The wasteland is a red state, as The Walking Dead has donned its M.A.G.A. (Macabre and Gripping Again) hat.
The unevenness of the AMC series in recent years has been bemoaned and belabored by fans and critics (I’ve contributed my own pair of pennies to the discussion when posting here–and here). But with Angela Kang’s succession of Scott Gimple as showrunner, and the recent six-years’ time jump in the action following the send-off of protagonist Rick Grimes, the show seems to be making a conscious effort to reset itself, to refocus its creative energies. Apparently this involves a renewed emphasis on the horrific, as evidenced by the shocking murder of Jesus by a Whisperer in a fog-shrouded cemetery at the end of the season-splittling episode 9.8, “Evolution.”
Last night’s mid-season premiere, “Adaptation,” picks right up where the show left off, and instantly demonstrates the significance of the Whisperers to TWD‘s rebound. The introduction of this group revitalizes the human-zombie conflict that had grown understandably mundane. When it comes to fearmongering, familiarity breeds diminished returns; after so many seasons, the countless walker attacks lost a lot of their bite. The zombie horde ostensibly served as decayed clay pigeons, heroically obliterated by gun and sword and hatchet. With the advent of the Whisperers, however, the rules of close-up enemy engagement have been altered dramatically, since now a more calculating and dexterous nemesis can be lurking in the midst of the staggering cannibals. My anxiety was appreciably high last night as I watched Negan take swing at some walkers outside the Sanctuary, as I wondered if one of the gruesome opponents would suddenly show its true, living color (my concern for Negan’s safety also says a lot about the redemptive character arc this former Big Bad has been given).
For certain, the Whisperers’ subterfuge makes for a sinister modus operandi, but these figures also prove quite frightful in and of themselves. Their very appearance arrests the viewer, who can’t help but question the mindset of anyone willing to dress up in someone else’s flayed skin. As they stood looming in the tall grass in last night’s episode, the Whisperers also reminded me of another classic horror bogey–the killer scarecrow (in her first appearance, the Whisperer leader Alpha suggests less a latter-day Leatherface than a glorious product of the Grim Stitch Factory). Just as the raggedy straw-man staked as a cornfield sentinel unnervingly blurs the line between the animate and inanimate, the scarecrow-evoking Whisperers muddle the distinction between the living and the undead. From its inception, TWD has presented a clear duality, as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse faced threats from human and posthumous antagonists alike. Now, those two groups of foes can no longer be easily distinguished.
These people in ghouls’ clothing not only model a clever (if outre) survival strategy; their blending in with the grave masses also allows them to turn zombies to tactical advantage. Accordingly, the Whisperers can help redress one of the show’s shortcomings from a past season. I felt the Wolves’ run (in season 6) was cut way short; I wanted to see more of their morbid mousetraps, created by the recruiting of the resurrected dead as shock troops. The herd-infiltrating/-influencing Whisperers, though, promise to take the weaponizing of walkers to a whole other level.
I’ve never read the Kirkman comics, so I don’t know much about the story arc concerning this faux-putrified faction (and have been trying hard to avoid all plot spoilers when reading up on the AMC series of late). But needless to say, I will be attending closely to the Whisperers as TWD moves through the back half of season 9.