I’ve probably said this before—I’ve been recapping this show for eight years, I’ve probably said everything before by this point—but I am done trying to make sense of whether The Walking Dead is a good show or a bad one. It’s clearly going to be both, forever. Because after four middling-to-garbage episodes in a row, it gave us one that was rad from start to finish.
In fact, that’s the only bad thing about “Morning Star”: It is jarring to go from a terrible episode to a near-perfect one, like a car crash that inexplicably manages to make you healthier. Honestly, if you told me the show had to suck the awesomeness from the last four episodes because it needed to save it all for this one, I wouldn’t argue with you.
The first thing “Morning Star” does right is that it stops messing around. The Whisperers get their herd and go to Hilltop with the express purpose of wiping it off the map. The episode is filled with a rising dread from the beginning, when Alpha, Beta, and the others are marching with their army, and way too many people start whisper-chanting “We are the end of the world” and “Take them all.” As goofy as the Whisperers have been at times, this is some seriously effective creepiness.
Probably the most important thing the episode does right is that absolutely none of the characters make bewilderingly stupid decisions. Everyone’s been taking their smart pills for a change! Earl and Alden are already strengthening Hilltop’s wooden walls with steel bars even before Daryl arrives with Lydia in tow, announcing that the Whisperers’ herd is on its way. The main characters at Hilltop argue about what to do and both sides have valid points: Earl’s contingent wants to stay and fight because their life at Hilltop is worth fighting for, while Aaron is more worried about their survival, especially because his young son is there with him—as are a lot of kids, including Judith.
After Lydia points out that even if Hilltop manages to somehow take out half of the Whisperers’ herd, Alpha will still have thousands of zombies at her disposal, Daryl takes charge and decides everyone’s got to go to Oceanside. He leads a caravan of kids out first, only to discover the road is blocked by a giant log and immediately realizes two things that would have taken him all episode to figure out in the show’s more troubled times: 1) If the Whisperers have blocked this road, they’ve also certainly blocked all the others, and 2) Negan is working with Alpha, because this is the Saviors’ trick. The caravan has no choice but to head back to Hilltop and fight it out.
The despair continues to mount as all the main characters wrestle with the knowledge that they’re about to face a foe far too powerful to defeat, while still doing everything in their power in hopes of pulling off a miracle—literally, in the case of Eugene, who sets up a very badass electrified wire that the first waves of zombies get sliced by when the assault begins. Then there’s a barricade of posts and sticks, but there’s also the trained militia armed with spiked metal shields we saw Aaron training at the beginning of the season. Hilltop is not going down without a fight.
If this is all “Morning Star” had going for it, it would be a good episode of The Walking Dead, especially in comparison to its recent output. What elevates it to great is that there are some genuinely good character moments spawned out of the doom, performed by actors who are just crushing it. Khary Payton and Melissa McBride bring a beautiful melancholy to Ezekiel and Carol’s reunion, especially when Carol discovers the growing mass on Ezekiel’s neck and realizes he has cancer—which he probably won’t live long enough to be killed by. Then Carol has an excellent heart-to-heart with a mostly terrified Lydia (Cassady McClincy, who’s also fantastic here), whom Carol drove off last year. Carol apologizes but promises she’s going to kill Lydia’s mother Alpha. Lydia has Carol’s number, saying “Killing Alpha won’t save us” and forcing Carol to acknowledge that despite her frosty, badass persona, her vendetta against the Whisperers’ leader isn’t about stopping a monster or even revenge. It’s because Carol had finally recovered a happy, healthy life with Ezekiel and Henry—and when Alpha took it away, Carol was left as broken and vulnerable as she had been when her daughter Sophia died in season two.
Meanwhile, Norman Reedus, who’s already acted his damn socks off in the last two episodes, has two dynamite scenes himself. The first is with Payton, as Daryl takes a moment to connect with Ezekiel. The two have always been uneasy with each other—a result of Carol’s romantic relationship with Ezekiel clashing with her incredibly close, emotional friendship with Daryl—but with their death all but certain, Daryl finally reaches out: “You and I, we never really had much to say to each other. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know all the things you been through. You’re stronger than most, and there’s a whole lotta people here real glad about that. I am too.”
It’s awkward but heartfelt, and that’s what makes it perfect for Daryl. He’s opened up to so few characters over the last decade, to see him trying to establish an emotional connection of any sort is a really powerful moment, which is underscored by his plea to Ezekiel: If one of them falls, the other finds Hilltop’s children and tries to run. When Ezekiel agrees and leaves, Daryl turns around and is surprised to find Judith just sitting there, waiting to tell him she wants to be part of the fight.
