AMC's The Walking Dead has done an effective job of taking the concept of the Whisperers as a broad, far-reaching threat and finding a way to personalize it without lessening the threat level. With "Adaptation," we had a fluid threat that appearedto be everywhere: almost a supernatural threat. In "Omega," the danger of the Whisperers was given a face and a backstory through Lydia's (Cassady McClincy) abuse-twisted memories of life with Alpha (Samantha Morton) – before we (and our heroes) came face-to-disturbing-face with a mother looking for her daughter.
Which brings us to this week's episode "Bounty" (Director: Meera Menon / Writer: Matthew Negrete), and it's fitting that our cliffhanger left us with the Alpha-Daryl (Norman Reedus) standoff over Lydia since family and community – and the sacrifices we make in their name – were clearly on display.
The Walking Dead season 9, episode 11 "Bounty": The savage group led by Alpha confronts the Hilltop in a harrowing attempt to retrieve her daughter. A supply run for the Kingdom turns into a dangerous quest.
Looking at the secondary-but-still-important storyline involving Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Carol (Melissa McBride), Jerry (Cooper Andrews), and a Kingdom squad first, we almost have the makings of a twisted '50's familt sitcom. Family and community is oozing out of everyone's pores, both in the flashback and current timelines. We see Jerry announcing that he and Nabila (Nadine Marissa) were having a child – eventually looking to repopulate the planet themselves with three kids and counting. We see the team on a mission to secure a film projector bulb so movies can be screened for the children at the upcoming fair – to inspire them, give them hope. We watch Carol embrace her mother/"Queen" role to inspire the group when things looked lost.
It's that mission that demonstrates the "sacrifices" aspect of the episode: for Ezekiel's cinematic fever dream to come to life, they will have to risk their lives against a horde of walkers. Was it worth the risk? For Ezekiel, Carol, and the Kingdom, the answer was never in doubt – which was fine and worked well for this scenario.
What I didn't expect was the number of examples of family/sacrifice we were presented with during the hour – both within the communities and the Whisperers – that presented varying degrees of severity and thematic meaning. By the time the promo for next week's episode rolled, we saw Alpha apparently breaking code to get Lydia back; Connie (Lauren Ridloff) sacrificing her safety to save a helpless child and bring Lydia back; Henry (Matt Lintz) sacrificing his position within the community to save the only person he connects with; Enid (Katelyn Nacon) using her bond with Henry to help him see reason; and so many more examples that I almost forgot what was still to come.
Because there was still the matter of Alpha and Daryl's standoff over the fates of Lydia, Alden (Callan McAuliffe), and Luke (Dan Fogler) – and that's where our thematic blade was the sharpest. Daryl's inital reaction is to let Lydia stay and take the fight to the Whisperers – unaware of the extent to which Alpha will go to get her daughter back. He learns pretty quickly, as Alpha not only offers up Alden and Luke for the chopping block if there isn't a deal – she brought a tiny, little example of what (and who) she's willing to sacrfice to get her way.
It's a sacrifice Daryl isn't willing to make – and though he knows giving Lydia back to Alpha is a mistake, he also knows he has to do it to bring "his people" home: when cornered, Daryl chooses who's family and who isn't. He sacrifices a piece of what he knows his right – his basic sense of morality – for a future "great good." For a future that has Alden and Luke in it.
So Daryl and Alpha are bonded in their willingness to do whatever's necessary to protect their own – but while Alpha appears more than willing and able to drop mic and move on, it's not so easy for Daryl. As we see at the end of the episode, that piece of himself that he lost by handing Lydia back to the Whisperers – leading to Henry to launch a "one-Henry" rescue mission – is something Daryl wants back.
Except it looks like that's not going to happen without some very real sacrifice…
Here's a look at some random thoughts about "Bounty":
● Anyone else get the feeling that Ezekiel ain't making it out of the fair… unless it's at the end of a kabob?
● Lots of interesting teases about what happened between the communities, what the deal is with the "X's," just how bad things got between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), that Daryl needed to help Alexandria during a serious time of need, and whole bunch of other stuff that had me begging for a flashback episode.
● Prediction? The charter/constitution is going to be signed during a dramatic moment of unity between the communities, as they ready to rain holy hell down upon the Whisperers.
● Random, Blair Witch-like symbols on signs? Never a good thing…
● Alpha makes the words "conflict" and "consequences" sound disturbing as hell…
● Was a big fan of how Luke used sign language to warn Connie and give her a heads-up.
● I'm enjoying how the Whisperers have me paranoid about every scene that involves walkers – like at the movie theater. Makes every scene tense – and fun. As for the Connie/corn field scene? Worked on my nerves a little harder then I was expecting considering I knew about the scene already…
● Henry = Carl v2.0 = not good
● Alpha offering up the baby as walker sacrifice is some cold s**t – and no one's going to get me to believe that she did that because she knew the baby would be rescued. Look at that shrug she gives: this ain't Alpha's first go-around.
● We saw what you did there with the Carl reference, Enid – smooth move.
● Henry is 127% more interesting when he's with Lydia – a compliment to McClincy's performance.
● "Maybe we're done losing for awhile." – Ezekiel to Carol (…zoinks…)
Now that a good number of the emotional cards are on the table, here's a sneak preview of next week's "Guardians" – where it looks like Alpha's ready to play "52 Pick Up" – and leave some cards out of the deck permanently:
The Walking Dead season 9, episode 12 "Guardians": While one community struggles to ease tensions that threaten to divide from within, the true nature of another group comes into focus. A mission to rescue a friend has deadly consequences.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC at 9 p.m. ET