forward by several years, but that felt like a welcome soft-reboot in the absence of Andrew Lincoln, and this ninth season has truly committed to it. Those solid new foundations have allowed these last eight episodes and “Evolution” in particular to do what the best long-form storytelling always does: subvert expectations and repurpose familiar elements to new ends.
This is to say that “Evolution” was scary – and when was the last time The Walking Dead was scary? But what’s interesting is why it was scary. Consider the herds. We’re familiar with the concept now; shambling throngs of the undead that shuffle idiotically towards the nearest noise. Characters in-universe, like the audience, are pretty blasé about them at this point. So when Daryl (Norman Reedus), Jesus (Tom Payne) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) observe them from afar as their whispers are carried on the wind and they veer radically, menacingly off-course, something old and tired becomes suddenly terrifying. The rules aren’t being followed anymore.
We know why, of course. Hidden in the herd are people with rotten walker faces sewn over their own, steering the undead along paths of their own design. But even when that fact was finally made clear, it didn’t dispel the horror of this new threat. It can’t, really. The idea of the Whisperers is predicated on perverting an old menace; on taking something familiar and making it alien. What’s scarier than discovering that everything you thought you knew and understood about something is no longer valid?
“Evolution” revealed this masterfully. Trapped in a foggy graveyard with an annoyingly incapacitated Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Jesus and Aaron were seemingly rescued by Michonne, Daryl and the new folks. It was another typical last-minute escape, the kind of thing that the show has done countless times to build tension without having to make any major narrative changes. Jesus hung back to show off his stunt double’s flashy slow-motion swordplay, and casually offed the remaining walkers on his way out. But as he took a swing at the last one, it ducked under his slash and skewered him on a blade of its own. “You are where you do not belong,” it whispered, and Jesus once again died for our sins. The whole thing was exceedingly well-done. I had to watch it twice.
I could quibble about Jesus being killed when he has finally become a tolerable character, especially since Eugene still implausibly continues to survive, but whatever. I’ve convinced that was the best possible way to properly introduce the Whisperers, and I’ll entertain no arguments in that regard. I’ve also got a lot of time for Daryl peeling off the thing’s face like he was unveiling a Scooby-Doo villain.
Elsewhere in “Evolution”, Henry was being Henry. And as much as his super-serious pouting winds me up, I can let it slide in this case, as I do like what the show is getting at here, which is that thanks to the time skip we’re now in a position where young teenagers who have grown up in one of the various “safe” communities have no idea what the world is actually like beyond the walls. They get bored and want to sneak out to their surprisingly well-appointed hideout to sup moonshine, and they keep a single walker in a pit for target practice because it presumably makes them feel tough. Henry knows better, and even though I can’t stand him being oh-so-serious about that fact, it makes a degree of sense. He might still be a kid, and you can tell by how pathetically he lusts after grown-up Enid, but he knows better than most how likely silly pranks and games are to get people killed.
I wasn’t even disappointed that this particular subplot ended rather mundanely, because it proved its point without having to resort to stupidity fuelling the episode’s major drama. It was kept separate from the Whisperer plot, yet it made its point. And it was able to do so by calling back to the last time someone had to sit in Hilltop’s cell for acting out while drunk. I like that kind of continuity, even if I still don’t like Henry.
Besides, I have other people to hate, such as the always-annoying Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam). In “Evolution”, we saw him attempting to do something that nobody seems able to: Understand Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). This was another call-back (remember that whole zombie guts team-building fiasco) but with a slightly revamped dynamic. Now, Negan is a pitiable prisoner, and Gabriel is one of the leaders of Alexandria. He’s banging Rosita (Christian Serratos), which Negan is understandably perplexed about, and he’s frustrated that he has to babysit a man who continues even now to torment him while the love of his life is seriously injured miles away. But he’s still Gabriel, and therefore still an idiot. So on the way out he forgets to lock Negan’s cell.
On the one hand this is stupid (the guard didn’t notice the mistake either?). But on the other hand it’s another welcome layer of complexity and terror. Negan is better this season than he ever has been. He still says head-scratchingly bizarre things, but we’ve seen weakness and desperation in his character, yet he never lost that underlying air of psychopathy and menace. He never gave off the impression of being reformed. And now he’s loose. Whispering might have been the eerie sound that marked the end of the The Walking Dead’s best half-season in recent memory, but maybe whistling will reintroduce it next year. I’ll be keeping an ear out.