Spoiler Warning for the Mid-Season Premiere (Season 9, Episode 9) of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed. Minor spoilers from “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be discussed.

“It’s about doing whatever it takes to not bury more.”

Do you hear those whispers? They’re deafening. After more than two months on hiatus, “The Walking Dead” is officially back and the stakes are higher and more terrifying than ever. Coming off the heels of a devastating loss at the hands of the newest villains, the series charts the course for the next story arc…and it is chilling.

When we left our survivors, they had just witnessed the shocking stabbing of Jesus in a dark and foggy graveyard. Picking up moments later, Michonne takes charge and orders her people to evacuate the scene before the mysterious force that surrounds them has a chance to strike again. A heartbreaking close up shot of Jesus shows his lifeless face, followedda by blood pouring out of his wounds. Aaron plunges a knife into his head to assure that the Hilltop leader doesn’t reanimate. As Daryl, Aaron and the others collect Jesus’ body, Michonne stands guard and takes down several walkers…and also Whisperers who attempt to strike again. The cold open comes to an end as the group exits the cemetery, locking the gate behind them only for it to be unlocked moments later by a Whisperer disguised as a walker. This is downright horrifying and really plays up the element of horror beautifully.

There are two primary plots of this episode, but the most pressing one deals with the aftermath of Jesus’ death. The sun comes up and the residents of the Hilltop are wary when they realize that the rescue crew has not returned. Tara holds a meeting with Enid, Alden, DJ and Marco (who has been absent since the Season Premiere) to come up with a game plan to search for their missing people. Luke joins the discussion, wanting to pull his weight and show that he can contribute to the community; he offers to head out and search alongside Alden. In the meantime, the rescue crew stumbles up to where they left their horses. Magna, Yumiko and Eugene discuss the bizarre nature of the people wearing walker masks as Daryl and Aaron note that there are certainly more of the group still out there. There is an excellent moment between Daryl and Michonne whilst heading back to the Hilltop where they note the importance of bringing back Jesus’ body and both apologize to one another for not being able to do so with Rick’s body. Daryl and Michonne have always been a solid team and it seems as though the strange split between our survivors did not impact them. Magna expresses her regret to Aaron about the fact that she didn’t get to know Jesus. This prompts Eugene to blame himself, but Aaron shuts this down right away. As with all of Season 9, these moments of character interaction are vastly improved from the previous 2 seasons, specifically in regards to the dialogue feeling more natural and realistic.

The events in the cemetery change everything. For roughly eleven years, our survivors came to know and totally understand the workings of walkers. Now, they are forced to question everything due to the fact that humans are hiding among the dead. The team flips back into action mode when they come across a herd of walkers, and decide to redirect them to a covered bridge to dispatch the threats. Being the smart and resourceful guy he is, Daryl shoots the walkers in the legs to determine who is actually dead and who is faking. He shoots one Whisperer, who falls to the ground in pain and is devoured by the real walkers. Two others pick up on Daryl’s plan and turn around, but are confronted by Michonne. They pull out knives and prepare to attack, but Michonne slices one and disarms the other. Daryl angrily rips off the walker mask to reveal a teenage girl (Cassady McClincy) who pleads for her life. They are not playing games. Daryl and Michonne scream at her, demanding to know how many of the girl’s people are out there. She states that she is alone now, but that is obviously a lie. As more of the herd closes in on the bridge, the squad decides to roll out…with their new hostage. Michonne issues a stern threat that the young girl shall not try anything lest she wishes to actually end up as one of the dead.

The people left in this world are no strangers to death. It never gets easier though. The gates of the Hilltop open and the residents are thrilled to see the rescue crew back. However, the mood dramatically shifts when everyone spots Jesus’ lifeless corpse slung over the back of a horse. Tara and Enid are particularly shocked and heartbroken, stepping forward to learn the news from their family. Daryl and the others lower the body from the horse and carry Jesus to the cemetery. The fallen soldier has been brought home. It’s time for the people who loved him the most to honor him. Before the community can mourn the loss of their leader, they have to assess the current threat they face. The captured Whisperer is dragged to the entrance of the jail as Tammy Rose tells Tara that the Hilltop will demand justice for Jesus and that the people are looking to her for answers. Inside the jail, Henry is curious to find out what is happening. As Daryl informs him about the death of Jesus, Michonne and Tara throw the girl into a cell and begin their interrogation. This isn’t your ordinary questioning. Michonne really digs deep into the girl, demanding answers about the Whisperers. The girl seems genuinely terrified, but she also appears to be holding a lot back. Having not gotten anything substantial out of her, the team exits the jail and talks it through outside. Tara thanks Michonne for all she has done and states that Magna’s crew will be allowed to stay at the Hilltop, noting that Jesus would do the same. Michonne wants to get her people back to Alexandria and alert the others about the threat. She takes Daryl aside and makes sure he is aware of the risk that keeping the girl at the Hilltop poses. This is something he will have to deal with…and it’s incredibly tricky.

