It was a dark and stormy night when a dense fog snaked through a labyrinthian cemetery, when the dead rose up against the living, and when the Whisperers finally revealed themselves. It was a thrilling moment, but one undercut by a loss of another life and the true haunter: a television trope that just won’t die.
Yes, Jesus is dead. No resurrecting either, at least according to actor Tom Payne. He thought he was battling a more evolved form of walker. Instead, it was a man in disguise and the mistake cost him his life. It’s the “bury your gays” business all over again. Jesus wasn’t a crucial character to The Walking Dead, but he had the potential to be. He was on the verge of becoming an interesting member of society as he filled the vacancy left by Maggie at Hilltop. Seeds were planted for him to have some relationship — romantic, mentorship, friendship, or otherwise — with Aaron. Maybe the TV writers’ room thought they were being clever since Jesus is alive in the comics and he has a relationship with Aaron. All of that’s over now. And as one of few LGBTQ characters on the show — like, ever — the sting is noticeable.
It’s the same sting that came when an arrow pierced Denise’s skull and when Eric bled out before Aaron. It’s like there’s a quota on how many LGBTQ people can openly, happily exist at the same time, and when that number starts to grow, it’s time to cull the herd. The main defense the producers have going for them is the fact that Payne wanted out. As he told EW, he was getting bored and wanted to shake things up, offering himself up as the next casualty. What does that say about the show, though, if Andrew Lincoln, Lauren Cohan, and now Payne are asking to leave?
Yes, everybody suffers on The Walking Dead. Yes, everyone, including gay people, should have equal opportunities to face death. It also doesn’t erase how the writers handled the deaths (and subsequent controversies) of T-Dog, Tyreese, Sasha, Bob, and Noah. It wasn’t as egregious as Denise; the writers had to perform some narrative gymnastics with that episode to place her perfectly in the eye line of fire. Minorities are usually the first to go and for gay people, well, our joy is on a timer. When the timer goes off, our deaths become the entertainment — as if we’re the zombie stumbling blindly in a pit as kids shoot arrows and toss rings at us. At least Jesus went out more valiantly than that, suited up as an Arthurian parkour warrior, slicing down the dead. Of course, it comes just as his character was finally rising towards the leading role spotlight.
It’s a mixed bag, because, aside from this trope writers seem keen to feed, the midseason finale felt like one of the stronger episodes of this new show that miraculously sprang up in the middle of season 9 — even if the ratings aren’t doing so hot. There was a specific viewpoint. It was a horror, more spooky than most other moments of a self-described horror television show, with zombies rising up in an eerie graveyard. But at what cost?
Jesus is alive when we begin the episode. He, Aaron, Daryl, and Dog (Daryl’s great at naming) are out looking for Eugene when they spot an odd herd of walkers in the distance. They’re just “milling around” in the middle of an open field. This isn’t their normal behavior. Daryl signals that a storm is coming so they ignore the dazed and confused dead and move on. From there, we take a brief pitstop at Alexandria before picking things back up at Hilltop. As kids are taunting each other to see who will go close enough to the jail, Gabriel tries to meditate with Negan. They’ve been having frequent sessions, but the big, bad wolf locked up in his cage isn’t receptive. He’s more entertained by his jail cell window because people forget he’s there and often reveal the juicy goods within his earshot. Negan causes concern for Gabriel when he claims to have heard Rosita say something romantic, but not about him.
Michonne’s arrival at Hilltop reveals more about what’s been going on. A rider charges through the fields outside the borders to warn strangers are approaching and the farmhands flee in fear into the brush. Dianne is on the wall, bow and arrow in hand, when Michonne and her carriage of newcomers approach. They are forced to relinquish their weapons before entering. There’s an animosity even as Michonne speaks with Tara. Hilltop is willing to give Magna’s group a chance to live with them, but she’ll have to speak with Jesus. Michonne is just surprised to hear everything that’s been going on behind her back — that Eugene is also missing and Aaron has been meeting with Jesus, on top of Maggie’s departure. She later speaks with Carol, who has a more amicable rapport. Ezekiel had sent Alexandria a letter, presumably about the decaying condition of the Kingdom or the fair they’re trying to set up for all the colonies, but Michonne declined to answer. She says Alexandria had their troubles too and it’s time to take care of their own.
