WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "The Calm Before," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
“The Calm Before” is easily one of the best episodes of what’s become one of The Walking Dead's best seasons. The penultimate episode of Season 9 builds slowly to an all-encompassing tragedy that electrifies when the true horror of Alpha’s depravity is revealed. The AMC drama hasn’t often demanded attention like this, and when it's given, "The Calm Before" doesn’t let go until viewers have seen every excruciating minute.
Every element is perfectly executed, culminating in a climax that rivals some of the show's finest hours, and evokes the early seasons, when tragedy lurked around the corner of virtually every episode. As the story progresses to one more focused on rebuilding a civilization, that naked terror and uncertainty that permeated the early seasons returns this week, full force. Despite all of their progress, the survivors learn once more that this is a world that steals happiness.
The best thing about "The Calm Before" is how effectively it plays with structure to ensure the maximum impact of the Whisperers' game-changing attack. The episode uses the cold open to aggressively keep us off-balance with a vignette that serves as blind foreshadowing for what will happen on a much larger scale at the conclusion (unless you’re a comics reader, in which case you had some idea of the horrors around the corner). We see a couple celebrating consecutive anniversaries, first while killing zombies and discovering Hilltop, and then while settling into life there and, finally, one more as they make their way to the fair. Just as their bliss seems too good to be true, we cut to their wagon overturned and a masked Alpha scalping the woman for her long, blonde hair while humming “Lydia, Lydia that encyclopedia ...” Cut to credits, and we know what’s coming is going to be beautiful, elegant and excruciating.
Ezekiel opens the fair with a tribute to Rick, and with a paper mâche Shiva by his side. When Michonne arrives with Judith, she and the other community leaders meet to set down a mutual-protection pact that guarantees their defense of one another should enemies strike. Ezekiel is practically beaming at the Full House moments that unfold around him when Carol signs her name “Queen Carol,” and Tara and Michonne finally patch things up. The fair is a moving study in how genuinely far the communities, and by extension the show, have come. Without dipping too far into sentimentality, we get a complete picture of the success and peace everyone enjoys. Luke convinces Alden to sing with him before the movie, but Alden only agrees when Enid insists she wants to hear him. Tammy and Earl ooh and ah over their new baby, and their renewed zeal for life, despite being aged parents. And Lydia encounters some minor bullying before Henry steps in to remind her he cares about her. But all the while Alpha watches, wearing the scalp of a dead woman.
When Henry, among others, goes missing, the community leaders set out to find him, only to discover that Alpha has murdered all 10 of them and mounted their heads on pikes to mark her northern border. The structure brilliantly builds toward this moment by splitting perspective on the fair, and jumping back and forth through time, revealing Alpha's insidious presence to have been there the entire time. It's a move that allows us to enjoy what becomes an all-too-brief moment of victory and joy among the community members, and then reveals the entire structure to have been constructed on quicksand. Because we've been conditioned to the Saviors and Negan's brand of in-your-face brutality, the insidious nature of Alpha's aggression stokes fresh versions of the fear, dread and anxiety The Walking Dead specializes in. Waiting until later to reveal that the celebration was filled with people blind to their own doom underscores the tragedy in what could've been overly sentimental, but wasn't. This was Laura Belsey's first time directing an episode, but she's a seasoned auteur, which shows in "The Calm Before's" restrained and perfectly paced narrative.
Once Michonne, Daryl, Carol and Yumiko are captured by the Whisperers and then released, only to discover an abject Siddiq and their murdered friends, the story flashes back to the friends and family of the victims earlier as they notice their people are missing. The camera panning to each zombified head as the concern for their whereabouts echoes is an effective way of doubling down on the tragedy and the horror that came in under everyone’s blind joy. Daryl jumping in between Carol and the sight of her murdered son evoked early seasons, and amplified the scope of her suffering. Daryl’s protection of her as she loses yet another child illuminates that, for all the progress their little civilization has made, they’re still just as vulnerable to the right people as they were when their only shelter was Dale’s RV.
Massive credit is also due to Samantha Morton, who's breathed such a wonderful, sick life into Alpha that the character feels like the apocalypse personified. She’s an unstoppable force who wants only the erasure of the survivors, just like her undead counterparts. Part of what makes her so terrifying is the way the apocalypse fed her. She’s absorbed the new world and its power, and somehow succeeded in making things even worse. That's no small feat, but of course she’s not going to last. This story doesn’t end with Alpha winning. But more so than perhaps any villain we’ve ever seen, the damage she’s inflicted will no doubt leave wounds from which some will not recover.
“The Calm Before” could’ve been a manipulative, sentimental tragedy-fest that obviously pulled at our heartstrings only to slice them to ribbons at the climax. And under less skilled hands, it might have been that way. But the episode is executed with the necessary restraint to achieve the maximum impact of the final few minutes and leave us breathless and hungry for more. And not for nothing, a story about a nation blindsided by an enemy in their midst is timely, to say the least.
This episodes steers clear of the Negan/Glenn/Abraham high emotion by only eliminating two major-ish characters and a handful of the supporting cast. It's still horrible, but in smaller doses. It’s enough to make us angry, but not hopeless, and end the episode fully primed to see Carol dump gasoline on Alpha and her sick tribe of psychos and light them up.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Nadia Hilker, Dan Fogler, Angel Theory, Lauren Ridloff and Eleanor Matsuura.