‘The Walking Dead’ Braves the Cold as Season 9 Comes to a Close

Dead men walking became scary again as “The Walking Dead” began its season 9 post-break run. The zombie apocalypse series hasn’t been very worried about the reanimated corpses while distracted by battles with human enemies like Terminus, the Governor, the police force at Grady Memorial Hospital, the Saviors and other assorted groups of survivors. But there is a new wrinkle on the rotting faces which makes as good a concealer as any mask of flesh. “The Walking Dead” consistently tries to make the zombies more of a menace. The first hungry corpse Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) encountered at the season’s opening didn’t go down as fast as he expects and he needs a new leather to cope. What the conquered leader doesn’t see on his trek are the new, improved versions of the undead, the silent but deadly Whisperers.

Written by Angela Kang and Matthew Negrete, “The Storm” coats the closing episode with snow. Director Greg Nicotero and the special effects team enhance the walkers with the cold. They look more formidable, because they blend in with the squall. Zombies came out of the fog of the blizzard as frozen-solid target practice dummies but at first we’re sure it’s a pack of Whisperers.

“I think that the Whisperers present a very unique adversary for the entire rest of the cast, and by the end of this season we see how diabolical they really are,” Ryan Hurst who plays Beta, Alpha’s (Samantha Morton) underboss in the Whisperers, told Entertainment Voice.

The Whisperers take assimilation to a new level. They have seen the future, it is among the walkers and they’ve accepted and joined them. They made the undead scary again. Every time a rotting ghoul appears on screen, there’s a chance it might be a whisperer. When they first showed up, Eugene Porder (Josh McDermitt) wondered whether they were a first step in an evolutionary process.

Living dead girl Lydia (Cassady McClincy), Alpha’s daughter, is truly the princess of the Whisperers. As far as her ex group would go to walk among the walkers, she is ready to go a step further. When Lydia first encounters the chomping grin of the walker frozen in place, she is irresistibly drawn. The audience wonders about the attraction. Did she know this person in life? She is certainly fascinated with the constant biting. As she lifts her wrist we wonder if she is really considering suicide, tempting fate or, as the moment continues, preparing for the ultimate assimilation which is the core of her beliefs.

When we hear the Whisperers on the rails we know we’ll soon be dancing where the dogs decay, unless Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) has something to say about it. Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) daughter, like his dead son Carl, has a soft heart for strays. Judith humanized Negan, who is given a little more freedom and an ounce of trust. She is what Carl used to be for him. In the season opener, when Negan was newly freed from the basement jail cell he’s been kept in since his Saviors lost their battle to Grimes’ crew, his first place was Grimes family home. He was pondering bashing in Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) head as a farewell gift to himself. Judith let him go. But when Judith disappears into the snow chasing after a dog, Negan dissolves along with her.

Winter has come to “The Walking Dead.” While the Whisperers have in some ways turned zombies into the White Walkers of “Game of Thrones,” original recipe dead play their own reindeer games, like coming out of snow as biting land mines. Season nine ends with a snowball fight. The elements will always be the elements. Even in the pre-zombie apocalypse, weather conditions are a killer.

In Alexandria, Eugene declares a weather emergency and orders protocol 1 winter preparedness methods be taken. It takes a second for it to sink in he’s talking about huddling around a fire, but soon Alexandrians start chopping wood. It is understandable these groups of survivors are ill-equipped for a bad snow storm because their solar powered electricity isn’t conducive to heat.

The series shoots in balmy Georgia, but is set in Virginia. The state’s mountains are close to the ocean, which does occasionally create a blizzard, but the community treats the incoming flurries like they set up camp in Antarctica. The trees are still green when we imagine Jerry (Cooper Andrews) catching the first flakes on his tongue. Then they get hit with a blizzard to beat all blizzards. Wisconsin doesn’t get hit with that kind of snow.

