MAJOR Spoiler Warning for Season 9, Episode 15 of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed. Minor spoilers from “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be discussed.
“We’ve always been bound to each other. We always will be.”
This hurts. “The Walking Dead” has done huge game-changing episodes all throughout its run, adapting major comic moments. One of the most significant panels of the comic story finally makes its long-awaited adaptation in the television universe, sparking fear and panic among fans. It’s shocking, it’s haunting, it’s devastating. Nothing will ever be the same again.
The episode opens rather unusually, but serves as an awesome set up for the entire episode. A man named Miles (Brian Sheppard) and a woman named Hilde (Caroline Duncan) are shown to be fighting walkers in the forest before wishing each other a happy anniversary. Hilde discovers the Hilltop and the two become residents after clearly having a hard time out in the world. Time passes and Hilde’s hair grows as she makes a coin out of wood with the letter “h” on it for Hilltop and home. More time passes, and Hilde and Miles prepare to head to the Kingdom for the Fair. It’s their anniversary again and they couldn’t be happier. They travel with two other Hilltop residents…but they never make it. Hilde’s dead body is show laying on the ground as Alpha scalps her to remove the long-hair from the rest of her body, all the while singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”. Blood covers the stack of Hilltop coins that she was transporting to the Fair, a deadly bit of foreshadowing for the events to come. In just a few moments, the story of Hilde and Miles really made them solid characters. Rarely does this show do happy moments, and their short arc (until the end) was just happy and cheery. Of course, Alpha just had to go and fuck it all up.
The Fair officially kicks off with an inspirational speech by King Ezekiel from atop the Post Theater, standing next to the Shiva memorial. He notes that this unification of the four communities is only possible because of the sacrifices of the many people who died over the years. This was the vision of Rick Grimes and Carl, and he also mentions Jesus as being the one to introduce all of the communities to one another. The physical bridge that they were all trying to build may have been destroyed, but they still came together to honor Rick’s sacrifice, albeit years later. Jerry steps forward to officially open the “First Annual Inter-Community Reunification Fair,” although Ezekiel thinks the name is far to long. Jerry’s son releases doves and medieval music plays in one of the more cheery scenes the show has ever done. The mood shifts as Ezekiel looks over to see Carol and Magna’s group looking grim and preparing to head out in search of Daryl, Henry and Connie. Ezekiel wants to go out and help with the search, but Carol makes a good point that the King and Queen can’t both leave. Thankfully, before the search party leaves, the missing team arrives at the gate with Michonne and Judith. Emotional reunions are all around as Henry hugs Carol and Ezekiel and Connie runs into the arms of Kelly. Carol tearfully tells Henry to never run away again, a lesson he probably should have learned years ago from the events of “Still Gotta Mean Something.” There’s also a heartwarming hug of relief between Carol and Daryl as Ezekiel is stunned to see Michonne has decided to attend the Fair. A bittersweet moment comes to fruition as Carol steps forward and looks at Judith, her first time seeing her in six years. Carol tearfully asks if Judith remembers her and Ezekiel, to which she explains that she has been drawing pictures of them since she was little. They’ve been broken for a while, but the family is finally together again.
As this show normally goes, happy moments don’t last long as the threat of the Whisperers comes back around. Tara is angry to find that Lydia is not with the Whisperers. This prompts the community leaders to hold a meeting to discuss the future. Michonne explains that while she may have cut off Alexandria from the rest of the communities, she never stopped loving and caring for anyone. Father Gabriel shares that he and the Council have voted to grant Lydia asylum in Alexandria, something that she is extremely grateful for. Tara is concerned that Alpha will retaliate against the Hilltop for what has gone down, but Michonne makes a solid point about how Rick didn’t trust her when she arrived at the gates of the Prison and also how Tara was not trusted being aligned with The Governor. An aged up Rachel (now played by Avianna Mynhier) speaks on Oceanside’s behalf and shares that she planned on killing Tara when she washed up on the beach in “Swear.” Tara understands what they’re saying, and Michonne continues by stating that Lydia made a choice to be part of this group, just like everyone else. Each community agrees to send fighters to the Hilltop to defend against an attack. To solidify the united defense, Michonne proposes a Mutual Protection Pact that proclaims that an attack on any community is an attack on all of them. To make it official, Ezekiel brings forth the charter, much to Michonne’s confusion. Tara apologizes for taking it when she left Alexandria and the two put their differences behind them. King Ezekiel and Queen Carol sign for the Kingdom, Rachel signs for Oceanside, Tara for the Hilltop while Michonne states that Gabriel should sign as head of the Council. And with that, the communities are united once again.