We also learn from Jesus that Daryl has been trading with Hilltop. He used to come more regularly, but his visits became less and less. Jesus mourns their past life. He misses being outside the walls. He misses being an explorer, like when he and Aaron were traveling representatives for their communities. They are quickly reminded that being outside the wall also means being exposed to the dangers of the wild. The herd, Daryl says, is coming for them. He winds up an alarm clock and hurls it into the field to try to draw them off. The herd seems to have grown in size, which the group assumes is because they merged with other walkers. The alarm goes off and they assume that is that. We know better.
(Recap continues on the next page.)
Back at Alexandria, Gabriel snaps at Negan as he changes the prisoner’s bedpan. Gabriel heard about Rosita’s condition at Hilltop and it pains him that he can’t leave because someone has to stay behind to look after Negan. Negan seems genuinely sad for Gabriel’s plight. Meanwhile, at Hilltop, Henry meets Gage, Addy (both seen in the previous episode practicing defense moves), and Rodney, three kids around his age who’ve noticed him moping around. Henry spotted his crush, Enid, kissing Alden earlier in the day, but he doesn’t tell them that. Instead, they make plans to help him feel more comfortable by going to their secret spot in the woods later that night.
In the hospital, Rosita wakes up as Michonne and Saddiq are musing over the current state of the colonies. She’s in a panic. She hears about the search party that went out for Eugene, but she warns they don’t know what they’re dealing with. Lightning pierces a black night as thunder grumbles above a lone barn when Jesus, Aaron, and Daryl find Eugene. Rosita stashed him in a hidden space beneath the floorboards to keep him from the herd. He’s trembling. His knee is dislocated, but he warns they have to get out of there or the herd will find them. This isn’t a normal herd, he says. They whisper to each other and they hunt. They’ve been hunting him, Eugene says. Dog barks to warn the others that the walkers have arrived on their doorstep, and they are all forced to flee into the woods.
Henry is partying with his new friends that same night, getting drunk off of moonshine in a fortified cabin. The good time sours when they introduce Henry to their “bored” activity: a walker, pierced by arrows, hobbles around in a pit they dug out themselves. Addy doesn’t seem accepting of this activity, but Gage and Rodney spend their pastime trying to toss rings around the arrow protruding from its head. It’s a scene reminiscent of Woodbury when the Governor used walkers for the entertainment of the community. Henry jumps down into the pit and kills the walker, so the other boys leave him there. He’s found later by Tara and tossed in a jail cell, where he’s forced to face Earl. The penalty for drunk, disorderly conduct is two days in the slammer, presumably a response to that time Earl tried to kill Maggie in a drunken state. Henry refuses to give up the others, so Earl threatens to end his apprenticeship, but Henry’s determination to help the Kingdom and his parents move the blacksmith to give him another chance.
Outside Hilltop, things seem to get worse for the search party. Eugene theorizes these walkers are evolving and are now able to hunt. Jesus suggests they split up — famous last words — so Daryl volunteers to stay behind and draw them off. He sets off a firecracker as Dog barks at the walkers, but the herd only veers slightly in their direction before course correcting. Jesus and Aaron support Eugene as the trio try to lose the dead in the twists and turns of a graveyard clouded in thick fog. They’re able to find the gate on the other end, but it’s stuck deep in the dirt. Jesus, unsheathing his sword, and Aaron, snatching his knife, take a stand against the walkers approaching them.
Then the whispers start.
They hear it. Light chatter carried on the howling wind. Soft voices escaping the mist. One whisper breaks the spell: Michonne has arrived to help push open the gate. Magna and Yumiko show up, to her surprise, hoping to earn their keep at Hilltop. Jesus says he’ll hold off the walkers while Aaron helps Eugene through the gate, and that’s when it happens. He sees two walkers setting sights on the gate. He cuts the first one down with ease, but as he goes for the other, the walker breaks from his hobble and parries the swing. It’s one of the Whisperers, and he stabs Jesus in the back, whispering in his ear, “You are where you do not belong.”
As Aaron and the others rush to his defense, other Whisperers, brandishing knives, rush out of the fog. They seemed to be hiding among actual walkers and guiding the herd to find Eugene. Daryl catches up with them in time to plant an arrow in one of their skulls. With their attackers subdued, Aaron weeps over the body of Jesus, but something else catches the others’ attention. Michonne’s blade is slicked with fresh blood and Daryl notices indents in the walkers’ heads. He cuts at the hairs, revealing their assailants are wearing the skin of walkers as masks, allowing them to mask their scent and mingle with the dead.
Then the whispers start again.
“Don’t let them slip away.”
“Keep them together.”