6:15am PT by Josh Wigler
How 'The Walking Dead' Set Up Game-Changing Stakes for the Season 9 Finale
[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode 15 of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Calm Before."]
The Walking Dead landscape weathered a significant shift in season nine's penultimate episode, and it's all thanks to Alpha (Samantha Morton), Queen of the Whisperers.
In the final moments of "The Calm Before," showrunner Angela Kang and her writing staff (especially the episode's credited writers Geraldine Inoa and Channing Powell) executed a highly anticipated moment from the Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard comic book series on which the show is based: the mass beheading of several men, women and children from the Alexandria Safe-Zone. Included on the casualty list: Tara (Alanna Masterson), Enid (Katelyn Nacon) and Henry (Matt Lintz), all of whom leave Walking Dead behind with loved ones well and fully wrecked.
As far as the greatest emotional impact on other characters, Henry's death leads the pack with a bullet. Perhaps not the most beloved figure from a fan perspective, there's no doubt that Henry was linked to more major characters than anyone else. Carol (Melissa McBride) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) have now lost their son. Daryl (Norman Reedus) has lost the kid he was charged with protecting for the past several episodes. Lydia (Cassidy McClincy) has lost her first love, the first person who ever took a real chance on her.
The emotional well-being of all four characters remains very much up in the air heading into the season nine finale. Daryl and Lydia visited Henry's final resting place in the closing moments of the episode, a somber and private funeral, but what's next for Carol and Ezekiel? Will the loss of yet another child drive Carol back to her murderous roots? (It's worth noting that Henry's exit marks the end of the line for the Lintz siblings' time on The Walking Dead, as sister Madison and brother Macsen played Sophia and Young Henry, respectively.) As for Ezekiel, will Henry's death shake the king's sense of joviality, the joy he's experienced thanks to the Kingdom's newly launched annual fair? Whatever happens for him next, Ezekiel ought to thank his lucky stars; had the Walking Dead TV show stuck to the original comic book script, it would have been his severed head on a pike.
Beyond Henry, the deaths of Tara and Enid raise several questions about the future of the series. In the midseason finale, Jesus (Tom Payne) lost his life, leaving the Hilltop without a leader, after Maggie (Lauren Cohan) already left the community at some point years earlier. Tara stepped up to the plate in Jesus' stead, and only survived seven episodes before joining him in the great beyond. Enid was a likely next in line, given her close affiliation with all things Hilltop, but now? Guess not. So much for "just survive somehow." The only major character who still hangs his hat at the Hilltop: Alden (Callan McAuliffe), introduced in season eight as a background Savior, since elevated to series regular and sturdy member of the Hilltop community. He stands to enjoy an increased profile, though it comes at the expense of his loved one's life.
How else will The Walking Dead fill the Hilltop void? A few options come to mind. Magna (Nadia Hilker) and her friends were recently allowed to call Hilltop their home, and all five of her crew remain alive and well following Alpha's attack. (At this point in the comics, Dan Fogler's Luke was already dead; does that mean he's escaped the reaper, or is he simply on borrowed time?) These five new survivors have already enjoyed some prominence since their introduction. As some of the most recognizable Hilltoppers left, their star is only going to rise.
An old-schooler who may settle in at the Hilltop: Daryl Dixon. With so much death dealt out by the Whisperers, Daryl's days of exile are surely at an end. He received an invitation to live in the Kingdom, but is likely to move to the Hilltop given the current power vacuum. Besides, Connie (Lauren Ridloff) lives at the Hilltop. Why would Daryl want to stray too far away from his new crush? Seriously, look back at the scenes between Daryl and Connie from "The Calm Before," before the calm became chaos. The show is at the very least testing the waters of a Daryl-Connie romance, if not outright setting it up.
Looking ahead at the finale, it's worth sticking with Daryl — at least, it's worth sticking with something he saw: a massive herd of walkers, rounded up by Alpha and the Whisperers. Consider this the undead equivalent of an atomic bomb, a massive group of monsters Alpha and her minions can unleash upon the Alexandria Safe-Zone if ever they feel the need. Will those monsters come out to play in the finale? Perhaps not, but they will at the very least be deployed in the next season.
Lastly, there's someone to consider who didn't appear in the episode at all: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who knows a thing or two about leveling catastrophic pain upon the Alexandrians. In the comics, Negan takes it upon himself to participate in the Whisperer war. The show seems to have some other ideas in mind, given how Negan's escape from prison played out earlier this season. Throughout season nine, beginning even before the big time jump, Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Negan's meetings in prison have provided something of a Clarice and Hannibal Lecter undercurrent to the proceedings. Is Michonne finally about to take Negan up on his offer for help? Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage leading up to and through the season nine finale, which airs March 31.