“I wish I could say that this is a very difficult shoot, but it’s not,” Hurst told us. “This runs like such a beautifully well-oiled machine and also, the entire cast, the entire crew are so unbelievably welcoming that it was like a dream come true.” This isn’t true for “The Walking Dead” communities. The zombie apocalypse ushered in a world of normal dangers. Packs of hungry dogs are as dangerous as hungry ex-humans. Bridges fall, trees and cars block roads, crops are always low. Manmade resources from the world before are a dwindling resource. Even Twinkies have gone bad.

Alexandria’s solar panels only work when the sun is out. Their fireplace maintenance is also out of date, so they set up three safe-houses. The Kingdom is fallen. The fair was only a Band-Aid on a neglected infrastructure with busted pipes and a broken boiler system. The Kingdom has to cross enemy lines, Whisperer territory, because of the downed Grimes Bridge and a frozen river, to make a new home in Hilltop.

Hilltop leader Maggie Lauren Cohan took off with her son Hershel to join the a mysterious camp run by a woman named Georgie (Jayne Atkinson), who popped up out of nowhere in season 8. Fans of the comic series assume this is the Commonwealth, a city of 50,000 people in Ohio, which might also be holding Rick. On the trek from the Kingdom to the Hilltop, the refugees chop off the heads of walkers they find on the path, leaving an easy trail if anyone’s following.

Season nine cast changes lends unpredictability to the journey. Bonding moments, like the shared danger of Alden (Callan McAuliffe) and Luke (Dan Fogler), usually end with one of the pair having a knife shoved through their skull so they don’t come back to gnaw the buddy. Although this reviewer doesn’t remember anyone double-tapping Jesus (Tom Payne)  to save the Hilltop community from his impending resurrection after the Whisperers ambushed him.

Her son dead, Carol (Melissa McBride) has now lost two children and spends most of the episode on verge of breaking down. She admits this separately to Ezekiel and Daryl (Norman Reedus). But she lets herself burst with Daryl and breaks away from Zeek, giving the King back his ring. Carol Peletier has come to be known as “Queen” Carol by the Kingdom, but she is her own domain. She is as much a loner as Daryl, and equally reliable, resourceful and lethal. She dealt with the confines of life with an abusive husband, and bristles at the shackles of a needy one. Carol and Daryl have always been a dynamic duo.

Khary Payton occasionally lets Ezekiel slip out of his regal character, such as when he wants Daryl to slip away, possibly on the consistent grease of his hair, and leave him Carol alone to carry on their lives. The King lost his mojo along with his tiger Shiva. Ezekiel lost his adopted son, his wife, and his Kingdom. But he will never lose his faithful Jerry, who suggests the Hilltop may some day be known as the “Kingtop.” We sense Ezekial will never truly lose himself.

Michonne had an exhilarating arc this season. A flashback visit to the missing years between seasons recalls her meeting a friend she knew before the fall. It turns out her friend took a children of the corn-style mode of survival, and Michonne found herself chopping her way through a horde of living kids to get to her daughter. That changes a person. “No one ever thinks that they’re the evil one,” Negan tells Judith because he is always making inroads into the psyche. But he admits to Michonne she’s changed into a badass.

Since losing Rick, living though he is, “The Walking Dead” became a full ensemble show without a central rudder. Michonne may lead the community Rick began, but she can’t be everywhere. Neither could Rick but we assumed he was, until he wasn’t and the show gave away moral grounding. In some ways, “The Walking Dead” is becoming more comic booky without Rick. Free to indulge in a mass beheading of children juxtaposed with a mother-and-daughter outing decapitating walkers.

Episode 15 was the big season finale episode, putting an end to another era, as evident as the heads on the sticks the Whisperers left to mark their territory. “The Storm” sets up next season, which will heat up the war between the survivors. Towards the end of the episode Beta gives Alpha a whipping, which seems a nod to “Game of Thrones” because it’s a little kinky. But the series also indulges in a double entendre of fate as Eugene’s radio picks up a voice asking if anybody is out there in the open air. We have no clue if it will turn out to be friend or foe. While “The Storm” may be the weakest season closing of the series, it continues to strengthen the mysteries of its future.

The Walking Dead” season 9 season finale aired on March 31 on AMC.