There’s a handful of other great character moments that take place in the infirmary as Siddiq sets Eugene’s dislocated knee back into place. Rosita is sitting right at his side, and when Siddiq steps away to gather more supplies, Eugene tries once again to open up. Eugene is torn up by the loss of Jesus, but he’s even more haunted by the thought that Rosita nearly lost her life during the altercation outside the walls. He takes this moment to try and express his love to Rosita, but she isn’t ready to hear what he has to say. She rushes out of the infirmary and vomits, prompting Siddiq to come and check on her. A MAJOR revelation is made as Rosita tells Siddiq that she is pregnant with his child. Before she and Father Gabriel were together, Rosita and Siddiq had a series of hookups that is now resulting in pregnancy. Eugene overhears the news and has a stunned and disappointed look on his face. And thus begins what will likely be a love square between Rosita, Eugene, Gabriel and Siddiq. Will tension arise among the foursome? Will it be a battle for Rosita’s love? Will this pregnancy also last three full seasons? It’s important to note that this reveal does tie back to a conversation Negan had with Gabriel in the previous episode where he mentioned overhearing Rosita speaking about someone else. That initially seemed like she may have cheated on Gabriel, but thankfully they didn’t go that route.

We have to talk about a drawback of an otherwise solid episode. It’s Henry. He’s given a few minutes of furlough from jail to talk to Daryl about his drunk and disorderly activities that resulted in him being locked up. Henry desperately wants to find his place at the Hilltop after spending nearly his entire life at the Kingdom. This conversation is actually really solid, and builds upon the relationship between Daryl and Henry that was established in the preceding episodes. It’s the events involving Henry later that are irritating. As Daryl heads back down to further interrogate the girl, she lets out screams of terror and continues her dishonesty about her group. Daryl is fed up with the games she appears to be playing and holds her against the cell door with a knife to her throat demanding answers. The girl mentions her weary mother who was at the cemetery, but was separated and is now apparently the sole survivor of the group. There’s also some dialogue from her revealing that the Whisperers always planned to attack and kill. Daryl threatens to literally drag the girl up to the residents of the Hilltop and let them string her up, but he ultimately backs down on this. All the while he is doing this, Henry is screaming for Daryl to back off, which results in the latter yelling back at the former about wising his ass up. After Daryl leaves, the girl thanks Henry and introduces herself as Lydia. This all seems to be part of Daryl’s plan as he eavesdrops on their conversation from outside. Here we have Henry talking up a clear adversary…because he likes her?

Michonne raises a massively important point about this new threat. Alexandria is completely in the dark about the danger lurking among the dead. Her decision to lead her people back is wise, and while packing up, Aaron seems to agree. He’s torn up about Jesus being killed and expresses his regret that he didn’t see Michonne’s point of view about the communities being separated. Even though he and Jesus were trying to reconnect Alexandria and the Hilltop, it seems as though the events that have just occurred have changed his mind. There’s another fantastic bit of dialogue between Michonne and Daryl that follows as the two joke about the hunter and his dog sleeping in the stables over night. Michonne tells Daryl that he should be co-leading the Hilltop with Tara as this is all too much for one person to handle on their own. This is an exceptionally good point as both Tara and Daryl have their own individual strengths that would make for an effective mutual leadership. Before Team Alexandria departs, they attend Jesus’ funeral along with the rest of the Hilltop. Tara, Enid, Marco and others pay their respects as the former leader is given a hero’s sendoff. Thankfully, the aftermath of his death wasn’t rushed over and we are actually able to see the majority of the character mourn this loss.

