After the first half of season 10 seemed to move at the pace of molasses, I ended my review of the midseason finale by insisting it was time to get to the fireworks factory. And three episodes into the back half of the year, it looks like the show finally agreed. Of course, the entirety of “Morning Star” was the drive to the factory, as everyone talked in ominous tones, made meaningful speeches, engaged in weapons-prep montages—all the usual hullabaloo to signify a big fight is coming. Then, as the episode ends, our heroes are running back to the safety of Hilltop’s walls after being dowsed in flammable tree sap, when Beta’s archers send a fusillade of flaming death raining down onto the encampment, effectively pinning all our people between a rock and a dead place. As cut-to-black moments go, it’s a pretty good one.
The knowledge of rapidly approaching catastrophe helped make this installment of the show pass by much more smoothly than it would’ve otherwise. Knowing the Whisperers were on the march to Hilltop added a needed dose of adrenaline to all the ponderous speechifying and character beats that would have felt far too clumsy without it (i.e., like lots of other episodes of the show). As it was, there were still some sequences which didn’t work—Alden’s self-appointed role guarding Adam from his newly arrived (and former Whisperer) aunt Mary was taken too far, for one. But overall, this is a situation where the sprawling cast actually works to the show’s advantage: In straining to include a meaningful exchange for almost every character onscreen, there’s simply not enough time for it to get bogged down in melodrama. A few conversations linger past the point of welcome (Daryl and Ezekiel, Daryl and Judith), but rushing through so many means that—to cite a happy example—Yumiko and Kelly barely have time to hug it out before the doomsday prepping continues.
So after our initial glimpse of the Whisperers began their fateful outing to Hilltop (and a scene where Negan tries to convince Alpha that making Hilltop surrender is preferable to killing them, more evidence he’s still working the long con), we get a barrage of emotional check-ins en route to the ending commencement of the battle. As usual, scenes with Carol tend to fare best; her bedroom reunion with Ezekiel definitely seemed like a “you’re gonna die anyway, so how about one last roll in the hay” scenario, and it was fairly touching how quickly she burst into tears after Daryl reassured her that no matter what she’s done, he could never hate her.
But the high point was Carol’s sit-down with Lydia. As she’s done since the beginning, Cassady McClincy proves she’s among the best actors on this show, able to pivot from tearing up at the sight of Lydia and Henry’s initial carved into the building to delivering a steely rebuke to Carol’s assumption that Alpha’s daughter hates her. Both actors are good here, and the sharp, efficient scripting by Vivien Tse and Julia Ruchman offers far more insight than the much longer, more overcompensating moments in other exchanges. “I’m gonna kill her,” Carol states. “That won’t save us,” Lydia flatly responds. “Will you hate me then?” Carol retorts. And Lydia concludes, “I won’t be thinking about you.” The former Whisperer knows Carol a little too well, seeing in her a kindred spirit alienated from everyone else (and noting everyone goes out of their way to “let you feel lonely”), and this back and forth conveys everything needed to illuminate both characters without turning subtext into text. Bravo, Walking Dead.
The more ambiguously successful subplot tonight was Eugene’s ongoing radiomance (portmanteau patent pending) with the mysterious Stephanie. Their opening conversation reveals some useful details (her people saw the satellite fall that kicked off this season, meaning they can’t be too far away), which leads to Eugene making an error by confessing they’re in Virginia—giving away more than they had agreed, and basically pinning all his hopes on the fact that she’s who she says she is, and not just very good at tricking unsuspecting radio users. Cue Rosita’s blundering into the situation, which ends up being a good thing, as it forces A) the estranged friends to reconnect, and B) Eugene to sing a song, thereby providing the subsequent montage with some much-needed musical accompaniment and spurring Stephanie to reveal her location just outside Charleston, West Virginia. She proposes that Eugene makes a trip out there to meet her in exactly one week. Looks like Eugene has good odds of surviving this fight—saved by plot mechanics!
So while Rosita and Eugene make up (she even offers him a platonic kiss, only for the bashful bachelor to refuse it in the face of his newfound affection for Stephanie), Daryl makes the rounds to wrap up a few other relationships. He and Ezekiel bury the hatchet and make a deal that, if one should die, the other gets the kids to safety; between his cancer and this “if one of us dies” deal with a cast member who recently re-upped their contract, the former King’s odds are looking way worse than Eugene’s. He then checks in with Judith to let her know the plan, and reassure her that it’s okay to be scared—that, in fact, it’d be a little weird if she wasn’t. She gives him a vest she made, and combined with the paintings of fallen characters it then cuts to (Glenn, Herschel, Jesus, etc.), the requisite “aww” boxed are checked. Let the bloodletting commence.
Director Michael Satrazemis mostly succeeds at conveying the spatial geography of the showdown, though it gets a bit muddled once the fight is underway. A few cool effects (Eugene’s electrocution cord) are gone too soon, but there’s nothing quite like the threat of being burned alive to ramp up the intensity. The show has been teasing a major showdown since the Whisperers first appeared; let’s hope whatever comes next lives up to the promise.
- That little a capella performance from Eugene and Stephanie, for those curious, was Iron Maiden’s “When The Wild Wind Blows.”
- Along with the satellite getting referenced, another callback to the season opener was Aaron leading the formation of shields against the horde. Truly, Chekov’s zombie defense system.
- I did like Eugene’s first words to Rosita after them not speaking for days: “You look terrible.”
- Similarly, Ezekiel’s first comment to Carol after they hooked up again was funny (“That was fun!”), as was her response to his suggestion that she only slept with him because they’ll all gonna die tonight: “We’re gonna die tonight?”
- The trees cutting off the path to Oceanside are what clues Daryl in to the fact that Negan is now with the Whisperers. That should make their reunion go so much more smoothly.
- “This is the fight of our lives.” Earl’s memory of battles for the life of Hilltop seems dangerously short.