Henry gives Lydia a tour of the Kingdom and the Fair in a most impressive shot without any cuts. They stroll past Enid and Siddiq teaching CPR, Earl trading blacksmithing supplies, Tammy Rose holding her baby, and Eugene playfully taunting Judith in a dunktank…and then being dunked by the ten-year old. Lydia is overwhelmed by everything she sees, having spent most of her life living as a Whisperer. Both Lydia and Henry feel as though they should be helping to defend the Hilltop, but Ezekiel and Carol shut this down. Lydia feels uncomfortable with the prospect of watching a movie later, but Carol notes that they all deserve it. Carol and Ezekiel discuss the fact that their son is taking a girl on a date to the movies, something that seems totally impossible. Elsewhere at the Fair, Luke attempts to enlist Alden to perform alongside him like they previously stated in “Adaptation.” Enid is totally on Luke’s side, wanting to hear her boyfriend sing. Alden is taken aback by being called her boyfriend, but they both agree that they want to take things to the next level. There’s a revealing and emotional conversation that takes place between Kelly and Connie. Expressing her fear and concern about Connie leaving to chase after Henry, Kelly notes that any goodbye could be the last. Connie discusses the fact that she had to rescue the Whisperer baby when she did and that it has brought up a lot of feelings that she thought she had dealt with. Similarly to the hints that were dropped about Michonne’s past at the start of Season 4, it seems as though Connie may have lost a baby at some point. Hopefully, Connie’s backstory is explored in depth, likely in Season 10.
In a conversation while walking through the Fair, Michonne tells Siddiq that she will be heading out with the group to protect the Hilltop. They pass by Judith playing with Jerry and his kids, seemingly pretending to be Shiva. Meanwhile, Addy speaks to Henry and apologizes for her involvement in Lydia being brought back to the Hilltop in “Bounty.” Lydia notices the two talking, and Gage and Rodney arrive to stir the pot a bit by telling her that Henry and Addy like each other. At the Kingdom gate, Tara speaks with some of her soldiers, including Oscar, Kal, Marco and also Dianne about her plans to follow along the next day and return to the Hilltop. She thanks and fist bumps them for all of their hard work and willingness to defend the community. Judith and Michonne hug goodbye and Magna’s crew say their farewells. Connie tells Daryl to stay safe, which leads into him asking her to watch over Dog while he’s gone. Henry thanks Daryl for helping out with Lydia, and Ezekiel offers Daryl a permanent home at the Kingdom, an offer he will consider. Before the group departs the community, the Royal Family has a final moment to say goodbye. These moments are so important considering what’s to come. Outside the community, Ozzy and his right-hand man Alek (Jason Kirkpatrick), along with DJ clear some walkers as the caravan headed to the Hilltop arrive. Ozzy shows the team the mess that viewers know is where Alpha ambushed Hilde and Miles. Daryl finds some tracks moving away from the ambush and they all decide to split up. Yumiko wants to help out, so she bids farewell to Magna and joins Carol, Daryl and Michonne while the others continue to the Hilltop. There’s a growing tension as these small moments set the stage for the thrilling conclusion.
