Well, we were promised a return to horror in this mid-season finale, and horror we bloody well got it with the introduction of The Whisperers during a fabulously creepy denouement in a foggy graveyard. With Rosita still semi-conscious and Eugene hiding out in the woods, there was no one around to tell Daryl, Aaron, and Jesus that heading out towards the herd of Walkers was a spectacularly bad idea. Because this was a horde with a difference. Synchronised, organised, intelligent. The slow-burn realisation for the rescue squad was well-played, with Daryl’s various tried-and-tested methods of drawing the zombies away failing one after the other, all while Dog barked desperately and a thunderstorm brewed ominously in the distance.
In hindsight, it’s kind of obvious that Jesus was destined to be the sacrificial lamb. His reluctant leadership at Hilltop, and the will they/won’t they roughhousing with Aaron last week served to remind us that both characters had been around long enough for us to care about but were ultimately dispensable, especially in the wake of Rick and Maggie leaving. That’s been the show’s M.O. for some time now – ramping up the emotional pull of a relatively peripheral player just before bumping them off. If I can say anything positive about Jesus’ death, it’s that at least he got to go out in a really cool sequence, showing off his martial arts moves, and that it would have served as a genuinely surprising reveal for anyone unfamiliar with the source material and spoiler-free, who had bought into the idea that the undead were somehow evolving. Still, as Tom Payne himself expressed frustration at this week, Jesus was a woefully underused character who had the potential to be a real linchpin for this series, and his untimely demise seems cruel and a tad schlocky.
The unmasking of the dead Whisperer by Daryl at the end of the episode confirmed that the TV version of The Whisperers will adhere to the concept of them in the comics. This makes them a terrifying new enemy, combining the hideous aesthetic of the walkers with the stealth and cunning of man. Their ability to blend and pass for zombies makes them largely undetectable until the last minute, and while we’ve seen Rick and co. try to use herds to their advantage as war tactics, and smear themselves in rotting innards to move among walkers for protection, this is taking things to a whole new level.
And the new external threat wasn’t the only thing adding to the sense of impending doom hanging over “Evolution”. The mystery of what Michonne did to splinter the various colonies has yet to be explained, and although her awkward conversation with Carol made it clear that she could still make amends, Michonne was insistent that she wouldn’t be doing so any time soon.
And then there’s the small matter of Negan being on the loose. His little therapy sessions with Father Gabriel were more interesting than I was expecting, and their dynamic fairly believable. It expanded on the relationship they forged escaping a horde back in Season 7, and although Negan took pleasure in toying with the priest, he did seem to have some sort of empathy for him when Gabe confessed Rosita had been at risk. I wasn’t sure if the jail cell being left open was due to Gabriel’s carelessness in his haste to find out what had happened to Rosita, or whether Negan still has some followers lurking in Alexandria, but I hope his breakout makes for a tasty plot in the second half of the season.
Perhaps the most depressing element of this episode was the group of awful teens who have sprung up at Hilltop. Within a matter of hours after vowing to make Carol proud with his blacksmithing skills, Henry found himself locked up for being drunk and disorderly after a night on the moonshine with the resident kids, ironically being given a telling off by the man who’d previously occupied that cell for trying to assassinate Maggie while under the influence. The catalyst for this bad behaviour was Henry clapping eyes on Enid, who we quickly discovered is now dating Alden. This is a bit odd given that Alden was definitely into Maggie in a big way, but lets not dwell. Fortunately, Prince Henry showed more moral fibre than the other horrid kids, by mercifully dispatching a trapped walker that they were tormenting for giggles. I can’t say I noticed all these children running about six years ago, but it’s clear they need a bit of guidance if they’re supposed to be The Future, because things look pretty bleak about now.
Overall, this was an atmospheric, scary episode, marred by the senselessness death of a character who had much more potential than was ever realised, and the introduction of some thoroughly unlikeable kids! It remains to be seen whether the arrival of the much-anticipated Whisperers will be enough to claw back ratings in the latter half of this season, now that the show has lost some of its most pivotal characters, but it’s good to know that it can still raise a chill when it wants to!
Final Grade: C
+ The tension in this episode ratcheted up brilliantly, culminating in super-eerie cemetery showdown.
+ Negan and Gabe’s dialogue gave Jeffrey Dean-Morgan the chance to add a little light and shade to Negan and it will be interesting to see who he is six years down the line.
+ I’m still itching to know what Michonne did.
– RIP Jesus. You were one of the most sympathetic and sidelined characters the show had, and now we’ll never get to see the leader you could have been, and the UST with Aaron will remain U forever. Tragic.
– I literally hate all of the teenagers at Hilltop.
– There wasn’t much for the newbies to do in this episode.
Extra Thought: I quite liked Eugene’s slightly meta hypothesising about whether or not zombies would be able to evolve, given that nothing about them makes sense, even within the accepted parameters of the show’s world building.
What did you think? Will the Whisperers haunt your dreams? Are you longing for a Jesus resurrection? Sound off in the comments, or over on Twitter.