Spoiler Warning for Season 9, Episode 12 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.

“They all follow me by choice cause I make ’em strong, cause I keep ’em alive.”

There is a lot going on in “The Walking Dead” right now. On one hand, we have a disgusting and horrifying new threat that may just wipe out everyone we love. On the other hand, we have a compelling love quadrangle between four of our main characters. Nothing is ever simple on this show and this fantastic episode within a fantastic season reiterates that long-known fact.

Lydia is officially back with her people after being returned to Alpha in the previous episode. The opening to this episode finds a mother questioning her daughter about what she went through while at the Hilltop. Alpha finds it suspicious that Daryl was ready to put up a fight to keep Lydia at the community. We really see Lydia show that she doesn’t want to give up information to her mother as she states that she lied to get Daryl and the others to trust her. There’s a few tidbits of details about the Hilltop that Lydia reveals to her mother, but she doesn’t say anything about the Kingdom even though she was told about it by Henry. Alpha is pissed that Lydia doesn’t have more information for her, especially considering she broke her own rules in retrieving her daughter. It’s hinted that even though Alpha has this hardened edge and doesn’t seem to care about Lydia, there are still parts of her motherly instinct that come through. Still, Alpha is winning no mother of the year awards at all.

This episode really dives deep into the inner-workings of the Whisperer way of life when they’re not in the midst of an active conflict. Stopping to rest while headed back to their camp, members of the Whisperers are watched by Alpha as she strolls through her army. Nearby, Henry watches and a Whisperer sneaks up behind him, but using his aikido skills, Henry manages to gain the upper hand. This doesn’t last long as a boot steps into frame, belonging to an extremely tall member of the Whisperers who grabs Henry, throws his staff and flings him to the ground. This is Beta (Ryan Hurst), the second-in-command of the Whisperers. Alpha questions who Henry is, and Beta reveals that he has been following them for a while. Henry ultimately reveals that he is from the Hilltop, but that he is alone and came for Lydia. This sets Lydia off and she steps forward to punch him to the ground. Fearing their location may be compromised, Alpha leads her herd out of the makeshift camp to continue on their journey. While traveling, Alpha questions why Henry would chase after Lydia. The full extent of their relationship is kept a secret from Alpha by Lydia. Once again, Lydia’s actions show that she isn’t willing to turn against the people who captured her.

For the first time, we get to see the Whisperers camp…and it is worrisome. They have NUMBERS. Countless members of the group are spread out through a mostly barren nomadic camp going about a variety of tasks. Some clean animals they have hunted, while others create new skins from walkers. Lydia needs a new mask after losing hers when she was captured, so Beta gets to work on making her one. The process is actually shown, and it may be the most disturbing and graphic thing shown this season. Beta uses a knife to cut away the facial skin clear off a walker as Henry watches with disgust. Two unmasked members of the group step forward, bothered by the fact that Alpha broke her own rules to retrieve Lydia. Alpha defends her actions totally and states that the boyfriend and girlfriend have the right to challenge her leadership if they wish. After a game of taunting the boyfriend, Alpha comes to the realization that the girlfriend is actually the mastermind of this wannabe coup. She shuts that shit down right away by taking a wire and using it to decapitate the girlfriend right in front of everyone. Henry is shocked and horrified as Alpha picks up the headg and places it in the arms of the tearful boyfriend. He’s gotta go too and she stabs him in the abdomen as a show to her people that she is still their alpha. The sudden and violent gore within these scenes really demonstrate the brutality and ruthlessness of the Whisperers. Gore has always been part of the series, but this is more graphic than usual to represent the danger Alpha poses.

