I don’t even know how you offer up ratings for individual episodes of The Walking Dead at this point. Are we supposed to only assess the artistic merit we see and hear on the screen? If that’s the case, you could actually make an argument for “Evolution” as somewhat novel and compelling. The imagery here is pretty great—a return to the idea that the events of TWD might actually be interpreted as “scary”—and the cinematography and direction are certainly above average for TV.
But are we simultaneously supposed to ignore everything that is so inherently frustrating about season 9, and its seemingly pathological obsession in withholding information from the viewer? We just wrote about the show’s inability to differentiate confusion and intrigue last week, and it’s a hole that is only getting deeper with each and every episode. And now, whatever audience is left gets to wait until February before MAYBE being told the basic information they should have had access to since the show made its latest six-year time jump. Does someone involved in The Walking Dead’s production derive sexual satisfaction from never answering any of the show’s most basic and obvious questions? These are the questions I find myself mulling over now.
As far as content of “Evolution,” though, let’s get the big one out of the way: The cat’s out of the bag, and The Whisperers are here. As someone who has read The Walking Dead comics, The Whisperers are enemies I once assumed would be entirely too far-fetched to bring to TV. A society that lives among the zombies, wearing their skins to blend in and controlling them from within? That works in the comics, but I was never sure it would work on TV—it seemed more like something that could be easily skipped over. After seeing the last few episodes and those sequences in the fog, though, it’s actually sort of exciting to see our characters frightened once again. They’ve been living in a world of zombies for more than 10 years now, after all—the living dead have long since passed from “nightmare” to an everyday hassle. This, however, is something that chills the blood of even hardened members of the future society.
Ultimately, are The Whisperers something you can justify by using any kind of logic? No, not really. Any kind of scrutiny makes the idea of their society fall apart utterly—and how could they possibly represent a real threat against societies with automatic weapons? But they do have a certain aesthetic, grimy spookiness that could play well on TV for the second half of season 9 at least. Which is to say: I don’t have a problem with The Whisperers. Nor do I have a problem with the plot of The Walking Dead indulging in some pulp. They might as well have fun at this point.
What I do have a problem with is that even after revealing its next big villains, TWD STILL doesn’t bother to key us in on all of the most basic information the audience is still missing after the six year time skip. Seriously, the things we don’t know have never been more myriad. Why do all of the Hilltoppers run inside when a scout reports that “riders are coming”? Why are they all so afraid of any tidings? Have they been fighting against other communities at some point in the last six years? Why did Michonne decide to separate her community so utterly from the others? Why are they so distrusted in Hilltop that former friends—former family in the war against The Saviors—need to be stripped of their weapons when they enter? To look at their interactions, you’d think there was some kind of literal civil war that occurred during this six year period, but you’ll never know, because The Walking Dead will never freaking TELL YOU. They’ve decided that any lack of important information constitutes “a mystery.”
I can only presume that the showrunners look at this situation and think “it’s like a fun guessing game, where you try to figure out what happened in the last six years.” But instead, it’s like you’ve gone to a movie, saw the first 20 minutes and then were forced to leave, only to come back and watch the conclusion. You’re missing any form of context, and it’s making this show increasingly unwatchable. They can still stage a fine action scene, but how much does that matter when they won’t explain any of the basic information you need to know?
Let’s hit some other points in bullet form, while I take a breath from all that ranting:
— Jesus, we can only presume is dead, and it’s a tragic loss that feels especially dictated by the “someone important has to die for the mid-season finale to be important” situation that has plagued TWD ever since it switched to the divided season format. I guess we’ll never find out if he was in a relationship with Aaron now. Moreover, does that mean Tara is in control of The Hilltop now? Because really: Tara? Being second in command was already above her pay grade.
— It’s really interesting to consider the ramifications of a guy like Negan spending more than 7.5 years inside a jail cell at Alexandria, going from suicidal to whatever he is now. Why is he now free? I can confidently say that I have no idea. Did an orderly not lock that door properly? Moreover, did you see the shot of him holding a bat in the “later this season” promo? Did he actually go out and find Lucille where she’s been rotting in a field for 7-plus years? Surely that bat would be unusable by now.
— Speaking of the “later this season” promo, how can you not laugh at “Evolution” ending on a “will they survive?” cliffhanger and the promo spoiling that “yes, they all survive” not 15 seconds later? Bravo. Really had me worried there.
— Eugene has certainly grown much more selfless in the last decade, hasn’t he? When the Grimes Gang first met him, that guy would have commanded Abraham to carry him to safety if a tidal wave was bearing down on him. Now he’s begging with Aaron and Jesus and Daryl to leave him to die. Respect, Eugene. You’ve come a long way, even if you still speak in a way no human on Earth has ever spoken.
— Henry has run afoul of a teen clique at The Hilltop, composed of children who came of age during the zombie apocalypse. They even have a stoner shack outside the walls of the settlement, which they can somehow reach without being detected to drink potent moonshine and torture zombies for kicks, because these kids are all clearly sadist psychopaths. Really, do you need to hear anything more than “we tried to use a cat as bait” in order to hate every one of these kids? Good to know that even in zombie world, teenagers are still raging douchebags. I didn’t catch the names of the two guys, but I can only assume that they were “Chad” and “Bryce”.
Dear readers, where does this leave us before we return for the second half of season 9 in February? “In a pit,” I suppose, is our answer. Will TWD ever bother to key us in on the status of this world, and what happened during the most recent time skip? Will Judith Grimes actually be a major character on the series, as it seemed she would be when first introduced? Will we be able to focus on The Whisperers, or will the plot points of the show continue to focus on damaged relationships that are damaged for reasons we’re not allowed to comprehend? Will anyone care, regardless?
Guess I’ll let you know in three months.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.