In a lot of ways, The Walking Dead has morphed into the rotted flesh-hungry beasties that give the show its name, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. Sure, there’s been long stretches where it was just kind of shuffling along aimless, mindless, and oozing. But as it heads into season 10 I can’t help but be impressed that this gruesome, monstrous thing is also still very much alive. Put another way: Ah crap, The Walking Dead is good again. Showrunner Angela Kang continues the momentum she built in the wake of Andrew Lincoln‘s season 9 helicopter exit by keeping things equal parts smart and scary, with a focus on The Whisperers, the eery antagonists who have turned this show back into a scream.
The early episodes of The Walking Dead season 10—I’ve seen the first three—are essentially a Cold War during the apocalypse. Following the ghastly head-choppins’ that ended season 9, our main survivors live in constant fear of another Whisperers strike, carrying out military-style training sessions with the dead to keep limber. But the skin-wearing baddies across the border aren’t interested in another all-out attack. They operate under a simple system: “Don’t cross our borders and we won’t have to seriously mess your shit up again.” However, a new problem that (literally) falls from the sky forces the residents of Alexandria, Kingtop, and Oceanside dangerously close to Whisperer territory, and tensions boil over into terror.
This storyline, which seems ponderously slow on the surface, is a clever way to introduce dread back into the series. By now, the walking dead themselves are barely a threat unless they’ve gathered in the thousands and/or you’re a castmember who signed on to do a network pilot. Season 10, which is filled with shots and montages of survivors living their day-to-day in a rot-filled hell-world, posits that the scariest thing left in this reality is nothing. When you’ve built a semblance of a normal life and the immediate threat of death by face-chomping or warring tribe has basically died down, but you’re still jumping at shadows? That’s terrifying, the idea that this anxiety is all there is and all there ever will be—the show finally slows down enough for everyone to realize they have severe PTSD, whether they voice it or not—a thesis bluntly laid out by Norman Reedus‘ Daryl Dixon: “Sometimes I think we’re just surviving from one fight to the next.”
The trio of Reedus, Melissa McBride‘s Carol, and Danai Gurira‘s Michonne has essentially become the face of The Walking Dead, and unsurprisingly these three are doing some of their best work here. Reedus as a weary Daryl who isn’t physically living in the woods anymore but might’ve left a chunk of his will in the wild. Gurira as a Michonne violently stuck between replacing Rick Grimes the Leader and emotionally getting over the loss of Rick Grimes the Person. McBride, who has low-key always been the MVP since 2010, as a Carol whose everything-is-fine complexion is a barely-there mask for a new level of trauma that has severely warped her reality, both figuratively and literally.
But the performance that has straight-up jolted The Walking Dead with some truly out-there energy is Samantha Morton as Whisperer leader Alpha. The two-time Oscar nominee’s presence here calls to mind Marlon Brando‘s psychotically magnetic Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalpyse Now, and not just because of the shaved head. It’s in the unpredictable performance choices Morton makes at every turn; her voice inflection, the way she holds herself, the way she makes a horrific meal out of a simple line like “we are always watching.” (Morton translation: “We. Are. AllllLLLlllways watchin”.) The highlight of the first three episodes is a Whisper-focused chapter, “We Are the End of the World”, written by Nicole Mirante-Matthews and directed by Greg Nicotero, that flashes back and forth between the crew’s present-day in-fighting and the origin story of Alpha meeting Beta (Ryan Hurst). In the present, you’ve got Morton and newcomer Thora Birch adding emotional depth to the Whisperers, but the flashback sequences feel startingly like early-days Walking Dead, when the apocalypse was new and zombies were, you know, terrifying. It’s been a while since this show got a genuine squirm out of me, but an innocent bystander in episode 2 meets one of the gnarliest ends in a good long while.
If nothing else, season 10 does also put renewed focus on good old-fashioned practical horror. That’s likely Nicotero’s influence, which shows in the way The Walking Dead still manages to sculpt a visually stunning monster even when the narrative is a slog. And folks, The Walking Dead season 10 isn’t immune to the series’ trademark slogginess. This show is still a huge ensemble where far too much of that ensemble has the same issues, and they will be discussing them for several scenes at a time. But there’s no denying season 10 zips with an energy this world hasn’t felt in a long time. On a show this bleak, glimpses of hope like that can go a long way.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Walking Dead season 10 debuts on Sunday, October 6.