A significant portion of the episode follows Negan after his escape from the jail cell in the Mid-Season Finale. Stepping out into the world for the first time in roughly seven years (presumably), Negan gets a look at just how much Alexandria is thriving. Under the cover of darkness, he walks to the gardens and snacks on a tomato before grabbing a shovel and claiming it as his new weapon. He oddly sneaks into the Grimes family apartment and enters Judith’s room, where he steals her compass. As the sun rises, he finds a spot on the wall to make his escape. The sound of a little girls stops him dead in his tracks. It’s Judith, armed with her colt python and still in her pajamas. She demands that Negan return to his cell, but he states that she will just have to shoot him. Negan promises that if she lets him go, he won’t hurt anyone ever again. Before he departs, Judith tells him that there’s nothing out there for him or anyone else, and that if she sees him again, she will shoot him. It’s extremely bizarre that no one managed to spot Negan during his early morning escape plot. Why is Judith the only one on watch? Who even is watching her and RJ while Michonne is gone? Much like her brother, Judith just can’t stay in the house…but with good reason.

A fact that is easy to forget is that Negan has been locked up for all these years. He hasn’t had to fight off walkers in this time, but now he is out in the world and must face the undead once again. He fights off two walkers and gets two really clever kills under his belt. Before being a prisoner, Negan had the Saviors around him almost constantly so he never really had to survive on his own. That changes now. He makes a rookie mistake right off the bat by drinking water straight from a creek without filtering it, causing him to vomit. The episode creates an incredible throwback as Negan finds himself in the famed clearing where he lined up Rick’s people on that fateful night and played a torturous game before brutally killing Abraham and Glenn. This time around, he is on his knees. He doesn’t have Lucille or his Saviors. He is alone. This doesn’t mean the Negan we know is gone. He decides to take a shopping trip and finds himself a new leather jacket to reclaim at least some of his old identity. Suddenly, a pack of wild dogs arrive and chase him around the store, leading him to make an escape that ends in a walker feasting on the canines. When Negan was first introduced a few years ago, who would have guessed that he would end up here…on the run from dogs? Again, this is a case of him being forced to adapt and grow as a survivor without the protection of the Saviors that kept him alive for so long.

The Sanctuary used to be Negan’s own personal castle. It was where he reigned and commanded respect. Those days are long gone, but the building still stands. It was revealed via dialogue a few episodes ago that the Sanctuary fell apart, but this is our first time seeing it post-time jump. Negan arrives and strolls through the front yard, walking through the failed gardens that could have been used to sustain life at the community. He enters the factory and stands upon the perch from which he used to give speeches. Now he looks out at the trashed and abandoned shelter, still whistling that eerie tune that instilled fear in countless survivors. The look on his face makes it clear that he knows this isn’t his home anymore. He finds one walker that was once a loyal Savior under him, and he commends him for remaining when everyone else left. Negan exits and kills a few walkers outside in the main area before returning to the inside and realizing that he can’t remain here. He hops on the back of a motorcycle and speeds on the road, headed back to Alexandria. Out of nowhere, Miss Judith Grimes steps out into the middle of the road, pulls out her colt python and fires a shot right at Negan. He crashes and she holds him at gunpoint once again, restating her claim that there is nothing out in the world for him. She questions whether he is returning to Alexandria or not, and she ends up leading him home. And just like that, Judith quickly becomes one of the most fascinating characters on the show.

The other bit of the episode follows Alden and Luke on their search for the missing rescue team. Unbeknownst to them, the team has returned to the Hilltop, but they keep up the search. The two discuss Luke’s love for musical instruments and there is yet another mention of the upcoming Fair, which Alden suggests would be a good place for Luke to play music. There’s also a reference to Alden singing, which was first seen in “A New Beginning.” Luke spots one of Yumiko’s arrows and goes to investigate before being attacked by a walker…that has half a walker attached to it’s legs. The special effects team for the walkers never lets us down. Alden shows off his spear throwing skills as he saves Luke from being a walker snack. Luke finds another arrow and suggests that Yumiko left a trail for them to follow. The sound of a walker herd alerts them to the fact that they need to speed up their search efforts. Moments later, Alden and Luke are walking through the woods when they come across a walker in the foreground. They are confused when it suddenly stops dead in its tracks and just stares at them. Around them are similar walkers doing the exact same thing. The first suddenly flings an arrow in their direction before pulling out a shotgun, pointing it at Alden and Luke and stating “trail ends here,” in a chilling southern accent. This is Alpha (Samantha Morton)…and she isn’t here to play games.