The timeline is played with moving forward as Daryl’s crew continues their search at night. Daytime at the Fair is also shown as Carol departs the Kingdom, but from Ezekiel and Henry’s perspective. While looking at some of the booths, Jerry and Nabila discuss the fact that Michonne led Alexandria to the Fair. The element of danger is inserted as a woman wearing the same hair, hat and dress as Hilde is shown to be listening. It’s Alpha in disguise. She snuck into the Fair and is now wandering around doing recon. We get a great scene between Rosita and Eugene as they tinker with radio equipment that Eugene has traded for. He hopes to set up a communication system between the three communities. There’s some initial awkwardness, but Rosita really wants them to be able to still be friends and talk. They’ve been through so much together, and it would be a shame if they let their mixed feelings ended their friendship. Outside, Tara, Gabriel and Rachel propose trading fighting techniques as a means of furthering skills and allowing the communities to learn from one another even more. Gabriel notices that Tara is stressed about not being at the Hilltop, and he expresses his upmost belief in her leadership. Thankfully, the teen drama does not spiral out of control as Henry speaks with Lydia about the fact that he isn’t romantically interested in Addy. Henry and Lydia both like one another, that much has been clear, but they actually talk it out and find themselves on the same page about the matter. There’s a chilling moment as King Ezekiel speaks with Alpha in disguise, who claims she is “Deborah from Alexandria.” Putting on a fake accent, she pretends to be just a normal person, but she does mention the tidbits of information she overhead such as Michonne deciding to come to the Fair. Ezekiel had not met Alpha up to this point, nor does he know what she looks like…which turns out to be a fatal fact that benefits her.
Movie night has finally arrived and excitement is in the air. Popcorn is passed out and everyone takes their seats. Something is very wrong though. Henry is missing, and so is Ezekiel, which is worrisome to Jerry. Judith and Jerry’s children are thrilled when the lights go down and they begin watching their first ever movie. Even Lydia gets to smile for a moment before shit hits the fan. A familiar face sits down beside her. It isn’t Henry…it’s Alpha. Back out with Daryl, Carol, Michonne and Yumiko, they cross paths with two of the Hilltop resides that traveled with Hilde and Miles, now as walkers. Soon the entire area is overrun with the dead as the team desperately tries to get away. They end up standing their ground and slaughtering dozens of walkers in an epic bit of editing that feels reminiscent of the final walker-killing spree in “No Way Out.” Suddenly, the Whisperers emerge from the treeline and surround them. Beta steps forward and demands that they drop their weapons. He also criticizes Daryl for not handing over Lydia when he had the chance in “Chokepoint” as that would have prevented anyone else from dying. Alpha shows herself with a machete and claims that she ran into trouble on the road. Daryl and Michonne both tell Alpha that Lydia will not be returned to her, but this isn’t about her daughter. This is bigger than Lydia. Alpha tells Daryl to come with her and forces him at gunpoint. What is important to note here is that Alpha chooses Daryl specifically to take on this little excursion.
The world our characters inhabit change in many aspects this episode. You might question why the survivors don’t just go in gun blazing and kill Alpha and all of her people. As the sun rises, Alpha leads Daryl to a cliff that shuts down that possibility entirely. A herd with more walkers than can ever be counted is shown to Daryl. Alpha notes that her people are within this horde and can steer it wherever they please, including straight at the communities. Having walked through the Kingdom, Alpha states that the world they believe in is long gone. Still, she tells Daryl that his group will be left alone so long as they don’t cross into her lands. She states that she has marked a border to the north and that he will see it as he leaves. Carol, Michonne and Yumiko will not be harmed and will be waiting for him in a field nearby. Worried about Lydia, Daryl asks Alpha what she did with her daughter. There’s a flashback to a confrontation between Lydia and Alpha after exiting the theater. Citing the fact that she is now has new people, Lydia states that all she needs to do is scream and Alpha will be killed. Instead, she gives her mother a choice to leave and never come back. Playing her abusive old games, Alpha slips back into her manipulation, but Lydia sees right through it. She knows who her mother is and she is standing up for herself now. Alpha leaves as Lydia breaks down in tears. In a strange twist, Alpha actually shows some care as she basically tells Daryl to take care of Lydia. Later, Alpha is shown crying at the Whisperer camp and a single follower of hers spots her. Too bad for him, because Alpha doesn’t want to be seen as weak…so she kills him. This is an evil woman if you couldn’t already tell.
