“The Calm Before” proved to be one of the best episodes in recent memory and one of the most shocking in The Walking Dead history as the stage was set for another lengthy conflict.
This recap of The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 15, “The Calm Before”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The sneaky thing about “The Calm Before”, which was one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead in recent memory and contained one of the boldest, most shocking endings in the show’s history, is that it kind of made it obvious where things were going. It played with the chronology of events and the structure of the episode — the kind of thing the show used to do when it was terrible and thought it was clever. It frontloaded a bunch of optimistic and uplifting reunions, as the long-divided apocalyptic communities came together to revel in the Kingdom’s festivities and to sign new declarations of their cooperation. Lydia (Cassady McClincy) was granted asylum; Alpha (Samantha Morton) spared a soggy-eyed moment of reflection for her lost daughter; it looked like the conflict with the Whisperers had reached an amicable end.
No such luck.
Call me an idiot. Call me naive. But my excuse is that I’m so used to The Walking Dead being dramatically fraudulent and formally incompetent that while I expected this picturesque scene to descend into chaos, I never for a moment expected “The Calm Before” to cull a significant portion of the cast, or to do so quite this effectively. By the end, I was faintly awestruck both by the lengths the show had gone to in order to shock us and by how much I cared that it had.
It even wheeled out all the old tricks. We got an Ezekiel (Khary Payton) speech. We got terribly awkward flirting from Eugene (Josh McDermitt). We got annoying teenage shenanigans from Henry’s (Matt Lintz) clique and that obvious out-of-order sequencing as Alpha strutted around the fair as “Debbie from Alexandria” while she also, in her usual Whisperer attire, kidnapped the crack A-list hit-squad of Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carol (Melissa McBride) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura). It really did seem like any old penultimate episode.
I can readily admit that it was absolutely ridiculous that Alpha scrubbed up so well, even if it was foreshadowed by that morbid opening scalping. And I’m obviously not going to pretend that I bought into her remorse over Lydia, even as she dropped a solitary tear and had to stab one of her cronies in the head to make up for it. I never expected peace to come so easily, and when she offered a truce, just so long as Daryl and company respected her borders, in no way did I believe that the agreement would be honored. Not right before the finale.
But I didn’t expect the borders of Alpha’s domain to be marked by the severed heads of several characters, impaled on spikes. If this is the calm before, I don’t think I’m prepared for the storm.
Even the excruciating reveals of each head played with lowered expectations. A couple of Highwaymen? Who cares? Former Saviours? Whatever. Henry’s bitchy trouble-causing pals? No problem. But Enid (Katelyn Nacon)! And Tara (Alanna Masterson)! Blimey, the Hilltop leadership role is the most dangerous in all the apocalypse. That would have been enough of a shock in itself. But there was one more zombified head to be revealed, chattering away on a pike: Henry. Right in front of his mother, too.
There are no doubt more upbeat ways I could have spent my Monday morning. But “The Calm Before” accomplished everything an episode like this is supposed to; it was tense, sometimes moving, and eventually tragic. It set things up for a chaotic finale and presumably for another season of inevitable conflict. It was shocking and bold and effective. Even in this reliably above-average ninth season, it is a long time since The Walking Dead has been this self-assured, surprising, and compulsively watchable. I have no idea how the finale would top this, but I sincerely hope it does.