After last week’s excellent “The Calm Before,” you might expect the season nine finale, titled “The Storm,” to bring the storm. It does, in the form of a massive blizzard the likes of which we have never seen on the show, which puts everyone in danger. But compared to last week’s shocker, “The Storm” was a low-key but compelling check-in with the characters before season 10—and another reminder of just how much the show has improved over this last year.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few momentous events tucked in here. For instance, when the episode begins, the Kingdom has fallen. It’s been a few months since Headsonsticksgate, and those bad pipes have kept bursting, apparently the food situation never resolved itself, and somehow a great many fires have been cropping up (take a look at that crane shot over the community when the people of the Kingdom leave; it’s like zombie WWII pilots have been doing bombing runs over it or something). Ezekiel and Carol, still distressed after the death of Henry, lead the Kingdom’s subjects out of the Kingdom to take refuge in Hilltop, with help from Michonne and a few other Alexandrians.
Unfortunately, the titular storm hits them along the way, forcing them to take shelter in the dilapidated Sanctuary, where they regroup long enough to realize that even if they managed to get to the next waystation, the blizzard could bury them inside there for weeks, and they only have food for a couple of days. In fact, the blizzard could also trap them in Sanctuary, too, so there’s only one thing to do: Head straight for Hilltop, over a frozen river, but more importantly…through the Whisperers’ territory.
It may seem foolish to poke the bear that decapitated their friends recently, but the show does an excellent job at setting up the stakes so that it really feels like the gang has no other option. Add concerns about the river ice breaking—a tragedy the show would not have failed to indulge in during previous seasons, but is happily avoided here—and a pile of zombies buried in the snow exactly where they try to cross, and it’s all nicely tense without feeling particularly gratuitous.
Really, the storm is just something for them to process, much as they’re trying to process what happened in “The Calm Before.” Their journey is full of small, but very nice character moments: Carol spies a guilt-ridden Lydia trying to muster the courage to stick her hand in the mouth of a mostly submerged zombie to commit suicide (but doesn’t). Ezekiel asks Daryl if he’ll leave Hilltop so that he and Carol can have a chance to rebuild their relationship, which is a shitty thing to ask, but Ezekiel knows it is and still can’t help himself (the way he slips out of his “royal” voice is the tell). Michonne tells Ezekiel that the reason Alpha was able to walk amongst them at the fair is that the communities “didn’t know each other,” and reiterates her newfound commitment to everyone working together. Lydia, again, knowing how much people at Hilltop are also going to hate her for indirectly causing their friends’ death, peels off from the caravan at the river; when Carol finds her a second time, Lydia begs her to kill her—and Carol, still full of grief after losing Henry, but perhaps wanting to honor his wishes, just brings her back to the group.
Meanwhile, back at Alexandria, it’s all about the Redemption of Negan. The Alexandrians have split into different homes with fireplaces to keep warm—the solar panels being covered with snow—and Negan is lucky enough to be stationed with the “love quadrangle” of Rosita, Gabriel, Siddiq, and Eugene. “It’s like Christmas to me,” he says with real joy. “You could try to be less predictable,” retorts Gabriel without malice, because no one really cares about his barbs anymore.
After a fireplace explosion (you can ask Eugene about the science behind it, I have no idea) the group has to head out into the cold to get to Aaron’s house. Now, again, this blizzard is the real deal; these people even all grab a rope to make sure no one gets lost along the way, although that falls apart when Judith hears Daryl’s dog Dog barking in the distance, and runs away after it, trying to make sure it’s safe. Negan, chockfull of paternal feelings now, runs out into the blizzard after her.
