[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the latest episode of The Walking Dead.]
The moment comic readers (and non-readers in the know) had been dreading all season finally came to pass on The Walking Dead, with Alpha (Samantha Morton) and the Whisperers sending a message to stay out of their territory by killing 10 members of the Alexandria coalition and putting their zombified severed heads on pikes for their friends to find. It was horrifying and upsetting, but narratively satisfying. The whole season had been building to this episode, and it paid off. The AMC show's execution of the moment also deviated from the comic in a way that made it less depressing and far more galvanizing.
The 10 characters killed were Highwaymen Ozzy (Angus Sampson) and Alek (Jason Kirkpatrick); Saviors-turned-Alexandrians D.J. (Matt Mangum) and Frankie (Elyse DuFour); Hilltoppers Tammy Rose (Brett Butler), Addy (Kelley Mack), and Rodney (Joe Ando Hirsh); Enid (Katelyn Nacon); Tara (Alanna Masterson); and Henry (Matt Lintz). With the exception of Tammy Rose, this is an entirely different crew from who were killed in the comics. In the series' source material, the major deaths were Rosita and Ezekiel, both of whom were thankfully spared on the show.
Like in the comics, Rosita (Christian Serratos) is pregnant, but the show has taken a slightly more hopeful turn (more on that later) and isn't going to kill a pregnant woman just for shock value. Instead, the mother killed was Tammy Rose, who just adopted a baby the Whisperers abandoned, which gave her something to live for after losing her son in the season premiere (keep an eye on Earl [John Finn], her husband, who might go into a complete tailspin now after losing his son and his wife). And the young person in love who was killed was Enid, who had just defined her relationship with Alden (Callan McAuliffe) and had a lot of hope for their future together. We'd seen Enid grow from sullen, traumatized teenager into one of the most helpful and positive-minded members of any of the communities, so her loss really stings.
The other young lover killed was Henry, which was a smart twist. Henry had been built into a major character over the course of the half-season thanks to his relationship with Alpha's daughter Lydia (Cassady McClincy). Their relationship drove much of the action so far, including this massacre, since Alpha infiltrated the Kingdom's fair with the intention of bringing Lydia back, and if Lydia hadn't fallen in love with Henry maybe this wouldn't have happened. But even though we'd watched Henry grow from a little boy taught to fight by Morgan (Lennie James) in Season 8 into the prince of the Kingdom, we never cared about him as much as his parents Carol (Melissa McBride) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), so now we get to watch how his death affects them. Daryl (Norman Reedus) begging Carol not to look right before the Henry's head was revealed was one of the most devastating moments the show has done in years. His death will mark the return of avenging angel Carol (I see a haircut in her future), and will probably lead to tension between her and Ezekiel on how to deal with it, which means Melissa McBride is going to get to do some capital-A Acting, which is always a treat. In fact, Daryl and Carol's reaction to seeing Henry (Daryl yelling "No! No!" and trying to keep Carol from looking) were the emotional high points of the episode. And it was a satisfying twist that Ezekiel wasn't killed, since he had seemed marked for death all season, ever since he gave Carol an engagement ring. Ezekiel — and Khary Payton's performance — was a bright spot in the misery of Seasons 7 and 8, and it's great that he'll still be around.
And it was also the right call to kill off Tara, a character who the writers never really figured out what to do with after she joined the Grimes group. In all these years, she never got a storyline that felt essential. (Remember when she found Oceanside? The show doesn't, either.) She's been around since Season 4, but she always felt peripheral despite Alanna Masterson's move up the call sheet. The fourth-billed actor in an ensemble cast should be a major piece of the story, but Tara never was. Like Jesus (Tom Payne), her predecessor as the leader of Hilltop, her death gets to be a galvanizing incident and leaves a vacancy that will be interesting to see how it gets filled. Will Daryl reintegrate into society and become the leader he may not want to be but needs to be? Or will Maggie (Lauren Cohan) return?
The massacre came at the end of an episode that started with the completion of the season-long project to reunify the communities, which means that though they will have to fight the Whisperers, they will fight them together. The heads on pikes wasn't the final scene; the episode ended on a resolutely hopeful note, with massacre witness Siddiq (Avi Nash) giving a Rick Grimes-style speech about how all the people who died fought back and tried to save each other before they were killed, even though many of them didn't even know each other, and how the survivors should always remember their sacrifice. There was a sense that their deaths weren't in vain.
There are a lot of interesting threads heading into the season finale. What will Michonne (Danai Gurira) & Co. do with Lydia now that Henry is dead? They've granted her asylum, and her loyalty to them is clear, but will they resent her for bringing this upon them? When will that massive horde of walkers that Alpha threatened Daryl with come back into play? Will the arrival of winter create further complications? We've never seen snow on The Walking Dead before! That's kind of exciting! Winter is coming!
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.