The Walking Dead comics, and in turn the show, have always been defined by the generations of villains Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors have faced, from the dead themselves, to the Governor, and then most famously, Negan. With The Walking Dead back on AMC this weekend, here’s what you need to know about the next generation of foes that are about to wreak havoc.
After the show finally enacted the grand time skip the Robert Kirkman-created Image Comics series had seen with Andrew Lincoln’s departure from the series, Alexandria’s conflict with the now-captive Negan (well, okay, slightly less captive, considering he escaped in the midseason finale) and his saviors is truly at an end. While the show has started to give us an insight into how our survivors have moved on after Rick’s “death,” it’s set the stages for adapting the post-Negan chapter of Kirkman’s zombie saga, introducing us to the Whisperers...mainly by having them kill off poor Jesus. Sorry, Jesus. I’d say he’d be risen again, but before that could happen, Aaron made sure he was put down before re-animation. No divine father to help out this time!
Suits You, Sir
The Whisperers are, basically, a grosser evolution of a zombie-evading tactic that’s been part of The Walking Dead’s universe, whether in the comics or in the show, pretty much since the get-go. Survivors have long managed to infiltrate and navigate massive herds of zombies by going through the process of slathering themselves with zombie innards as a sort of incredibly disgusting camouflage—the Whisperers just take it to the next level by wearing stitched up body suits made out of zombie skin.
Not only does it give the wearer the same effect as the viscera-exfoliating, it lends the Whisperers another advantage against living opponents. By hiding themselves among herds of actual zombies, any potential human opponents won’t notice they’re dealing with armed, equally human enemies until it’s too late (like poor Jesus).
The Whisperers came along in the comics—and in the show—in a time where the zombie outbreak is years in the past. Survivors, at this point, know how to deal with them, and while they’re still a threat, they’ve been overtaken by the threat of roving gangs of evil humans. Turns out, we were the real monsters all along, who could’ve known? But the Whisperers specifically play off the complacency that both the survivors, and we as an audience, have developed over years and years (and years) of zombies essentially being background noise. Now the only background noise is the creepy ass whispering the Whisperers do to communicate—and scare the bejesus out of their foes—as they shuffle among the hordes.
Meet the Whisperers
The Whisperers are also a much less-structured threat than, say, the militias commanded by the Governor or Negan. The society we’re introduced to in the comics is a nomadic, animalistic mass that wanders among the zombie hordes from place to place, out of a belief that the apocalypse is a course-correction designed to revert humanity back to a more primal state. And really, there are only three characters among that mass you’ll need to know, and they’ve all been cast for the back half of season nine:
- Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers, will be played by Samantha Morton (Minority Report) on the show. A battle-hardened and brutal leader, Alpha enters the picture in the comics after she declares that the expansion of Alexandria, the Kingdom, and Hilltop settlement’s lands following their development and alliance pact in the war against Negan are encroaching on Whisperer territory, immediately entering hostilities with Rick’s group, leading to the outbreak of an obviously-titled “Whisperer War.” We’ll get to that later.
- She’s supported by Beta—duh—who’ll be played by Ryan Hurst. Beta is second in command to Alpha, and is basically known for being an absolute unit. Tall, muscularly built, and so imposing that he literally cannot fit his whisperer-skin-mask all the way over his head (he wears it like a cowl, basically), he’s madly loyal to Alpha’s rule, acting as a confidant as much as he is a physically imposing brute.
- Lastly, there’s perhaps the most fascinating Whisperer of all: Lydia. Played by Cassady McClincy in the series, you’ll see that she’s different from the rest of the Whisperers from the get-go, down to the fact she’s actually got a name instead of a designation. Lydia is Alpha’s daughter and isn’t exactly all that supportive of her mother’s brutal band of zombie-skin-wearing weirdoes. Alpha is basically in the process of completely disowning her, even offering Lydia up to Rick to join his softened band of farmers and traders in their society. In the comics, she strikes up a romantic relationship with Carl, even as their parents begin to clash. Just who’ll replace the dead young Grimes as the object of her affections in the show remains to be seen.