Sure, it’s more than a little heavy-handed. Negan gets smashed in the leg by debris as he searches for her; when he finds her he takes off his own jacket to make sure she’s extra warm; he carries her back in his arms, despite his leg, and even grabs Dog’s leash per Judith’s request. That still doesn’t mean it’s not nice when Michonne returns to Alexandria and genuinely thanks Negan for saving her daughter, or when Negan genuinely tells Michonne he saved Judith partially because Michonne has been through enough already. Another big step toward the Redemption is when Negan asks how Ezekiel is doing after the fall of his community because he knows “what it’s like to lose a kingdom…it sucks ass.” I may have said this before, I’m always a sucker for a “former bad guy joins good guys because of an even bigger threat” story, so I am here for Negan using his Asshole Powers against the Whisperers.
In the end, the Kingdom’s subjects make it to Hilltop, but despite Ezekiel’s desperation, Carol won’t—or can’t—stay. It’s a particularly tragic moment when Ezekiel confesses he’ll always love her, but Carol can only reply, “I’ll never regret the fairy tale.” She accompanies Lydia, Daryl, Michonne, and the other Alexandrians on their trip home, whereupon meeting Judith and R.J., they engage in an impromptu (if very low-energy) snowball fight. It’s meant to end the season on a small note of hope, as is the bookend of the episode, which begins with Ezekiel talking on the radio in tones of despair, only to have found the good by the end, when it’s revealed he’s talking to Judith. Regardless of all the things that have come before, even though Ezekiel and Carol have seemingly split, both communities are working together, and that’s still better off than they were when the time-jump began.
That’s a good thing, too, because Alpha and the Whisperers are getting ready for something, and Alpha has Beta whip her in preparation. That…that doesn’t bode well for anybody.
It’s a simple episode, but that doesn’t make it less effective, and the way it effortlessly lets us see what’s going on in our main characters’ heads is just another improvement over previous seasons. It does a lot of table-setting for season 10, in which new showrunner Angela Kang will have another major hurdle to overcome—the loss of Danai Gurira and her leading character Michonne. After the departures of Rick, Maggie, and Carl (although the latter was killed off), that doesn’t leave her a lot to work with. But after the graceful, delightfully bananas way Rick was literally airlifted off the show, I have a great deal of confidence that Kang will find a way to keep us all watching.
And maybe that’s what’s most important. I’ve enjoyed so much of this season, to the point I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so invested in the show. But this might be the first time I actually feel real confidence in it going forward. As always, though, it’s The Walking Dead, and you can never really know when people are going to stay at an old man’s farm for an entire season or spend two frustrating years antagonizing and being antagonized by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But for now, I’m very happy to be in a position where I don’t feel blessed relief that another Walking Dead season is over, and wish season 10 were already here.
- I really like the Daryl/Lydia pairing. There’s a real Logan and X-23 vibe there that I dig.
- I also like the nod to Rick’s doomed bridge, which had it remained would have allowed the people of the Kingdom to get to Hilltop with ease. Again, a heavy-handed metaphor, but a nice one nonetheless.
- Lots of frozen zombies this episode, which I think is a first? I know plenty of people have muttered about how zombies should indeed freeze during the winter, so it was pretty great to see people smash them and the corpses just shatter.
- Also great: Daryl killing a zombie by stabbing it through the eye with an icicle. I’m not going to think too hard about the logistics of it, though, because it was a lot of fun.
- So when we cut to the Whisperers, they’re not in the snow at all. I was wondering how they survived in the cold, since it didn’t appear any of them kept any winter wear, and besides, coats and scarves would also make them pretty easy to pick out in a herd. But this raises the question…do the Whisperers head south for the winter? Do the Whisperers migrate? God, I hope so. That’s hilarious.
- Of course, the episode really ends with a static-y voice coming over Ezekiel’s radio, although no one is there to hear it. I couldn’t make out anything other than “Is anyone there?” so feel free to translate in the comments. Also, who was it? I’m assuming it’s Maggie, since the show made a point earlier of stating that Maggie had not been returning their calls, despite the deaths of Hilltop leaders Tara and Jesus. If I’m wrong, feel free to speculate away.
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