The final moments of the episode cause unimaginable pain and trauma. Daryl reunites with Carol, Michonne and Yumiko before heading back to the Kingdom. They find Siddiq tied to a tree and nearly delirious. He isn’t even able to speak; only point at the horizon. Everyone looks and sees something peaking from beyond the top of a hill. They walk forward and up the hill to get a closer look and it becomes clear that it is ten pikes with heads atop them. Somber, eerie and epic musical score kicks in as the characters step before these pikes, their faces stunned, horrified and heartbroken. Starting from the left, the identities of the first three heads are revealed. Ozzy, Alek and DJ. Their heads have reanimated into walkers and their faces have looks of death, but are still recognizable. Prior to each of the rest of the victims, the narrative flashes to the Kingdom to show the confusion of their loved ones. The next head is Frankie. Eugene tries to help Frankie’s daughter Alice locate her mother…but she’s gone. Connie and Kelly speak with Earl, who is now holding the baby. The head of Tammy Rose is revealed. Gage asks if anyone has seen his missing friends. Rodney and Addy are two more victims. Luke and Alden perform together on stage, but Alden searches the crowd for his girlfriend who is nowhere to be found. The head of Enid is shown with her long hair blowing in the wind. Father Gabriel speaks with Eugene, clearly looking for someone. Cut to the head of Tara snarling on top of a pike. At the theater, Lydia rushes up to Ezekiel terrified because her mother was there and the boy she likes is no where to be found. In the field, Daryl rushes to Carol, trying to shield her eyes and prevent her from looking at the final victim. It’s too late. We’ve been through this before. The camera pans past each of the heads to reveal Henry at the very end. Ten characters brutally killed as a show of force and a declaration of war by an evil woman.
What follows the pike reveal is somehow even more sad and haunting, but also inspirational. Everyone returns to the Kingdom and gathers to listen to Siddiq give a speech explaining what happened to himself and the victims. His belief is that Alpha kept him alive to tell the story of what happened to those she killed to scare and drive the survivors apart once again. Instead, Siddiq chooses to tell a story of absolute heroism. Flashbacks to the fateful night are shown as his narration continues. The victims were kept bound in a barn, but Ozzy, Alek and DJ found them and charged in to try and rescue them. This gave everyone an opening and they fought back, defending one another as a family. The scene has so many layers to it as this group of people give it their all to fight and kill a handful of Whisperers. Rodney is unable to free himself from his bonds, but Tammy Rose uses a shovel to defend him. Tara pulls a Whisperer off of DJ while Addy and Frankie team up to kick and ram into their attackers. There’s a powerful shot of Enid standing armed with a knife, ready to go down fighting to protect all of the people in the barn. Henry looks at the entrance and sees Alpha slowly walking in. He knows that this is the end. No matter how hard they fight back, these ten people aren’t leaving alive. To see such bravery and selflessness in their final moments really says a lot about how tight knit our survivors are. As Siddiq notes, some of these people had never met before and the communities had been split for years, but that didn’t matter here. Ozzy and Alek had just aligned with the Kingdom, but here they gave up their lives to save strangers. DJ literally fought in a war against these people, but he literally died trying to save their lives. The ten people that died are nothing short of heroes and Siddiq’s speech serves to present that fact to those left behind. The final scene of the episode shows Daryl and Lydia visiting the pikes. The heads have been removed and Lydia stands before Henry’s pike to lay down the “H” necklace he gave her. A light snow falls, showing that winter has come. A strangely hopeful end to a devastating series of losses.
The good in “The Calm Before”
- The upbeat nature of the Fair gives at least some positivity before everything falls apart.
- The opening sequence with Hilde and Miles allowed for two minor characters to be developed excellently before being killed off to set events in motion.
