It wouldn't be a Walking Dead midseason finale without a prominent character death, and Season 9 was no exception. In "Evolution," Tom Payne joined the likes of Chandler Riggs, Austin Nichols, Tovah Feldshuh and more in the Episode 8 death club (a designation I just made up) after Jesus got fatally stabbed. His death was meaningful to the season's overall plot, as his death set up the reveal that the apparently "evolved" walkers that have been talking and hunting for the last few episodes are not walkers at all but are actually living people wearing walker skin. They're called the Whisperers, and we'll find out a lot more about them after the midseason break.
Jesus was part of a search party with Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Aaron (Ross Marquand) looking for Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who was hiding from the herd in a barn because his dislocated knee was too injured to try to run with Rosita (Christian Serratos). Jesus, Daryl and Aaron noticed the herd behaving in ways they'd never seen walkers behave, and when they found Eugene, he said the herd had been looking for him and he'd heard them talking, saying things like "they did surgery on a grape." The other guys were skeptical, but Eugene made a compelling case for the walkers evolving. Since the way to kill a walker is by destroying the brain, that means the brain isn't exactly dead. And since it's not exactly dead, it can change. Maybe the walkers are starting to remember stuff or learn stuff. This theory would be disproven by the end of the episode, but it's an interesting one! Maybe it can be explored if there's a Walking Dead spin-off set in the future. The Walking Dead 2049.
Aaron and Jesus tried to help Eugene sneak around to their horses while Daryl distracted the herd with firecrackers, but they broke from walker tradition and ignored the loud sound as they continued on their path after Eugene. The guys made it to a spooky, foggy cemetery, where they got trapped because they couldn't get the gate open and Eugene was too hurt to make it up over the fence. Michonne (Danai Gurira), Magna (Nadia Hilker) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) showed up to try to help, but really they were just on time to witness the horror that was about to unfold. Magna-ficent timing, you could say, if you were a bad person.
Jesus, Aaron and Daryl were killing walkers to keep them away from the others, and as Jesus was turning back to help Eugene, the last walker in his immediate vicinity ducked when he swung his sword at it, quickly got behind him, produced a long knife and jammed it up through the opening in Jesus' armor to his heart. Getting pierced through the side is one of the most Christlike things that's ever happened to Jesus.
"You are where you do not belong," the Whisperer whispered, then dropped Jesus and stood there looking like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Aaron screamed, some other human walkers ran in with knives, and the survivors managed to kill several of them before the fake walkers retreated back into the fog. Daryl noticed a seam on the back of the one who killed Jesus' head, and cut it open and pulled off a skin mask to reveal a freshly-killed man underneath. It's fair to say that Daryl and the gang are bugging out. They were trapped as the episode ended, cornered in the cemetery ringed by Whisperers psyching them out by saying "keep them together..."
That final sequence was as effective an action-horror scene as The Walking Dead has ever done. It was scary and atmospheric and duck-stab combo made me yell "oh s---!" out loud as I was watching. It was a great cap on the best half-season of The Walking Dead since at least Season 6 and maybe even Season 5. We'll see if showrunner Angela Kang can keep the momentum going -- the show is often better when it doesn't have a singular human enemy and the characters are just reacting to each other within the group and to their environment (see Season 2 and Season 7 for evidence of each) -- but Samantha Morton, who'll be playing Whisperer leader Alpha, is a phenomenal, Oscar-nominated actor. As long as the writing stays passable and doesn't devolve into previous showrunner Scott Gimple's tedious speechifying, she should be able to sell it. And as long as the material stays equally strong for Michonne and Daryl, the back half of Season 9 shouldn't see a significant drop in quality.
The other big plot development in the midseason finale was Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) escaping from his jail cell when he realized a distracted Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) forgot to lock it. We don't know where he went or what he's up to, but whatever it is it'll be a nice change from being cooped up for eight episodes. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has done some of his best work on the show in that jail cell, but keeping him in there any longer would get boring. It's time to let JDM have some FUN.
It'll feel like a long wait from now until when The Walking Dead returns Feb. 10. And that's a good feeling. It's like it's 2013 again. I wish everything was still like it was in 2013.