This episode also follows Daryl, Connie and Dog as they track down Henry. They manage to come across the creek bed that he was captured by Beta in, and recollect his staff which was dropped. There’s a really fun scene as Connie notes to Daryl that she needs to speak while looking at her before they kill a pair of walkers with their respective weapons. In an unscripted moment, Dog is told to retrieve Daryl’s crossbow bolt, but snaps it in half. Later, Daryl and Connie watch as a handful of Whisperers drag out the corpses of the couple into a field to allow some nearby walkers to feast. Inside the camp, Alpha speaks with Beta after removing her mask. There’s a chilling moment where she almost shows some motherly love while detailing a frightening moment when Lydia nearly suffocated as a child. Any chance at her being seen as a good mother goes out the window as she states that after checking to make sure her three-year-old daughter was okay, she hit her as a warning to never do what she did again. The manipulation and abuse Alpha forced Lydia to suffer under can be traced to far before the apocalypse even began. Lydia has been living like this forever. After night falls, Beta retrieves Henry and brings him before Alpha and Lydia. In a stunning turn of events, Alpha presents Lydia with an ultimatum: kill Henry or Beta will kill them both. Thankfully, a herd of walkers passes through and causes chaos on the unmasked survivors. A familiar voice speaks to Henry and orders him to follow. It’s Daryl…in a Whipserer mask, and Connie is with him. They manage to retrieve the star-crossed lovers and head off into the darkness.

The other primary story arc of the episode takes place at Alexandria following Michonne and the others returning to inform everyone about the new threat. At a Council meeting in the church, Michonne is angered to find out that Father Gabriel and others were secretly setting up radios to try and communicate with others survivors. This was first seen back in “Who Are You Now?” when Eugene and Rosita went out to the tower to set up one of the radios and were later caught among the Whisperers. Michonne notes that weren’t it for these two going out on this mission, Jesus wouldn’t have died. There’s a clear split among the Council as the discussion shifts to the upcoming Fair at the Kingdom. Michonne states that the issue has already been voted on and that they are not attending; Aaron agrees, citing the death of Jesus. Gabriel and Siddiq are on the other side and totally believe they should attend, stating that not going will only hurt their friends at the Kingdom. Based on her dialogue, it seems as though Michonne is completely willing to let the Kingdom fall. That being said, she does propose that Alexandria opens its doors to Ezekiel and his people if the Council votes to do so. More explanation to the operation of the Council is given as Gabriel explains that Michonne, as Head of Security, has the authority to veto any decision made by the group. This has worked for a while, but Gabriel is fed up.

It was revealed in “Adaptation” that Rosita is pregnant with Siddiq’s baby. This episode, we see her struggling to fit into her clothes before speaking to Gabriel about the fact that she wouldn’t blame him if he left her considering he isn’t the father of her baby. We really see excellent growth in Eugene as he speaks with Gabriel about the pros and cons of sticking with Rosita and helping to raise her baby. In typical Eugene fashion, he even has a numerical list and series of graphs to help explain. While he doesn’t understand why Rosita is in love with Gabriel, and he is disappointed she doesn’t love him back, he does note that they are good for one another. He basically tells Gabriel to stick with her through this IF she wants him to. At the end of the day, it is up to Rosita as to who she spends her life with. Later, Michonne pays a visit with Negan who is back in his cell after willingly returning to Alexandria. This scene is really amazing as the former and current leader read one another for filth. Now, they aren’t all that much different, but Michonne doesn’t see that. After explaining that he is aware of the problems the Council is facing, Negan proposes that Michonne and the community start trusting him more. He even goes so far as to offer to be someone who will listen and provide leadership advice to her. Michonne isn’t budging one bit and orders the guard to seal his window and bind him while the cell lock is reinforced. Before leaving, Michonne spots someone lurking near the entrance. It’s her very own daughter Judith, trying to pay a visit to her murderous friend.