- Ezekiel’s speech, including the references to Rick, Carl and Jesus is just perfect.
- The leaders of the communities finally gathering to sign the charter and reunify after all these years is a rewarding moment.
- The brief character interactions scattered throughout the episode really help play up the pike mystery, but also provide development for a multitude of characters. This is most notable with Connie, Tara, Enid, Magna, Yumiko, Henry and Lydia, Carol and Judith.
- Alpha showing Daryl the herd and having a strange moment of emotion about Lydia really has a lot of depth.
- The slow and painful build up of the characters walking up the hill, followed by the pike reveals is some damn near flawless execution.
- Siddiq’s story and the barn scene of everyone fighting is some of the most emotional material the show has ever done. That is a scene that will stick with you long and hard.
- Bear McCreary’s musical score. Is there anyone better than him? Nope.
- The performances. The list of top performances of this episode is so long, because this is a case of the ensemble being a powerhouse of acting. There are so many instances of the actors giving small subtle looks that say so much with zero dialogue, particularly in that final barn scene.
The iffy in “The Calm Before”
- Even with everything going on and the full awareness that the Whisperers are out there, people still insist on splitting up and traveling in small groups.
- While the reveals of the pike victims was excellent, it does feel a bit strange that both Tara and Enid were not given more proper final arcs in the lead up to their demise. They should have both been featured far more prominently in this second half of the season. It’s also strange that these two long-term main characters were given off-screen deaths. Still, the reveal was meant to be shocking…and it was.
Top performances in “The Calm Before”
- Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon
- Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier
- Danai Gurira as Michonne
- Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler
- Katelyn Nacon as Enid
- Khary Payton as King Ezekiel
- Samantha Morton as Alpha
- Avi Nash as Siddiq
- Eleanor Matsuura as Yumiko
- Lauren Ridloff as Connie
- Angel Theory as Kelly
- Matt Lintz as Henry
- Cassady McClincy as Lydia
Lingering thoughts and predictions
- The use of foreshadowing in this episode and previous came to fruition at the pikes. In “Omega,” Tara kills a walker with a spear in a way that resembles a pike. In “Chokepoint,” Henry is stabbed in the leg in the same place his big brother Benjamin was fatally shot during “Bury Me Here.” In this episode, Enid eats a candy apple on a stick…which resembles a head on a pike.
- Alpha’s disguise is a bit more reasonable in the television canon as opposed to the comics. In the latter, she infiltrates the Fair simply without her Whisperer mask.
- The callbacks to Tara’s past with The Governor serve to mix a little bit of the series history with the present before killing off one of the long-term characters.
- In the comics, the pike victims are extremely different, sans Tammy Rose. TV Rosita and Ezekiel have now out-lived their comic-counterparts who died via Alpha at this point.
- It would be great to have Carol and Judith develop a bond moving forward now that they’re reunited. Carol did so much to keep her alive back in the old days, so it would be nice for the show to mention that also.
- Daryl rushing over to Carol when Henry’s head was on the pike directly parallels him doing the same when Sophia stepped out of the barn. Two of her children have died and reanimated, leaving her to have to see them in such a horrific state.
- What must have the pike victims gone through in their final moments as Alpha brutally decapitated them? There’s no way she killed them beforehand. They likely each had to watch as she slowly cut the heads of their family off knowing that fate awaited them. Without any doubt, Alpha probably saved Henry for last just to make him suffer for Lydia.
- Eugene’s radio might serve to set up some of the story for Season 10. Is it possible that he will get in contact with someone or another group? Or maybe even someone we know?
- Daryl will hopefully form a fatherly bond with Lydia. If anyone can give her the parental love she needs right now, it’s him.
- Also, please let Daryl, Connie, Lydia and Dog form a family and live happily ever after.
- The snow is about to change things majorly. This is something that has never been seen before in the show.
