The Walking Dead has undergone more change in its ninth season than the show has ever dared—a six-year time jump, the departure of three of its longest-surviving characters (Rick, Maggie, and as of last week, Tara), and now, in its season finale, something truly unprecedented: snow.
Despite taking place in the Washington, D.C., area for the last several seasons, the zombie drama has lingered in the kind of sweaty, evergreen long summer that Game of Thrones characters pray for. (It’s shot in Atlanta and snow is expensive to convincingly reproduce on set, I get it, but weather that stagnant sure grows conspicuous.) “The Storm” made Walking Dead history by unleashing a life-threatening blizzard after weeks of biting cold, to the point that the Kingdom community’s aging gas pipes gave out and its people had to hightail it to Hilltop. King Ezekiel mentions an outbreak of fires as well, though we only see smoldering remains as he, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, and the rest of their caravan close the gates of the Kingdom behind them. You get fire or you get ice in one episode, but not both!
We track the Kingdom’s journey to Hilltop simultaneously as the Alexandrians’ own trek through the blizzard—everyone there (Rosita, Eugene, Gabriel, Siddiq, Negan, and Judith, among others) has been huddling in one house but their chimney gets clogged, leaving them without heat. This episode’s a bit spotty in terms of clarifying who is where and how they get there; it doesn’t help that we’re supposed to assume quite a lot about people’s whereabouts since the last episode, when everyone was at the Kingdom. Best as I can tell: Gabriel and his group brave the storm to get to Aaron’s house, which is also in Alexandria. Team Kingdom, meanwhile, cuts through Alpha and the Whisperers’ territory to Hilltop, where Michonne, Daryl, Carol, and a few others then break away back to Alexandria after the storm subsides. Finally, everyone throws snowballs at each other.
The episode is refreshingly low-key after all the Whisperers-focused snarling, killing, and ultimatums of the last few installments, focusing instead on the fractures in certain characters’ psyches after the events of “The Calm Before.” Grief over the death of Carol and Ezekiel’s adopted son Henry has driven the “king” and “queen” apart, creating a distance that Carol eventually deems too wide to overcome. She gives Ezekiel back his ring and leaves him behind at the Hilltop, where he’d hoped to start over. (Ironically, rescinding his invitation to Daryl to move in closer them backfires, as Carol ends up in Alexandria with her BFF anyway.)
Lydia, Alpha’s teenage daughter, comes into this episode in a dark, distraught, self-loathing place, as she (along with certain vocal Kingdom residents) feels she is responsible for Henry’s death. Suicidal ideation is not a topic The Walking Dead is particularly well-equipped to handle; Lydia’s lowest moment, offering her forearm to a walker stuck in the ice, did feel true to her, though. The minute an alternative to a life of emotional and physical abuse began to seem possible, her own blood showed up to extinguish that hope. That it was Carol—who was not only Henry’s adopted mother but also a survivor of abuse herself—who stopped Lydia from following through felt meaningful, even if the episode left that connection unsaid.
I’m less convinced of Negan’s ongoing redemption tour, which gets its most shining moment yet in this episode. As the Alexandrians trudge through the blizzard, Judith breaks off from the pack to chase Daryl’s dog and Negan sprints off after her. He plays the hero from then on, wounding his leg, freezing his butt off, and then carrying her back to safety with the dog in tow, even earning kudos from Michonne. The Walking Dead comics lay out a long, arduous path to rehabilitation for the character, one I sort of doubt the show will be able to mimic successfully without Rick, Maggie, or (after Danai Gurira’s impending departure in season 10) Michonne. Redemption for a character like Negan doesn’t feel likely to work on an accelerated timeline—he needs to earn forgiveness and trust from someone closely connected to Rick or Glenn, though I suppose Rosita, who once got dumped by another of Negan’s victims, Abraham, is still around in a pinch—but who knows.
At the very least, the Negan question adds to the thinning list of complicated ideas facing the show as it moves forward. When it began this season, characters were grappling with the formation of a government and the laws and order fundamental to a society. The most compelling conflicts, for the first time in too long, came from within the core group of heroes, with friends (particularly Maggie and Rick) clashing over differing yet equally valid perspectives. All of it brought new, desperately needed shades of gray to a show that had been retreading the same stale conflicts for years: us versus them, “good” versus “evil,” swapping out one big bad villain for the next. It’s disappointing that the show fell back into old habits so soon, despite a promising start.
(Not to mention how egregiously it bungled Rick Grimes’ final episode, then bait-and-switched for the sake of unveiling an expanded Walking Dead “universe”—a weird, craven move another show’s fans might have protested, but this show’s audience has perhaps grown to expect. We’ve been jerked around a lot over the years, after all.)
The Whisperers will be back for season 10, as we learned in the last few minutes of this season finale. While Ezekiel’s group fretted over whether Alpha, Beta, and their cronies would come after them for crossing into their land, the skin-jobs were apparently a world away from the blizzard in some sweltering climate that looks a lot like Atlanta in the summer. Alpha mentions readying herself for what’s to come, which sounds like a war on the survivors at Alexandria and Hilltop. More us versus them, kill or be killed.
The more things change on The Walking Dead, the more they stay the same.