When the book is closed on The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 11 might be the one I point to as the one that showed how solid the season was. It's the third episode the half-season, which under previous showrunner Scott Gimple tended to be the point in a half-season when the show started to indulge in mopey wheel-spinning as it tried to stretch a too-thin story between eventful premiere and finale. But new showrunner Angela Kang has shaken everything up, delivering the best episode of the half-season so far. "Bounty" paid off the main story thread introduced in the premiere (the capture of Whisperer daughter Lydia [Cassady McClincy]) in a prompt and emotionally satisfying way, and imbued a narratively low-stakes B-story with genuinely resonant character and world-building drama. Episodes like this show how much life The Walking Dead still has left.
The episode started with a flashback to a couple years earlier when Carol (Melissa McBride) was still growing her hair out, Jerry (Cooper Andrews) had a baby on the way and Jesus (Tom Payne) was still alive, as they and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Tara (Alanna Masterson) met to exchange goods and keep the lines of communication open. Tara gave Ezekiel the unsigned draft of Michonne's (Danai Gurira) charter, figuring that he would value it more than Michonne at this point. And she was right, as we flashed forward to the present and Ezekiel was gazing longingly at the charter as the Kingdom prepared for a fair that would bring the communities back together, at least for a little while. Ezekiel has always been idealistic.
But we'll come back to Ezekiel, since his and Carol's story was the B-story this week. This episode was really about Alpha (Samantha Morton) getting Lydia back from Hilltop. After her somewhat underwhelming introductory episode last week, this episode really showed the frightening, feral intensity Samantha Morton is going to bring to the role.
Her story picked up where it left off, outside of Hilltop's gates. "Your people crossed into our land. There will be no conflict," she said. "Your people killed our people. There will be no conflict. I'm done talkin'. Bring me my daughter or there will be conflict." Daryl (Norman Reedus) refused to turn Lydia over, because he knows she'll be abused if he does. Instead he went out to talk to her face to face. He threatened to blow her and her people to smithereens right then and there, but then a baby Whisperer started crying. Daryl was horrified, and Alpha explained her philosophy in a way that I finally got it: "We're animals," she said. "Animals live out here. Animals have babies. So we have babies out here." She said she didn't want conflict, so she was proposing a trade: one of hers for two of theirs. The masks came off two apparent Whisperers to reveal Alden (Callan McAuliffe) and Luke (Dan Fogler), bound and gagged and covered in mask grime. (Smart of the Whisperers to have extra masks lying around for prisoner situations! Always be prepared, I say.)
Meanwhile, the crying baby was attracting real dead ones, and its mother was starting to panic. The shots of her terrified eyes and mouth underneath the mask were really striking, showing that at least some of these people still have normal human reactions to stuff, because Alpha does not. She looked at the mother and shrugged. "To live with the dead means to live in silence," she explained. "If the mother can't quieten the child, the dead will. Natural selection." And then she laughed a little bit! Alpha, you crazy. The mother put the baby on the ground, and Luke signed to Connie (Lauren Ridloff), hidden in the cornfield, to save the baby, which led to a thrilling action scene where Connie ran through the cornfield dodging walkers that she couldn't hear coming.
On the other side of Hilltop, Enid found Henry and Lydia in the Teen Zone from earlier in the season. She explained that the Whisperers had Alden and Luke and Lydia had to go. Lydia agreed. She thought the fact that her mother came back for means she cares after all. Enid invoked the memory of Carl (Chandler Riggs) to convince Henry that letting Lydia go was the right thing to do. Sometimes the right thing isn't easy to live with, but you still gotta do it. Lydia gave Henry a kiss goodbye. It probably tasted like worms.
They made the prisoner exchange, and Enid told Alden "I don't ever want to let go of you," which makes me think my man is DOOMED. Lydia got a hard slap to the face and a reminder to call her mother "Alpha." Joan Crawford-ass parenting. And the Hilltoppers actually picked up another person in the trade, because they took the baby. I don't like that. That baby had a mother who cared about it. They stole that baby.
After the trade, Daryl and Henry talked about how "the world is just s--- sometimes. And you live with it. Sometimes that's all you can do." But Henry couldn't live with it. He slipped out in the night to find Lydia, and Daryl and Connie went out after him. Not sure what Connie couldn't live with, but something was bothering her, too.
The episode's other story was about Ezekiel and Carol and Jerry going on a dangerous mission into a walker-infested movie theater to retrieve a lightbulb for the Kingdom's movie projector so that they could screen a film during the fair. It wasn't a life-or-death thing, but the subplot did one of my favorite things The Walking Dead does sometimes, which is remember that culture and community are the things they're surviving for. Enid talked about this, too: there's more to life than surviving. They are trying to rebuild civilization, and art is the lifeblood of civilization. What's the point if you're not going to introduce children to the magic of seeing a movie in a theater? "We're giving the gift of joy and lifelong friendship," Ezekiel said. "If that's not worth fighting for, I don't know what the hell is." And despite some complications in the execution, they got in and out without anyone dying, and picked up a frame for the charter to boot. That mysterious symbol on the back of a road sign was cause for concern, though.
It was so great to see a non-major event Walking Dead episode that balanced its stories, hit exciting action beats and gave meaningful moments to multiple characters (shoutout to Katelyn Nacon, maybe the show's most improved actor). I wish they could all be like this.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.