Honoring the dead
Henry: He came to us just a young kid, played by Macsen Lintz. We first saw him riding on a horse being guided by big brother Benjamin as Morgan toured the Kingdom with Carol. Who knew that all these years later, Carol would end up being the Queen and he would be her Prince? At first, it didn’t even seem like he would be more than a background character to serve as motivation for Benjamin. Slowly and surely he began training with Morgan in the ways of aikido, becoming young master Henry. After the death of his brother, Henry was justifiably angry, but found himself on his own personal warpath to bring justice to those that wronged him. One of his biggest moments was sneaking into the Kingdom while it was occupied by the Saviors before stabbing Gavin through the throat with his staff. Following the time jump, we see that Henry has made it his mission in life to repair his beloved home. He embarks on the Hilltop to learn from Earl, but his plans change drastically when Lydia is brought as a prisoner. Say what you want about him, but Henry is someone who just wanted to help people. All he wanted to do is to give Lydia a better life. Carol told him to make her proud, and while he may have been reckless and naive, he did something that should make her proud. He saved someone from the cycle of abuse and gave her a family that will care, love and fight for her. Rest easy, Henry. Lydia is in good hands now.
Enid: Another child soldier of the apocalypse. We first saw her just outside of the gates of Alexandria when the group first arrived. She was mysterious and disappeared, only to be formally met by Carl while hanging out with the Alexandria teens. She was quiet and closed off, clearly having lived through some shit. In Season 6, we learned that her parents had been torn apart by walkers right in front of her. The “just survive somehow” mantra would go on to become synonymous with her character and had a major impact on fans. Her personality was attractive to Carl, but she just couldn’t stay in Alexandria, fearing that she would lose more people. It was Glenn who really changed her outlook and made her feel like family. They fought together to save Maggie from a herd, and she finally felt at home. Her move to the Hilltop to be with Maggie really showed how much she had changed. Long gone were the days of running away. She was committed to contributing to the greater good. She became a hardened fighter and trusted confidant of Maggie during the events of All Out War. Losing Carl was a huge blow, but she kept going and became even stronger in Season 9 when she trained with Siddiq to become a doctor. Because of this, she was able to save Aaron’s life and countless others at the Hilltop. When she was first introduced, who would have guessed that she would go on to become such an important and crucial member of the family? She was able to stand on her own as her own character. Thank you for becoming one of us, Enid.
Tara: She’s been on the show so long as this point that she feels like one of the OGs. Being introduced in the first Governor flashback episode, Tara’s journey started off rough. Over the course of just three episodes, she was betrayed and lost her father, niece, sister and girlfriend. Even though she was on the opposite side of battle, Tara regretted her role and Glenn saw that. The two united in search of Maggie, which became Tara’s mission to redeem herself. Following Terminus, she was accepted by all of the group, including Rick and Maggie. She became a friend and confidant, with her quirky nature and hard past being an avenue to connect with others. After arriving at Alexandria, Tara developed a confidence that she previously struggled with and even managed to find love again with Denise. Her arc was endless loss and pain, losing so many loved ones right after one another. During Season 7, she found Oceanside and brought them into the fold. We saw her struggle with the ramifications of involving Cyndie and her people in the Savior conflict when they didn’t want to be part of it. Ultimately, Tara always looked out for her people and tried to do what was best for them. She lost her way a bit while conflicting with Dwight over his killing of Denise, but she eventually made peace with it all. Following the time jump, Tara was given the opportunity to showcase just how much she had learned from Rick, Maggie, Michonne and all the leaders that came before her as she took the reigns of the Hilltop. Her time leading the people was short-lived, but there’s no doubt that both Jesus and Maggie would be proud. She fought long and hard, defeating all expectations fans had placed on her over the years. Her humor and charm will be missed dearly, as will her determination and strength. Fly high, Tara.
“The Calm Before” is a phenomenal episode all around. It shows that the series is doing so much right and can still shock and devastate, even nine seasons in. What will “The Storm” and the arrival of winter hold? Hopefully not more death.
Be sure to tune in to the Season 9 Finale of “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.