I was (sorta) on the set of The Walking Dead for the filming of the opening scene of Episode 12. I and other reporters drank La Croix and watched a feed from the camera filming the Whisperers' feet, which we didn't know at the time would be the opening shot of the episode. We watched it on a grainy old monitor under a tent somewhere near the actual filming location, which we couldn't see because it was deep in the woods. We weren't allowed to actually see the action, and we didn't glimpse the face of Alpha (Samantha Morton) that day, but we heard her and Cassady McClincy do a few takes. So it was gratifying to watch this episode and finally get the full context of what was happening. I have no great insight into the episode beyond being able to say that McClincy's sweat stains were authentic, because it was HOT that day. Ryan Hurst is probably grateful his Whisperer mask doesn't cover his whole face, because a full head-covering mask combined with that long trench coat would probably kill him.

Hurst's first appearance on the show as hulking Whisperer second-in-command Beta was the highlight of "Guardians," as was the fuller portrait we got of the Whisperer way of life. It seems like a very bad way to live! It's a brutal, loveless society where your own mother will tell you she only rescued you from captivity in order to find out what you learned about your captors. Lydia doing a zombie walk in normal clothes was kinda funny, though.

We saw the Whisperer camp through Henry's (Matt Lintz) eyes, as he was caught by Beta while spying on the group and plotting how to get Lydia back. The Whisperers live like a pack of wolves or coyotes, if wolves or coyotes had chores, such as dead skin mask manufacturing and repair. It was cool to see a type of society we'd never seen before on the show. The Whisperers really do live like highly sophisticated animals (less sophisticated animals don't use garrote wire). Lower-level members of the pack can challenge the Alpha, and two of them did, with truly brutal results. It was the most gruesome and disturbing scene The Walking Dead has done all season.

Casady McClincy and Samantha Morton, <em>The Walking Dead</em>Casady McClincy and Samantha Morton, The Walking Dead

Alpha was challenged by a couple, a man who was supposed to do the fighting and a woman whose idea it was. They felt she had grown soft and ineffective as a leader. So Alpha came up behind the woman, put her head on her shoulder, and swiftly wrapped a wire around her neck and decapitated her. Then she held up the severed head for all to see before forcing the dead woman's boyfriend to hold it. He was crying, so she shushed him and said, "Crying is weak," then stabbed him to death. It was a horrifying scene that, taken in tandem with Alpha's callous willingness to let a baby die last week, shows how depraved and cruel this character is. The violence was extreme, but it was in service of the character, and Samantha Morton's performance in this episode was absolutely locked-in and terrifying. She's already a better villain on the show than Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ever was.

Alpha was mad at Lydia for not telling her about Henry, who obviously cares enough about her to risk his life coming after her. Lydia tried to downplay his importance, but Alpha and Beta suspected Lydia cared about Henry, so after Alpha told a chilling story about almost letting Lydia suffocate when she was a toddler as a way to teach her a lesson about playing with plastic wrap from the dry cleaner ("You have to do whatever it takes to protect what you love, even from themselves"), she and Beta challenged her to kill Henry to prove he meant nothing to her and she was loyal to the Whisperers. If she didn't, Beta would kill them both. Lucky for them, a herd swarmed the camp, and in the chaos Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Connie (Lauren Ridloff), both wearing pilfered masks, slipped in and rescued them. Daryl at first wanted to leave Lydia, but Henry refused unless she came with them. So the struggle over Lydia is going to escalate this conflict into a full-fledged war.

But at least Daryl might find some love in the meantime! Our greasy, growly boy seems like he might be getting some butterflies from Connie. We saw him have some rare hapless moments, first when he forgot that Connie was deaf and couldn't hear him when he faced away from her and mumbled, and then when his dog retrieved his arrow but wouldn't give it back, snapping it. She seemed to think these gaffes were funny, though. They like each other!

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We also spent some quality time at Alexandria for the first time in awhile. Michonne (Danai Gurira) was mad at everyone, but especially Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), who if you'll remember indirectly started this whole thing with the Whisperers in the first place with his forbidden radio and then he forgot to lock Negan up because he was distracted worrying about Rosita (Christian Serratos). Alexandria is ostensibly run by a council, but Michonne has the power to veto the council's decisions if she feels it's a threat to security, and everything is a threat to security. The Kingdom's fair is coming up, but Michonne won't even allow there to be a vote about Alexandria attending.

She went to see Negan in his cell, and he asked her to start to trust him, since he didn't kill anyone when he escaped and came back of his own volition, and he can help her as a sort of leadership consultant. She was not at all interested, but then she saw Judith (Cailey Fleming) spying on them. She talked to her after, and Judith confessed that she'd been talking to Negan. Judith knows that Negan did bad things, but he's not like that anymore.

"I get why you want to believe that," Michonne said. "But people don't really change."

"You did," Judith answered, which stopped Michonne in her tracks, because it's true. She changed for the worse. The charter was her idea, and now she's constantly overriding it. So she went to Aaron (Ross Marquand) and told him that if the council wants to vote on sending a delegation to the Kingdom fair, she won't veto it. "I think it's a terrible idea, but the people can weigh the risks and choose," she said. "That's their right. That's the charter we agreed to. And that's what we swore to protect. And it's for the Kingdom." Hopefully they won't live to regret this.

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Oh, and it looks like Rosita and Father Gabriel are gonna work it out, and Father Gabriel will raise Rosita and Siddiq's (Avi Nash) child as his own! What a weird little love story that's turned into. It was nice to see Father Gabriel and Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who have both struggled with selfishness and cowardice, have a grown-up conversation about feelings and not running away from responsibility. Michonne could look at them of evidence of people changing, too.

"Guardians" was another strong and well-balanced episode of The Walking Dead. It moved the story along, hit some character beats and had some disgusting violence for the gorehounds. What more could you want?

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.

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Natalie Dormer and Dean-Charles Chapman, <em>Game of Thrones</em>Natalie Dormer and Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones