Though we have discovered that walkers are not evolving, there is another form of evolution taking place. What is evolving is the relationship between the dead and the living. More than evolution, it is adaptation. While some communities have adapted to the post-apocalyptic world through walls and collective alert systems to keep the dead out, others opted for coexistence with the dead, or have found instrumental ways of taking advantage of the walking corpses. The Whisperers, of course, are the most obvious example of this, but they are not the only one. Lydia and Daryl’s dialogue, for example, hint to the fact that Daryl, too, is more at ease living away from walls, among walkers. We saw this in episode 7, when Carol visited Daryl’s camp, and she noticed how Daryl was not getting rid of dead bodies, and used to give walker hands to Dog. Negan, too, has a peculiar relationship with the dead.
Villains and the Dead
Having a close affinity with the dead, in this show, has an important metaphorical meaning. It is a way of showing the dark side of a group or character. In case of good characters, having an affinity with the dead tells us that they are going through complex inner struggles. Hence, for them, switching between the dead and the living is a way of showing how their inner struggles are progressing. We have seen this with Michonne, Nick and Troy in Fear, and now with Daryl and Negan. But mostly, it is the villains who have a close affinity with the dead. Most of the main villains in the show did. Both the Governor and the Saviors kept walkers in their complexes as a weapon of terror against their enemies. Groups like Terminus and the Wolves showed affinity with the walkers by imitating their behaviour.
As for the Whisperers, this dead-living relationship is pushed even further. At this point, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the living and the dead. People have become part of the horde, using walkers for security and, probably, providing them flesh.
This symbiotic relationship with the dead is also a way of depicting the Whisperer as dangerous savages, in sharp contrast with the flourishing civilisation built by Alexandria and friends. No wonder the Hilltop, which is the community most exposed to the Whisperers, is the most advanced community in this season. How else would we know that the Whisperers are a dangerous threat? After all, so far they have just killed one person that they considered a threat. It wouldn’t be the first kill for safety concerns in the post-apocalyptic world, see for example Carol’s latest massacre at episode 6. Furthermore, our group has already killed a bigger bunch of them, and taken one as hostage. Our heroes do not yet know how big this threat is, but we do. We already know that the Whisperers are a threat not so much because of what they have done, but for the atmosphere of uncertainty and terror that has been built around them. And then, again, it’s about emotions. Jesus’ kill comes as a shock, even greater as he was now a leader. His death is treated with great solemnity. In contrast, the killings of Whisperers in this episode hardly evokes any more emotion than the killing of a corpse.
The significance of Jesus’ solemn burial as a loved leader is even more emotional because it is linked to another loss: Rick’s. More than once, in this episode we are reminded of Michonne and Daryl’s grief for not having been able to have closure by burying Rick’s body. The story of Rick’s loss is most emotional told by Michonne and Daryl because of their love that we have seen growing through the seasons. But it is also represented as a trauma for the whole community of Alexandria. Because of the lack of closure to that trauma, the community has not able to move on.
Negan and the dead
Negan’s relationship with the dead is also a significant theme in this episode, though in a subtler way. This is the episode where Negan’s transformation is revealed. What is he going to do next? We have been given hints of Negan’s growing humanity for a while now, starting from his relationship with Carl, and then with Judith. From the Big Bad Guy he once was, he has become more and more a grey character. Leaving his detention means that his character is now going to be tested. The first images of him after he leaves his cell bring back the old Negan. He conquers a leather jacket. He is no longer a prisoner. He goes back to Sanctuary. His loneliness is loud and heavy. This is his punishment. Loneliness makes the presence of walkers even more tempting to him: they are the only ones he can relate to. But he made a promise to Judith, a solemn one. So I believe him. And how do we know if he is truly changed? There is a first little test: walkers.
Walkers are not a threat to Negan. They are his dark side. He told us so explicitly during his conversation with Michonne in episode 4. Michonne, too, has an affinity with the dead, but she clearly stated that she chooses the living. Now time has come for Negan to make his choice. If walkers represent his dark side, Judith is his light. He has to choose between the old Negan and the new Negan, walkers or his promise to Judith. So, he look at the compass given by Judith and he finds his way. He chooses the living – Judith.
Leadership and Justice
As the question of who is going to lead now is still lead, whatever narrative will unfold from now on will definitely involve the creation of new leaders. Negan is probably one, but he might have to go through more tests to prove his worth. Is he going to choose nonviolence from now on? He basically told so to Judith: he will never hurt anyone again, not even if they try to hurt him. What about the Hilltop? Tammy, representing the Hilltop community, tells Tara that they will look up to her from now on. But she needs to be tested, too, in order to emerge as a leader. Her test involves deciding what to do with the prisoner. The question of leadership, therefore, is linked to that of justice. Justice decisions, once again, are a burden for the wise leader, who needs to make a fair decision while, at the same time, appeasing the masses. We saw this, earlier in the season, with Maggie’s decision of hanging Gregory. The new leader will also have to be confronted with a similar test. Through the issue of how to deal with the prisoner, we also get a hint that Daryl will also take on a leadership role alongside Tara.
The decision on how to treat the prisoner is harder because Lydia is depicted as a very vulnerable girl, and therefore human. Is torture going to be used to get answers? It appears that Daryl, this time, found a different expedient. In the meantime, the emergence of a common threat succeeds in bringing the communities a bit closer. Tara and Michonne, after a cold welcome in the last episode, are finally warning up.