Daryl has played the cool uncle role a few times before, but Judith is so young—and missing her actual father figure—that the new, emotionally open Daryl steps into the role easily, not talking down to her, but making her swear to leave with him or Ezekiel when the time comes. It’s a nice moment, but here’s what killed me: Judith gives Daryl a gift—she’s sewn a new, bright blue, right wing on his leather jacket, replacing the one Daryl had lost (rather mysteriously) in season nine. Daryl is so surprised and moved he involuntarily gasps and puts his hand to his mouth, saying, “I love it!” exactly as if he had a real daughter who’d brought home a picture she’d drawn of him from school one day. It’s so sweet.
It’s also unlike the gruff, hard-to-open-up Daryl we’ve been watching the last 10 years, but unlike Carol’s weird foolishness from the midseason premiere, this feels right—it’s always been part of Daryl, hidden away until the right series of circumstances allowed it to come to the forefront. Let me put it this way: With these seismic shifts in Daryl’s character, it’s no coincidence that he was a broken angel that Judith just helped make whole again. Someone on The Walking Dead knows what they’re doing here, and that’s a strange, wonderful thing to say.
Not that Daryl/Reedus needed yet another fantastic moment, but he gets one. As the battle’s about to begin, Daryl picks up a goddamn Dungeons & Dragons-style morning star and moves to the head of the army, all in super-badass slow-motion. It’s a bit cheesy and very, very satisfyingly cool. Unfortunately, things go to hell immediately afterward. Despite their spiked shields and military formations and electrified wire, there are simply too many zombies—far too many zombies to fight. But the Whisperers aren’t content with killing them; they want Hilltop’s inhabitants to despair, too. So the Whisperers catapult bags of tree resin onto the Hilltoppers and Hilltop’s walls. Did you know some tree resin is quite flammable in real life? Well, the same is true in the Walking Dead universe, because just as the good guys decide to retreat inside the colony, the Whisperers start firing flaming arrows that set the walls ablaze, trapping Hilltop’s army outside with an unstoppable multitude of zombies. I have no idea how anyone’s going to get out of this alive, and that’s pretty exciting.
More importantly, the entirety of the episode was full of so much goodness I don’t even care where the Whisperers dug up those giant slingshots (that look suspiciously like vines?) or bows. Next week’s episode may be another stinker, but for now, I am a very happy and entertained Walking Dead viewer.
- The other storyline is the burgeoning relationship between Eugene and his mysterious radio buddy Stephanie. The two are all but flirting in their first season, and they talk about finally meeting face-to-face when they realize since they both saw the satellite fall (in the season 10 premiere) they must only be a few hundred miles apart, although Stephanie still doesn’t want Eugene to tell any of his people about her or her community. Then later Rosita hears Stephanie on the mic and says hello, scaring her off. Until…
- …Eugene sings Iron Maiden’s “When the Wild Wind Blows” and Stephanie returns to join in. Turns out actor Josh McDermitt has a pretty great set of pipes on him!
- One thing I thought was going to be terrible was when Rosita offered to let Eugene kiss her. Eugene’s been pining over her pretty much since they first appeared on-screen, and it’s only gotten creepier as time has gone by. I was afraid the show was finally going to put them together, but when Eugene can’t kiss her, it’s clear Rosita only did it so that Eugene would see he’s completely fallen for Stephanie. This is fine!
- Mary, the ex-Whisperer formerly known as Gamma, was taken to Hilltop so she could see her abandoned nephew Adam, but Earl (who turns out is still taking care of the kid) and Alden won’t have it, which I get. Especially later, when Alden actively prevents Mary from seeing Adam, emotionally pointing out that the reason Hilltop is fighting the Whisperers is because they’re the sort of people that abandon babies to be eaten by zombies, while Hilltoppers are people who care enough to rescue those babies. As such, Adam’s sort of a living icon of the world Hilltop is fighting for, and fighting for that same night. While Alexandria might be (oddly) cool with Mary now, she’ll need to prove herself to Hilltop before she gets visitation rights.
- The horde of rats hightailing it out of the forest, fleeing from the zombie horde and presaging its arrival, was a fantastic moment.
- Negan suggests to Alpha that instead of killing everybody at Hilltop, it might be more satisfying to force them to surrender and join the Whispers, which seemingly hints that Negan might be trying to help his former captors from the inside. But when the battle begins and he realizes Alpha is going to kill them anyway, he asks her why. She replies they’ll join her...as part of her herd, which Negan seems to very genuinely think is badass. He’s also gotten his zombie flesh mask, so it seems he’s 100 percent Team Whisperer now.
- If anybody can name all the characters in the impressionist paintings that Carol stares at, you get a classic Marvel No-Prize.
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