The good in “Adaptation”

  • Judith and Negan are the standouts of this episode for sure. Each of their scenes showcase the hilarious and unique nature of their complicated relationship. Judith seems to have some compassion for Negan and vice versa. Still, she WILL shoot him if need be.
  • The horror element surrounding the Whisperers, particularly in the opening and closing scenes where their tactics and ability to be sneaky are shown.
  • Daryl and Michonne’s conversations really solidify their bond. They have been surviving together for years, and the trust between them is stronger than ever. Theya listen to one another and have developed a deep understanding for how each other operates. That is a deep dynamic.
  • Alden and Luke’s blossoming friendship allows for some levity in an otherwise dark and depressing story.
  • Jesus’ death was handled exceptionally well, particularly in the Hilltop’s reactions and at his actual funeral. Seeing Tom Payne reprise his role as the lifeless body of Jesus just really hurts. He’s actually gone.
  • The show not forgetting the deep bond between Rosita and Eugene. They have also been surviving together for so long, but have different takes on their relationship.
  • Lydia and Alpha’s introductions are top-notch.
  • The musical score is consistently amazing throughout the episode.

The iffy in “Adaptation”

  • Judith being a badass all over town is entertaining, but where are the other residents of Alexandria? Why does a ten year old child have to hunt down and capture the ONLY prisoner in the community? Where is Father Gabriel in all of this?
  • Why is the Kingdom not even being mentioned? Wouldn’t it be wise for them to somehow be informed of the current crisis so they are at least prepared to defend themselves?

The bad in “Adaptation”

  • Henry’s interruptions of Lydia’s interrogations are a clear sign that they are setting him up to take on a version of Carl’s comic arc, which isn’t the best material in the graphic novels. The whole situation feels pretty forced and already makes Henry look dumber than he should be at this point.

Top performances in “Adaptation”

  • Cassady McClincy as Lydia
  • Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon
  • Danai Gurira as Michonne
  • Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan
  • Cailey Fleming as Judith Grimes

Lingering thoughts and predictions

  • Will Judith advocate for Negan to be given more freedom upon their return to Alexandria? This may be a point of disagreement between her and Michonne.
  • Negan handled several new weapons, but will he ever get Lucille back? Michonne did mention they never retrieved her, so it’s likely that she is still resting under that tree in the field.
  • The dogs attacking Negan is reminiscent to Season 5’s “Them,” when the group was stunned by a pack of wild dogs only to be saved by sharpshooting Sasha. It’s also worth pointing out that these dogs are likely the offspring of canines that lived before the apocalypse. Even though the world has ended, the rules of nature still apply. h
  • What happened to the surviving residents of the Sanctuary, including Negan’s wives? Did they die when the community fell apart or did they disperse and join other communities? We know Laura and DJ joined Alexandria and became active members among the residents.
  • Daryl and Tara co-leading the Hilltop could make for some really great material between the two. Hopefully Tara isn’t just thrown to the side so Daryl can shine. She deserves to be in the spotlight also.
  • Magna comforting Enid while Alden and Luke are missing really says a lot about her character. Perhaps this is the start of a new friendship. They would certainly make for a powerful duo.
  • When exactly did Alden learn spear-throwing? This is likely something he picked up from living at the Hilltop all these years.
  • Rosita being pregnant is concerning, especially because her comic counterpart undergoes a similar arc…and it doesn’t end well. That being said, this love “square” could really create an interesting dynamic with her and her lovers.
  • When exactly did Daryl/Michonne stop looking for Rick’s body? Do they truly 100% believe he is dead? Maybe this is already setting up Danai Gurira’s confirmed exit from the series in Season 10, which may serve to transition her to the upcoming Rick Grimes film trilogy.
  • What are Alpha’s plans for Luke and Alden? Perhaps she will use them in an attempt to get Lydia out of the Hilltop.

“Adaptation” is a thoroughly entertaining return to “The Walking Dead” that really hammers in the threat of the Whisperers and opens up all kinds of story potential. One survivor has fallen and more are sure to follow him as the next big conflict is officially underway. The world we know is changing, and it is downright scary to watch.

Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.