**Season 9 SPOILERS to follow!!**
No Rick, no Maggie, no problem. The Walking Dead returned to heart-stopping form last night with its Season 9 Episode 15 submission, "The Calm Before." Survivors died. Lots of them. And the show did a stellar job teasing and delivering it. Side-eyed fans might've sniffed something out with the arrival of Fair Day. Happiness just doesn't jive with a zombie apocalypse. But last night was a shocker.
"The Calm Before" begins with a message of hope, and a massacre. Anonymous Hilltoppers are killed by the Whisperers on the road. But we'll get back to that...
The Fair is the talk of the Kingdom and Michonne has arrived, unexpectedly. Soon, all the leaders are gathered together and they agree to work together. Lydia will stay and, if the Whisperers attack any of the communities, they'll all respond in force. (Why this took so long to agree to is beyond me.)
Meanwhile, with everyone arriving at the Kingdom for the Fair, Alpha is able to slip into the crowd in disguise and unnoticed. She even has a creepy conversation with Ezekiel. Trouble. Whatever she's planning, it's not going to be bags of popcorn for the movie.
Henry shows Lydia around and they cement their feelings for one another. Alden and Enid do the same, calling each other "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" for the first time. Judith and Jerry growl at each other like tigers. Things are good. The Fair is a hit and people are living like they once did. It's all very... ominous.
Cut back to that roadside massacre. Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and some others come across it and set off to track the Whisperers. The episode morphs into a non-linear timeline as events unfold at the same time and in flashback. Alpha, Beta (somehow recovered after that elevator shaft spill), and the other "Skins" find Daryl, Carol, and Michonne and surround them.
As the dangerous scene unfolds, Alpha leads Daryl away from the group at gunpoint. They come to a lookout where a monstrous walker horde gathers beneath them in a valley. Alpha tells Daryl her people are in there, guiding the horde, and she can lead them to any of the communities at any time. She tells Daryl the land has been divided, and he and his friends can go. There’s a line, and the Whisperers own the south. Everyone else must stay north. When Daryl asks where the line is, Alpha tells him, "You’ll know."
Anticlimactic, no? Alpha just lets them go? Um, no.
Daryl quickly finds Carol, Michonne, and Siddiq, who's tied to a tree. They come to the field. And then they see the horror — decapitated heads are mounted on pikes lined in a row. As they get closer, they see...
Ozzy, the leader of the Highwaymen, two of his men, Earl’s wife, Tammy, Ronnie, Addy, with her glasses still on...
And, on the end, Henry.
All dead. All turned and growling quietly in body-less unison.
The Walking Dead hasn't killed off this many main characters since Negan introduced Lucille to Glenn and Abraham. It's a powerful sequence and a much-needed one in a season lacking real urgency. Now, the Survivors can go after the disgusting Whisperers with impunity.
The Red Wedding-esque moment also has the added bonus of disposing with one of the show's worst characters — Henry. Good riddance to his naive, awkward ways.
Enid deserved better. She was one of the show's strongest female characters and someone who seemed destined for a part in the future. She also had one of the show's best late-season introductions. So much for that. Tara was solid also. Her death was another big surprise. Who the hell is gonna run Hilltop now?
Whatever happens, The Walking Dead has managed to regain some edge with "The Calm Before." Killing people off always ignites the fire in the others. Daryl will have his vengeance. The next episode is called "The Storm," and it'll conclude Season 9. Don't expect this conflict with the Whisperers to be resolved quickly, however. They'll be back for Season 10. Showrunner Angela Kang recently told EW that things are "gonna take a little bit of a left turn in the finale." What that means is anyone's guess.
The Walking Dead returns next Sunday night on AMC.