First things first: “Adaptation” was one of the best The Walking Dead episodes in years. Tense, atmospheric and genuinely spooky, it goes a long way in proving that The Whisperers actually work as television villains, against what was perhaps common belief. The kick-off to the back half of TWD season 9 builds off the best aspects of its mid-season finale, offering both poignant characterization and impressively staged action.
So: Why does it only get a 7.5 as its score, then? Well, allow me to explain.
I’m assigning this episode an unweighted score of 8.5 as a base.
I’m then penalizing it a standardized, one-point deduction for the fact that the show apparently has no intention of ever answering any of the basic questions that should have been addressed during the first half of the season. Questions such as:
— Why/how did the relationships between Alexandria, The Hilltop and The Kingdom deteriorate so much in the last six years that Michonne is no longer trusted by her former friends and family?
— Why do several characters all carry disfiguring “X” scars on their backs?
I’ve already written in detail about The Walking Dead’s failure to address these questions, and how they represent a hurdle that is difficult for the show to overcome because they all involve information possessed by all the characters on screen—commonly known information that the show refuses to clue us in on, seemingly thinking that viewers are enjoying “the mystery.” To be clear: They aren’t, and so I have no choice but to introduce a mandatory one-point penalty to every The Walking Dead episode score from here on out, until such time as these questions get satisfactorily answered. And so, an unweighted score of 8.5 becomes a weighted score of 7.5. Savvy?
Alright then. On to the actual content of “Adaptation,” and guess what—it’s pretty great! From the opening moments, you have to appreciate the gothic look, with our heroes surrounded by zombies in a graveyard full of thick fog. It’s a pleasant reminder that yes, The Walking Dead was once thought of by actual horror fans as a legitimate horror TV series rather than a zombie soap opera, and the mere sight of our characters being freaked out again is a fun novelty. The Whisperers have already presented themselves as a more fearsome threat than expected—as long as you don’t spend any time at all thinking about the logistics of the way they live, that is. The smell alone, ye gads!
Elsewhere, we pick up with Negan directly following his realization that he can just walk on out of his jail cell, which leads to some of the episode’s best exchanges via Negan’s conversations with a now 9-year-old “Little Asskicker” Judith Grimes. There’s strong tension to these scenes, owing to the fact that we really don’t understand the nature of the relationship between Negan and Judith. Is he capable of actually caring about her in any substantial way? Would he wring her neck, if given the opportunity? It should be noted that young actress Cailey Fleming is really pulling her weight here, giving 9-year-old Judith a take-no-shit (and no language, asshole!) attitude and self-assured demeanor. She holds herself and sounds a bit like a tiny version of Holly Hunter in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Negan’s solo journey, meanwhile, is something we’ve definitely seen before. Everything about this sojourn seems calculated to help us recall the critically acclaimed “Live Bait” from season 4, which has been cited by many as the best Walking Dead episode ever. That hour of TV revolved around The Governor’s reclamation, as the broken man drifted into the lives of a new family unit. This time around, Negan isn’t quite so broken, but it’s much the same lesson—there’s nothing for him, out there in the wilderness. Negan returns of his own free will, for the first time perhaps wanting in his heart to actually be part of the society Rick built. Now we’ll see if they give him a chance to do so.
A few other stray notes:
— Those who have read the comic will clearly have noted by this point that Henry has officially inherited the role of “Carl,” for all intents and purposes. Expect Henry to be central to the entire rest of the Whisperers storyline as a result. Sorry to Chandler Riggs, wherever you are.
— The music and general scoring of this episode was outstanding—some of the best I can ever remember on The Walking Dead. The big, sweeping, emotional strings during the return of Jesus’ body, and the spaghetti western-ish music for Negan’s solo journey really helped elevate both of those moments.
— Yes, I realize it’s probably overly optimistic to say “this episode didn’t feel like a soap opera” when one of the subplots was “Eugene is in love with Rosita, but she’s with Gabriel, while carrying Siddiq’s love child.” I’m moderately disgusted with myself for watching a show that can be described as such.
So yeah! All in all, this is easily the most purely watchable and pulpy-fun that The Walking Dead has been in years. For the first time in ages, I’m genuinely curious to see what happens next week. If only the show could ALSO get some of those annoying questions answered, rather than trying to now sweep them under the rug as they appear to be doing, I wouldn’t even have to assess each episode a flat penalty.
So, to recap.
Unweighted Score: 8.5
Weighted, Get-Your-Shit-Together Score: 7.5
Get your shit together, Walking Dead. If you can just tidy up some annoying loose ends, you could still turn season 9 into one of the show’s best. I don’t care what you have to do. Call Marie Kondo, if you have to. Just, you know, get your shit together.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.