This week's episode of AMC's The Walking Dead amped up the paranoia, tension, and brutality (yes, brutality) in ways that caught us as off-guard as the season opener did.
Taking the "Meanwhile…" approach similar to what viewers have seen in the past, "Stalker" takes a break from the cave and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to focus on Beta's mission to Alexandria to extricate Gamma (Thora Birch) – just so he can deliver her to the business end of Alpha's (Samantha Morton) knife. Though he leaves his mark on Alexandria in some brutal ways, we're left with the feeling that Alpha's right-hand psycho wasn't expecting the response he received – let's just say it was a welcome one.
And don't get us started on that Daryl (Norman Reedus)/Alpha throwdown… not yet, at least. First? Our proper warning that MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! are coming your way…
Directed by Bronwen Hughes and Jim Barnes, "Stalker" works because it knows when to give us a lot, while also knowing when to pull back and leave the "mental driving" to the viewers. To put it in horror movie terms, we got the "gore" when we needed it and the slow-building tension when it was utilized.
First, the fight between Alpha and Daryl was was a bloody ballet between two diametrically opposed forces – each with their own philosophy about surviving in a post-walker world – philosophies that can can't survive one another. For Daryl, it's about doing what you need to do to secure the future and maintain your humanity. For Alpha, it's a "kill or be killed" survivalist attitude in which the only way to survive is to surrender your humanity and be more like them.
So the "backstory" behind their battle was a given, but the brutality of it? Did not see that coming – and it worked. The choice to show us Daryl's perspective after being slashed in the face by Alpha was a good call, and not only established the two opposing forces as equals but also placed Daryl in a rare moment of suffering from near-fatal fight wounds.
We've watched as Reedus' portrayal of Daryl has grown and evolved, with this season offering some of the most substantial growth in the character. The aftermath of the fight offered an aspect to Daryl's persona, and it was a welcome one.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the importance of Cassady McClincy's Lydia this round. From being a subject matter that damn near gets Daryl stabbed again to the reason Dog doesn't need to find a new owner, Lydia is earning her stripes among our survivors by proving her usefulness time and again.
What made this round so different? Lydia was able to stand before her mother to not only tell her she was wrong, but also to show her just how wrong she was. So when Alpha wants Lydia to put her down and take her rightful place as leader of the Whisperers, we couldn't wait for Lydia to take that moment and crush it back in Alpha's unmasked face.
Beta's mission to Alexandria was where things were dialed back a bit, but not in a bad way by any means. From the opening of the episode that had an odd Seven feel to it, to the disturbing quiet surrounding a walker skin-wearing madman who could let loose a killing spree the likes of which no one on the show's ever seen.
But Beta's a man on a mission, willing to go from "Point A" to "Point B" and back again without going too far off-course. So even though he does off some survivors (rest in peace, Lindsley Register's Laura), it's the stealthness of his movements and not knowing what his action will be next that combined for some wide-eyed, edge-of-seat moments.
What impressed me was how the community flipped the switch to "fight back" mode, whether it was Rosita (Christian Serratos) going toe-to-toe with big ugly or Judith (Cailey Fleming) shooting Beta at point blank range through her door. Hell, even Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) had a bit of "action hero mojo" vibe working for him this round – running off Beta and getting Gamma to safe ground.
Now here's a look at some random wrap-up thoughts:
● We didn't think we'd find yet another reason to be thankful that Dante's (Juan Javier Cardenas) dead – and then we saw how Beta was able to enter Alexandria. He deserved eight more stabs.
● Rosita and Gabriel are clearly on two different, ironic paths. Rosita's nightmares and doubts have her shaken, but when she reconfirms her commitment to the fight, it felt like someone who's processing and says it with realistic confidence. Situation is definitely not the same for Gabriel: he's all about the torturing and the beatings to show the community that the Whisperers are nothing but an act that can be easily broken.
While I'm not exactly sure leaving Coco with Gabriel was a smart idea, spending a little time at Hilltop (hmmm…) might just be what the two murdered doctors ordered – and seeing a friendship grow between her and Gamma would be great for both characters.
● Anyone else's heart break when Judith told Gamma that the ex-Whisperer's life would've been different if she met Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) first?
● Unfortunately, by the end of the episode we learn that Alpha's a big believer in the idea that "whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger". Surviving the near-fatal wounds she received from her face-off with Daryl, Alpha declares herself esentially reborn: stronger than ever, with the final traces of humanity purged from her soul.
When AMC's The Walking Dead returns for its second-half of season 10, our group of survivors are trapped… some in the confines of a cave filled with walkers… others, in a spiral of suspicion and grief — all orchestrated at the hand of Alpha, who continues to prove the Whisperers are always watching and one step ahead of the communities. Through this conflict and all they've lost, a few still hold onto hope, especially Eugene, who believes the mysterious voice he spoke with on the radio may lead to their world getting bigger once again.
But with the Whisperer War upon them, the collective communities must come together and possibly sacrifice all they have to find a way to silence the Whispers once and for all. Otherwise, Alpha will ensure they face a certain doom.