“I don’t think you can protect my daughter—but I hope I’m wrong.”
Over the past few seasons, its become less and less of an advantage to be a reader of the source material. When The Walking Dead began, you knew all the iconic, shocking moments. Sure, there were some curve balls but for the most part you knew. Now, the show is so separate from the comics, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen. In ‘The Calm Before’ we see the famous heads-on-pikes scene that shocked so many, but I almost couldn’t believe what they’d changed…
The episode opens with two untamed Hilltoppers, as we see the years pass by and these two lovebirds fawn over each other; giving each other handcrafted gifts and just being too perfect. It’s sickly sweet, but it doesn’t last. Back in the modern-day, on the way to the fair, we see the photogenic couple get ambushed. The woman is then quickly scalped by Alpha. This two to three-minute segment is a microcosm of the whole episode. It starts off happy (too happy) moves through some charming and lively interactions, there’s a burst of violence, and it ends with unimaginable tragedy.
But we’ll get there. The fair is now in full swing. Ezekiel does a speech, there are stalls trading and swapping, some survivors are teaching first aid and blacksmithing, there are candy apples (apples on sticks acting as tragic foreshadowing) and even a Eugene dunking booth! The fair was a big deal in the comics, and I’m impressed the show has managed to capture the size and bussle of it. After all, there are probably hundreds of survivors across all four communities. Apart from dicky teenagers Rodney and Gage, it’s perfect. We see all the important characters interacting, some who I’d swear have barely spoke in the past. It felt like the whole gang was back together. This is the happy start I mentioned.
After signing the charter and agreeing on a NATO-style mutual protection clause, the leaders decide to send some fighters to defend Hilltop from The Whisperers. It was Hilltop that took Lydia, after all. So the party leaves the Kingdom, some saying their farewells for the last time. After a short time they come across the upturned cart, being investigated by Ozzy and the Highwaymen. After splitting off from the group to find the missing Hilltoppers, Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and Yumiko are ambushed by Whisperers. They put up a good fight, but they had no chance. Alpha wants to show Daryl something, and leads him away. This scene is iconic in the comic, as Alpha shows Daryl her huge army of walkers, her atom bomb, her WMDs (walkers of mass destruction). If the gang go into her territory again, she’ll send the horde. But how will Daryl know where her territory begins – oh, he’ll see it. But I do think Alpha isn’t as bad as all that (hear me out). She’s showing force because she has to, because without that she’d lose her flock. She needs to look strong and she’s in an unattainable position of having to keep one-upping herself with shows of strength.
The episode flashes back here to the fair, and what the people there were doing in the meanwhile. We know something terrible is about to go down, and knowing that it’s already happened and this is a flashback is heartbreaking. There is nothing Daryl (and the audience) can do except watch it play out. And it turns out Alpha has been up to all sorts. Using the scalp of the dead woman from earlier, she’s stuck it on her head, slapped a sun hat on top, and has gone to the fair. In this world, as opposed to the comics, there has been a lot of tension and disparity between the communities so it’s very easy to believe that someone could wander the fair without being seen – Ezekiel even mentions to Alpha how the recent turmoil has torn them apart. Plus, Samatha Morton is literally unrecognisable with hair and without all that muck on her. But she’s just as creepy, even if the other characters are blinded by her doughty (Carol-like) appearance.
Now, this is where the show pulls the rug out right from under us. We see Alpha talking to Ezekiel. From the comics (spoilers I guess) I knew that Zeke is the one to get his head on a spike. So when she led him away, I feared the worst. And the show makes and effort to show us a whole bunch of couples and their respective emotional goodbyes; Carol and Ezekiel, Yumiko and Magna, Rosita and Eugene/Gabriel/Siddiq. And out of all of those, none of them die. The Walking Dead has tricked viewers before, and people have not been happy (the Glenn fakeout, the season six cliffhanger). So when Daryl and the guys stumble into the field and see the heads on spikes, I was gobsmacked.
So they kill off Ozzy and his friends, not cool but kind of expected. Then a few background survivors – just cannon fodder except for Tammy. But then we realise that one of them is Tara. Another is Enid. These guys, Tara especially, have been around for years! But I guess that wasn’t so bad. Then, we see Daryl hold Carol back. She won’t want to see who the last head is, so obviously it’s Ezekiel, just like the comics. But no, it’s Henry! And Daryl tries to hold her back, just as he did with Sophia way back in season 2. Everything about this scene is perfect. The Bear McCreary score is haunting, the cinematography is the best it’s ever been. And throughout the scene, it flashes back to the fair as we see the dead characters loved ones try and work out where they’ve got to. It’s a restrained way of doing it. These people aren’t sad, they’re just confused about where their loved ones are. And it’s all the more heartbreaking.
The Whisperers have left Siddiq alive to tell the tale, and tell it he does. We see that these guys weren’t just grabbed and executed. They fought and tried their best, they all went down like badasses. In the comics, I always wondered how the Whisperers grabbed so many people and no one even put up a fight. It’s more believable here. I also think the pike scene overall is an improvement. It was a shocking scene in the comics, but that was all it was. Ezekiel and Rosita were the biggest names they killed and they hadn’t done anything of note since the timeskip. Here, they go for the emotional gut-punch with Henry. And it works, not because we like him as a character (many didn’t) but because we’d spent so much time with him. He was a major character these past few episodes, he was the future. And it’s a huge moment for Carol, as this is the second child she’s lost in the apocalypse. The Carol vs. Alpha fight is closer than ever.
Overall, it might be the best episode the show’s done. If not, it’s up there. And it does what every adaptation should do, no matter how distant it may have got from the source material – it changes things up and improves them. ‘The Calm Before’ shows how writers can trick their audiences in a clever way, not a manipulative way, before delivering one hell of a final wallop. Everyone gave their all this episode and it showed.
Next week, we see snow for the first time. And the gang must make the journey into Alpha’s territory.
Reviewed by Jack