Michonne really learns a lot this episode and showcases herself to be a leader who listens to her people, unlike the other highlighted leader of the Whisperers. At her apartment, Michonne checks in on RJ and catches Judith as she’s sneaking in from her training session. Wondering why her daughter was hanging outside of the jail, Michonne questions if Judith has been talking to Negan. The two erupt into a disagreement as Michonne forbids Judith from ever speaking to the tyrant again. Judith states that while Negan isn’t her friend, he is a human being and should be trusted. Michonne basically tells Judith that she didn’t have to witness the brutal killings of Glenn, Abraham and many of their other friends. In a line that is shut down immediately, Michonne tells Judith that people don’t change…but she herself did. Judith is a smart kid. She likely heard stories of how Michonne came to meet her father and be part of the group, and is therefore able to call out this discrepancy in her story. It’s here that things really take a turn. Michonne pays a visit to Aaron and is greeted by Gracie. The leader tells Aaron that she appreciates his support, but that she has decided not to veto the Council’s decision if they vote to attend the Fair. Neither she nor Aaron think attending is a good idea, but the people of Alexandria agreed to a charter that gave them the power; plus she actually does want to help the Kingdom. The episode wraps up as we see Gabriel make the decision to stick with Rosita and be a co-parent alongside her and Siddiq; from afar, Eugene watches with a huge smile on his face. The community packs up supplies and food into vehicles as they prepare to make the journey to the Kingdom. If you’re familiar with the comics, you know that some of these people will never make the journey home.

The good in “Guardians”

  • Alpha is the villain we need. She is EVIL. There is no gray area here. She is EVIL.
  • Lydia’s struggle to not reveal crucial information about the Hilltop while also trying to stay on her mother’s good side. It’s fascinating to see the child of abuse come to realize that her mother is a massive piece of shit…and also EVIL.
  • Beta is legitimately terrifying. He is massive, he’s loyal and he is here to kill.
  • The dynamic between Daryl and Connie is really interesting to watch. Many fans have pointed out that there seems to be some romantic chemistry between the two. There is definitely some there. Is it finally time for Daryl to get some?
  • The comparisons and contrasts between Alpha, Negan and Michonne. All have their similarities and each are just a few steps away from being each other, but Michonne is able to keep herself from slipping to the dark side by trusting in her own people.
  • Judith continues to be an amazing amalgamation of Rick, Carl and Michonne…and maybe Shane and Lori just a bit.
  • Eugene pushing Gabriel and his respect of Rosita really show how much he has grown as a character. He’s actually putting her wants and needs before his own.
  • The Council scenes are really great and show how effective group leadership can truly be.

The bad in “Guardians”

  • Henry’s antics continue to be infuriating. Even after nearly being killed by Alpha, Beta, Lydia in this episode, he STILL hasn’t learned to listen to Daryl. He really will die for his two-day old girlfriend. It’s noble, but it’s a hard to believe.

Top performances in “Guardians”

  • Samantha Morton as Alpha
  • Cassady McClincy as Lydia
  • Danai Gurira as Michonne
  • Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel
  • Ryan Hurst as Beta
  • Matt Lintz as Henry
  • Cailey Fleming as Judith Grimes

Lingering thoughts and predictions

  • Lydia not ratting out the Kingdom really seems to be a sign that she will join our survivors entirely once she has the opportunity. They actually treat her well…unlike her mother.
  • Alpha and Beta’s hushed speaking voices are genuinely frightening and help to fully explain the Whisperers’ name.
  • What must the Whisperers camp smell like? Death. Pure death most likely.
  • Seeing the Whisperers walk and talk is totally unsettling. Seeing what your mind thinks are walkers do human things hurts the brain.
  • The Fair is coming up really soon. We should be very afraid.
  • The love foursome, PLUS Rosita’s pregnancy, does not bode well for their future. At least one of them is probably going to die before the season is over.
  • Negan really seems to have this respect for Michonne. Would he actually get violent if they were to trust him and give him more freedom? Obviously, his past cannot be forgotten.
  • Alpha beheading the traitor in her group has to be some sort of sick foreshadowing. If you know, you know.
  • Will RJ ever get some proper screentime?
  • Daryl trying desperately to safely retrieve Henry parallels his quest to find Sophia in Season 2. He wasn’t able to bring her back to Carol, but he is making damn sure that his best friend doesn’t have to experience the tragic loss of a child again.

“Guardians” is such an entertaining and well-balanced episode. We’ve seen our main characters only in bits and pieces so far in this second half, so it’s refreshing to see several at once. The next episode looks to deal with the aftermath of Henry and Lydia’s escape, as well as the Kingdom’s discovery of the new threat. As we move into the final quarter of the season, things are about to get deadly.

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

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