The Walking Dead’s mid-season finales tend to be about as consistent as the show itself. They can be as shocking and impactful as season 2’s Pretty Much Dead Already, or as scattershot and unearned as season 8’s How It’s Gotta Be. The Walking Dead season 9’s Evolution sits somewhere in the middle.
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About one half of the 45 minute chapter is almost as slow moving and jejune as The Walking Dead season 9, episode 7, Stradivarius, but the rest is the scariest the show has been in years. I am, of course, talking about the scenes involving The Whisperers, so let’s start on that, with full spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9 ahead.
Aaron, Jesus, Daryl, and Dog are out to rescue Eugene from a Walker herd that’s acting awfully strange and, from as soon as the pre-credits opening in which we see them wandering in circles like deranged animals, it’s skin-crawling stuff. Evolution’s director Michael E. Satrazemis goes full gothic horror for the episode’s final conflict, setting the scene in a graveyard layered with fog, and dialling down on the camera cuts to keep the tension bubbling throughout.
Even though most of us know who The Whisperers are at this point, and those who don’t aren’t naive enough to go along with Eugene’s silly theory that the zombies have evolved, the known unknowns of this new enemy are chillingly evoked via Evolution’s thick atmosphere of suspense.
The Walking Dead has always been its own worst enemy when it comes to the immediate horror of its setting, desensitising its audience to the fear factor of the zombies with inevitable oversaturation. Like most of the survivors themselves, we’re no longer surprised or spooked by Walkers, but the addition of The Whisperers has now given both viewers and characters new reasons to be afraid of the big bad Z, where every shambling corpse might be a living enemy in disguise.
And this time, it was poor Jesus who ended up as the sacrifice to AMC’s demand of a mid-season character death, but not before showing off his karate chops one last time with some slo-mo action shots. While it does feel cliche for The Walking Dead to kill a main character with every finale and premiere like clockwork (as if they don’t know how else to create a cliffhanger), Jesus’ death was one of the most shocking seen this side of Negan’s home run with Lucille. When that Walker suddenly evades his kick only to stab him and eerily whisper “You are where you don't belong” in his ear, we’re as stunned and dismayed as Jesus looks, coming out of nowhere as it does.
For all its shock value, however, Jesus’ demise reminds us that this is another Walking Dead character who had never been given much to do since his introduction to the show, nor has he developed out of his “good guy who looks a bit like the messiah and (literally) kicks ass” role. Recent hints of a romance with Aaron could have been an avenue for growth, but this iteration of Jesus has never been as interesting as his comic book counterpart, making his death come across as somewhat cheap and pointless, though AMC deliver the blow with memorable sangfroid.
Outside of The Whisperer’s introduction, there are also various character interactions designed to re-emphasise the frosty tensions between Alexandria, Hilltop, and The Kingdom. Michonne refuses to send a delegation to The Kingdom’s upcoming fair (which, let’s face it, is probably going to be the key setting for a massive disaster during the latter half of season 9), reprimanding Carol’s pleas by arguing that “we’ve got to take care of our own now. It’s just the way it is.”
Meanwhile, Hilltop itself doesn’t exactly welcome the Alexandrian visitors with open arms, and even the usually perky Tara treats Michonne with an icy matter of factness. Season 9 is going hard on the references to this mysterious crisis, but I think it’s safe to say the message has been received pretty clearly by now. Next year, the show needs to stop dangling the same carrot and start explaining what exactly went down in the six years since Rick “died” to create this Cold War standoff between the three communities, otherwise it’ll start to look like it’s wasting the viewer’s time.
Additionally, Henry’s new apprenticeship at The Kingdom doesn’t get off to a great start, as his jealousies for Enid and Alden’s romance leads him to fall in with new characters Abbie, Rodney, and Gage, who like to spend their time getting drunk and urinating on Walkers. Yep, it’s another love triangle with Enid at the centre (not to mention more stupid kids doing stupid things with Walkers), and I’m already bored of the entire thing, so the less said about that, the better.
And finally, Negan. His therapy sessions with Gabriel featured some refreshing spots of light humour to complement the scarier scenes (“something that was in my ass goes right up your nose”), especially as the audience has basically been making fun of Gabriel ever since his introduction, but the last clincher, in which we see him make his escape, feels like a natural development for the mid-season finale.
This is the right time to let Negan out, I think. He’s been in that cell for eight episodes, and more than seven years in the timeline, so his identity has no doubt permuted as a result. What will he do with his newfound freedom? Who will he choose to be? It’s an interesting subplot for the rest of season 9, but hopefully we don’t have another Governor on our hands…
And that’s it for The Walking Dead in 2018. Taken together, the first half of season 9 has undoubtedly been a strong run, especially when you look back at how far the story has come since the finale of season 8, or indeed this season’s premiere just a few months ago. The show began to exhibit signs of flagging in its last few episodes, but Angela Kang’s fresh direction has held steadfast for the most part, with Evolution leaving enough story threads for yet more interesting twists and turns in the future. If The Walking Dead needs one new year’s resolution for 2019, it’s to stay the course and not ruin the goodwill built up over this octuplet of episodes. I’m keeping all my fingers crossed.
Verdict: The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale isn’t quite as climactic as it thinks it is, but executes a compelling closer for 2018 nonetheless.