By now, you know how things were left by the time the midseason 9 finale of AMC The Walking Dead rolled its credits: Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carol (Melissa McBride) are now facing an enemy unlike any they've ever faced before: The Whisperers, with leader Alpha (Samantha Morton), second-in-command Beta (Ryan Hurst), and Alpha's teenage daughter Lydia (Cassady McClincy) claiming their first victim, Jesus (Tom Payne).
And then we had to wait. Which sucked.
Thankfully, one thing I liked about TWD's midseason return "Adaptation" right off the bat was that it didn't make us wait or play with time jumps to deal with the finale's cliffhanger: this episode gets right to the point. But first, time for our mandatory "look back at a scene and the episode's synopsis" moment:
The Walking Dead s09e09 "Adaptation": The group unmasks a disturbing and dangerous new thread. An escaped captive revisits his past. Directed by: Greg Nicotero / Written by: Corey Reed
This week's midseason return was a strong "welcome back" to a season that's bore the brunt of series-shifting change – both in front of and behind the cameras. As stated earlier, I appreciated the action picking up immediately where it left off – after a voiceover from Michonne that pretty much gets viewers up-to-speed at least thematically if not in deep detail.
Did the episode offer a big "payoff reveal" when it came the Whisperers? Not really: their presence was felt throughout the episode (like the bridge scene that was previewed earlier this week) and there was a nice cliffhanger set-up involving Alpha, Luke (Dan Fogler), and Alden (Callan McAuliffe) but not much else – and I'm good with that. I would rather see the series take its time and continue with the build-up to really drive home the point that this "big bad" is essentially The Governor (David Morrissey) plus Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) times 10 when it comes to threat level.
Speaking of Negan… the ex-savior leader and the one who may turn out to be more "Rick Grimes" than even Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) – Judith (Cailey Fleming) – are the two reasons why I actually forgot about the Whisperers for awhile. For all of the rightfully-deserved praise Morgan's received for his "word fu" mastery and ability to use "fuck" as both a verbal scalpel and a blunt force object, "Adaptation" may be his best performance yet – in an episode where we learn more about Negan through his facial expressions, body language, and occasional utterances than in any past three episodes combined. And what does Negan learn? That in the end, the entire world doesn't mean much if there aren't others to share it with.
In Fleming, AMC has a young actress who already demonstrates the screen presence and acting chops needed to carry the show into the future. Judith may not be a Grimes by blood, but she lives up to the name in deeds, actions and words – and no disrespect meant to Morgan? Fleming at least holds her own with him in their scenes together – and the argument could definitely be made that their last scene works because of how well she handles motioning Negan to follow her. Keep Ms. Fleming happy, AMC and Skybound Entertainment: the future of the Walking Dead franchise is staring you in the face.
All-in-all, a strong return from what felt like a longer-than-usual holiday break with a lot going for it… but that doesn't mean it was perfect. Here's a look at some random takeaways/annoyances we feel worth mentioning:
● Having the opener continue from the midseason finale was a nice touch and set a subtle, disturbing tone – though promos for the series' return had me bracing for a bit more of a threatening scene.
● If I was locked up as long as Negan was? Screw "vengeance first"… get my hands on a fresh tomato!
● "Keep it. It'll help you find your way." – Judith to Negan
● Appreciated how Daryl trusts Luke and his newbies because Michonne and Judith vouch for them. The scene where Daryl and Michonne apologize for not being able to bring the other one a sense of closure over Rick's "death" was touching, heartbreaking, and… wait! Are they implying "something" went on between Daryl and Michonne during the mourning period?!?!?
● The scene on the bridge when Lydia gets captured is a perfect example of classic TWD teamwork.
● It was nice seeing Hilltop showing some backbone: instead of sliding into panic after seeing Jesus' body, they got angry and demanded justice – from apparent new Hilltop leader Tara (Alanna Masterson).
● Two moments of funny: Negan checking out the sign for "leather goods" and the Hell symbolism that someone could have a field day analyzing; and seeing Alden throwing his spear and trying not to compare him to Brick throwing a trident in Anchorman.
● Two major problems: the impending Eugene (Josh McDermitt)/Rosita (Christian Serratos)/Siddiq (Avi Nash) love triangle made more complicated (and annoying) with a pregnancy throw in the mix – reminding me again how Rosita deserves a better storyline; and Henry (Matt Lintz), who seems destined to annoy the hell out of me in ways 10 times worse than Carl with his righteously insane decision-making. Thankfully, Daryl is Daryl and isn't one to not take advantage of a situation.
● Interesting how important "promises to Grimes kids" are in the series: Rick strove to live up to his promise to Carl, and now Negan works to keep his promise to Judith. When Negan turns himself back in, Judith isn't smug about being right – she feels it's a realization Negan needs if he ever wants to rejoin society. It's her ability to do that for him that gives her that slight edge over Rick – and he would be the first one to admit it, and be proud of her for it.
● Hmmm… an anti-Donald Trump line? "Walls don't keep you safe." – Lydia
● Need another reason to love Judith? To Negan: "Language! I'm a kid, asshole."
● Was left with the feeling that Alden and Luke might be doing some serious Game of Thrones/Ned Stark cosplay by season's end – like, Fogler won't have any scheduling issues with the next Fantastic Beasts in a few more weeks.
The Walking Dead s09e10 "Omega": A new arrival at the Hilltop opens up about the leader of a group of mask-wearing savages; a search party sets out on a daring mission to find two missing friends
AMC's The Walking Dead season 9 airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET.