There was a minute—just one—towards the end of “Stalker,” where I really thought The Walking Dead was about to impress me. Alpha and Daryl, having seriously wounded one another, are both lying on the ground inside the decaying auto shop, blearily (and unsuccessfully) fending off unconsciousness, when Lydia suddenly appears. It’s her first appearance since fleeing Alexandria, and we have no clue where her loyalties lie at this point. Holding her mother’s hand, she shows compassion for the cruel, sadistic parent she abandoned. Suddenly, Alpha puts a knife in Lydia’s hand, and directs it downward, gesturing for her daughter to plunge it back into her mom’s abdomen. It would have been a shocking and brave decision on the show’s part to end Alpha by forcing her child into the role of executioner—at the end of a random, middle-of-the-season episode, no less—and it would have birthed all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Would Lydia be psychologically forced into the role of new Whisperer leader? Would the skin-wearing community collapse, some hoping to be absorbed into our collective? Would Beta go bananas?
Instead, the moment passes. Lydia leaves her mother and helps Daryl get to safety, pausing only to carve “YOUR WAY IS NOT THE ONLY WAY” into the table as a final urging for her mother to consider ending the campaign of violence. Daryl lives; Alpha lives; Beta returns to his tribe barely the worse for wear. With the exception of a few more dead Alexandrians, very little has changed. Hey, this is The Walking Dead; I should’ve known better.
Luckily, everything before that final cop-out is solid. “Stalker” is another fraught and nervy edition of the show, wringing tension and excitement out of the pair of confrontations between Whisperers and protagonists that serve as the centerpieces. It’s essentially a ticking clock from the opening moments, with Beta entering the secret underground tunnels towards Alexandria from a hidden access point in an RV. We know he’s been ordered to retrieve Gamma, so while Gabriel, Rosita, and the other try to coordinate a plan to rescue Daryl and company and simultaneously fend off the promised threat of a herd making its way to the front gate, our awareness that the real threat is going to spring up within the walls makes for some enjoyable frisson.
Episode director Bronwen Hughes is the MVP this week. She knows how to cross-cut between locations and points of view, ratcheting up momentum and intensity without sacrificing coherence or spatial geography. (Ironically, she also directed an episode of the risible CBS procedural Stalker.) Her work here is good enough to elevate this episode past some of the dumber contrivances offered up by the story. Beta’s house-to-house rampage in Alexandria is chilling, as the behemoth of a Whisperer rises up out of Dante’s grave and begins silently executing people, then waiting patiently as they return to sentience as walkers. The whole sequence is shot like an effective horror movie, as we first experience the close-up sensation of seeing Beta flick the lights off on two Alexandrians pumping themselves up to go fight, then cuts to outside the house, where we subsequently peer through windows from a distance as he continues his bloody work.
Of course, Beta eventually has to encounter his quarry, and their exchanges are good, if perfunctory. Gamma (now going by her real name, Mary) tells Beta that Alpha lied to them about the community, and that she’s not afraid of him. “Yes, you are,” he retorts, which, fair enough. When Gamma flees, and Judith calls to her, Beta begins searching the house, and it’s conveyed with the visual equivalent of bated breath—at least until the idiot rule gets enforced again, with Gamma, Judith, and the kids trying to tiptoe past Beta’s body after Judith shoots him through the door. Just shoot him in the head! The stupidity is staggering, and while I usually defend people making dumb decisions in horror (there’s a lot of interesting reasons for characters to choose poorly), this one is bad enough to pull you out of the story and leave you wondering if anybody in the writers’ room actually thought about the scenario for more than a second.
Still, the subsequent fight between Rosita and Beta works, largely because Beta is effectively a horror-movie villain along the lines of Michael Myers at this point, a hulking monster who relentlessly stalks his prey and beats down anyone foolish enough to get in the way. Indeed, Rosita only survives by virtue of Gamma giving he what he came there for, threatening to cut her own throat unless he leaves the rest of the community be. True, it all reverts back to the previous state of affairs within minutes, after Gabriel and his men find the two heading back to Whisperer territory and they run Beta off while keeping Gamma safe, but it was fun while it lasted.
The showdown between Alpha and Daryl also managed to succeed—again, in large part thanks to Hughes’ direction, but also due to the choice of rendering both characters too injured and weak to pull any of the power moves they’d normally utilize in such circumstances. This is one of those times where the widely publicized fact of Norman Reedus re-upping his contract with the show hurts it a bit, because we know Daryl’s not in any real danger of being killed anytime soon, but Alpha managing to effectively wound him and have bleeding cause his blurred vision created an unsettling ambiguity and sense of peril that’s rare for the character. The show needs to have more moments like this, where our protagonists take decisive action that could have definitive and lasting consequences; it just needs to actually commit to them, rather than essentially walking it all back by episode’s end.
In the aftermath, an injured Rosita leaves for treatment at Hilltop along with Mary and Judith, leaving her son with Gabriel after acknowledging she still doesn’t trust herself, and given the nightmares she’s been having, she thinks the kid will be safer with the good reverend. But Gabriel’s got his own issues, ones Rosita correctly called out earlier in the episode. “‘Cut off their fingers, pull out their teeth?’” she asks, reminding him of his own bloodthirsty orders to the others about how to deal with Whisperers. “You’re itching for a fight.” And while that’s not necessarily the wrong mindset to have when going up against Alpha’s followers, a person who wants to throw themselves into harm’s way is a person capable of reckless mistakes. Michonne might be needed back home sooner than anticipated; the adults in the room are starting to lose their way.
- I can’t be the only one who responded to Gabriel telling Rosita, “I’ll see you soon,” by instantly trying to predict which one of them would die before that happened. I guess “ironic foreshadowing” was not to be, this time.
- As much grief as I’ve given the often odious character of Judith Grimes, she does have the most succinct explanation for Gamma and the other followers of Alpha: “You met the wrong person first.”
- It was a bit unintentionally funny to have Gabriel try and use his priest’s collar as an objection of intimidation when Gamma was in the cell. When he pointed to it and menacingly said, “This is not for show,” I laughed.
- Speaking of which, I don’t recall Gabriel ever claiming the power to deduce truth from falsehood before. Please let me know in the comments if you remember him doing this “God gives me the superpower of a lie detector!” act in a prior episode.
- The walkers Alpha summons to the auto shop by banging her gun on the metal entrance were some of the more delightfully grotesque ones we’ve seen in awhile. Branches growing out of one!
- Odd that they didn’t show Jerry, Kelly, and Carol returning with Aaron, given those three clearly aren’t with Daryl.
- Happy golden birthday, Walking Dead! Season 10, episode 10.