Now you’ve met the Whisperers and know their deal, here’s the role they end up playing in the comics—and if the show ends up following it (with tweaks to account for both Rick and Carl’s absence), there could be some big changes to The Walking Dead’s dynamic on the way. If you don’t want to know, don’t read on...
Not With a Bang, But With a Whisper
The arrival of the Whisperers in the comics precludes an arc known as the Whisperer War (not to be confused with “All-Out War,” which refers to the fight against Negan), which is both paradoxically not that much of a war and also one that could potentially lead to a bunch more major Walking Dead characters losing their heads. Literally!
As tensions between Rick and Alpha rise, the latter infiltrates an annual fair held between Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom, shedding her zombie skin to blend in among the humans (they’re the same, you see, we’re the walking dead, and so on). In doing so, Alpha manages to subdue and murder 12 people, lopping their heads off and leaving them to re-animate on poles that she dots along what she sees as the line between Whisperer territory and Rick’s territory. Naturally, this leaves Rick and his friends incredibly pissed—and we actually lose some notable characters who are still on the show, including Rosita and Ezekiel.
In response, Rick gets a new militia armed and prepared for battle...but it ends up not being with Alpha. The escaped Negan eventually finds his way over to the Whisperers, looking to join them at first. He does, for a few days. After parlaying with Alpha and proving he wasn’t sent by Rick to infiltrate her group, he joins the Whisperers on their wanderings, until he breaks up a sexual assault among some of the pack, only to find that Alpha doesn’t care, and that rape and assault are commonplace accepted practices within her animalistic society. Negan responds by promptly slicing her throat, and taking her head off—returning to Alexandria with it as a peace offering for the whole “so I lost a war with you and then escaped the jail you’d been keeping me in” thing.
This leads to the actual Whisperer War finally breaking out, as Rick—now teaming up with Negan as part of the new militia—and the settlements find themselves going up against not just Beta and the Whisperer forces, but the massive herd of zombies they’ve corralled. The settlements hold off the zombies and end up taking out most of the Whisperers, with Negan severely injuring Beta, causing him to retreat, but it’s not without cost.
Gabriel dies early on in the battle, gutted by Beta and left to be eaten by walkers. Hilltop nearly burns down, and Alexandria is forced to deal with a gigantic horde of zombies unleashed by Beta to cover his retreat. It’s in dealing with that horde that Andrea—who was not only still alive in the comics at this point, but in an established relationship with Rick—is bitten and succumbs to the infection, leaving Rick and Carl heartbroken. Considering that she’s long dead on the show, and both Rick and Carl are gone, it’s hard to say if there’s someone she could be replaced with should the show deal with this zombie horde...but hey, given that Michonne pretty much filled Andrea’s spot as Rick’s new love interest, there’s a chance Judith could be pretty damn alone once the dust of this arc settles.
After the horde is driven off and the settlements begin the path to rebuilding what they lost to the Whisperers, Jesus—who didn’t get a shank to the back in the comics—eventually tracks down Beta and the remnants of the Whisperers that fled the battle, killing them all. With Alpha and Beta both dead, Lydia joining Carl and the rest of the survivors, and their horde scattered, the Whisperers are pretty much no more.
While the Whisperers’ role in The Walking Dead is pretty short in comparison to the titanic villains of the past like the Governor and Negan, they do have a massive impact on the shape of The Walking Dead’s world. For a time, it makes zombies first and foremost a threat to our survivors again, and in the process a good few members of the cast—ones that have been around for significant periods of time—end up dying. With the show having just lost Rick and Carl, this arc could be a potentially devastating aftershock to the series’ roster as it heads into its recently-confirmed 10th season.
Just what will stay and what will change in the story’s transition into the TV show remains to be seen; we’ll slowly begin to find out starting this weekend. But as ever with The Walking Dead, the only safe thing is the assumption that no one on the show is safe from this latest threat.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.