The Walking Dead’s last episode, The Calm Before, is already being heralded as one of the series’ best, if not the best episode, despite existing nearly a decade after the show premiered, here in season 9. To examine what it got right, I think we have to look at what The Walking Dead has gotten so very wrong the past few years, and how Angela Kang and company fixed those issues with The Calm Before. Obviously spoilers follow.
The Walking Dead Has Tricked Viewers
The most infamous example of this is the famed “Glenn fake-out” where we were meant to believe that Glenn was torn apart by walkers for a few episodes, only to realize that it was just a camera angle tricking us into thinking that, and really, Glenn was able to crawl to safety under the dumpster.
The Walking Dead Has Killed Characters It Shouldn’t
Mostly recently, this was Carl in season 8, a character that was killed off for no discernible reason despite being the entire core of the series. You could make this argument with a lot of “pointless” past deaths from Glenn and Abraham to Beth which existed just to make people sad/mad without much of a greater purpose.
Has Overused Cliffhangers
Again, the most well-known and widely-hated example of this was when we had to wait an entire season break to see who Negan had actually killed in his famous bat beat-down scene. And then there was another “fake-out” employed when he first killed Abraham, making comic readers think the scene was over, then he killed Glenn anyway.
All of this has…sucked, frankly, and it’s a big part of the reason The Walking Dead has been terrible the last few years. But last night we saw some of these tactics used properly this time, and some of them avoided entirely.
The Calm Before did in fact trick viewers. If you watch the episode, you will see that in its (massively) extended runtime, it goes out of its way to give a ton of characters lines of dialogue, characters that don’t normally speak much like Cal and Diane, implying they could end up on pikes by the end. Some of the hints did pan out, like Alpha taking notice of Tammy Rose at the Fair, while others didn’t.
Specifically, The Walking Dead really leaned hard into trying to fake-out comic viewers. We had a very emotional goodbye scene between Carol and Ezekiel, which made it seem like Ezekiel was going to be killed just like in the comics. And then we had a scene where Alpha speaks to Ezekiel and we see him leading her away somewhere, heavily implying he was going to be killed. The same is true for Rosita, who is given a sequence with Eugene that absolutely felt like a “goodbye” for her character, as she’s supposed to die in the comics. And during the reveal, we see Gabriel asking Eugene where someone is, and you assume it’s Rosita, but instead the camera pans to Tara’s head instead.
But these “fake-outs” work, and are not rage-inducing because they only last the duration of the episode, and they made the deaths of Tara and Henry specifically hit harder for comic readers because of how they were set up. This is how to “trick” viewers, making it feel clever, not dirty. Hell, even the episode name was a trick, as The Calm Before implies nothing crazy will happen this episode, but that was clearly not the case.
And though we lost three major characters, Enid, Tara and Henry, these deaths…are not infuriating. I mean, you are mad at Alpha for killing them, but you are not say, mad at the showrunner and writers for making stupid decisions. Enid has had a long life on the show and though she will be missed, I understand why she might have been sacrificed instead of say, a pregnant Rosita. Tara’s death makes sense from a tactical perspective given that Alpha’s recon has shown her that she’s the leader of the Hilltop, and after Jesus’s death, the Hilltop is essentially rudderless and an easy target.
Henry’s death, though I feel sad for both the actor in real life and Carol on the show, losing yet another child, probably makes the most sense, and was the “best” decision, if that term can apply. Henry has been taking on the role of “fake Carl” after Carl’s untimely demise, and as long as he existed on the show, he was always going to be viewed like that. So now he’s dead, and we don’t have to deal with that conundrum any more. Also, this opens up Lydia to be more than just a love interest to Henry, as her storyline now seems like it’s going to be about becoming Daryl’s surrogate daughter, a plotline which makes both characters much more interesting. It works.
Finally, there were no cliffhangers. That concept was avoided entirely. I’ve seen some speculation about what this episode would have been like in the Scott Gimple era. First, it would have been the season finale, not the penultimate episode, and instead of the reveal of the identities of the ten heads, the final shot of the episode probably would have been the backs of a few heads on pikes, and we’d have to wait until next October to figure out who actually died.
That tactic is the worst, and I am glad it was not repeated here. Instead we got probably one of the best sequences in Walking Dead history to close the episode, from Bear McCreary’s haunting score to the escalating reveal of characters we cared more and more about as the ten heads are revealed. It’s simply one of the best scenes in The Walking Dead’s lifespan, and it would have lost most of its impact if we had to wait six months to see it as the opener of season 10.
What a brilliant episode. What a brilliant season. I cannot sing its praises enough.