[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the latest episode of The Walking Dead.]
Ding dong ding dong dinng donng, dingdongding, ding dong ding dong dinng donng, dingdongding
That's the sound of Bear McCreary's Whisperers theme, which got played a lot during The Walking Dead's Season 9 midseason premiere, as we learned more about the new skin-masked villains thanks to the captured young Whisperer Lydia (Cassady McClincy) and the introduction of their leader Alpha (Samantha Morton) in the episode's chilling final shot. We also saw Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have an adventure and learned Rosita (Christian Serratos) is pregnant and Siddiq's (Avi Nash) the father.
"Adaptation" picked up right where the midseason finale left off, with the search party escaping their first confrontation with the Whisperers and taking Jesus' (Tom Payne) body back to Hilltop to be buried. On their way back, they encountered some walkers on a covered bridge. Daryl came up with a clever way to check if they're real dead or playing dead by shooting them in the leg with an arrow, which led to a kinda funny moment where a walker screamed in pain and fell to the ground, where he was set upon by real dead ones. Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) took a nervous young Whisperer captive, leaving her mask and knife behind on the bridge.
They brought the girl back to Hilltop, put her in the basement jail and interrogated her. She said everyone else from her group is dead, she doesn't have a name and she doesn't know anything. Her people were "good people" who were just doing what they had to do to survive. There are probably better ways to survive than pretending to be dead, but this is what they chose. Michonne decided to head back to Alexandria to warn her people of the new threat and tasked Daryl with getting the girl to talk or putting her down if she doesn't.
After Jesus' funeral, he went back down to the jail to try again. She told him a little more about who her people are. There were 10 of them and they had names, but they didn't use them. They lived with the dead. "They protected us, so we protected them," she said. They believe everyone who's still alive is a threat and the world belongs to the dead now. She said the only one from her group still out there was her mother. Daryl didn't believe her and was about to kill her, but then Henry (Macsen Lintz) — still sleeping off his bender in the drunk tank — convinced him to stop. Daryl left, and the girl thanked Henry for saving her and told him her name was Lydia. Then we saw Daryl, sitting outside a basement window eavesdropping on their conversation. He played them. Daryl's a tricky one. We'll be seeing a lot more of Henry and Lydia in next week's episode.
Elsewhere, we saw Alpha's arrival in a recreation of an iconic comics panel. Luke (Dan Fogler) and Al (Callan McAuliffe) were out in the woods talking about putting a band together while looking for their friends, not realizing they'd already returned to Hilltop. And now their friends might to have to go out looking for them, because they got captured by Alpha and the Whisperers, who are very much not all dead. Does trading Lydia for Luke and Al seem like a fair prisoner exchange? I'd be like, "We have more questions for her, but thanks!"
Finally, the Negan stuff took up about half the episode's runtime but can be summarized in just a few sentences, because it was all about theme. He escaped from his cell in Alexandria and went over the wall to freedom, but not before getting caught by Judith (Cailey Fleming). He convinced her to let him go by telling her that everyone was better off in the world her parents created except him, and he needed to find his new place. She was like, "You won't, but OK." He promised he wouldn't hurt anyone, even if they tried to hurt him first. He offered to return the compass he stole from her, but she said, "Keep it, it'll help you find your way." She also warned him that if she sees him again, she'll shoot.
He felt the sun on his face and passed through the clearing where he killed Glenn and Abraham as he made his way back to the Sanctuary, his old kingdom. He found it totally abandoned except for zombified Big Richie, one of his men. He hung out for a while trying to recapture that old feeling of power, but it was gone. The world had moved on without him. So he went back to Alexandria and ran into Judith on the road, who did in fact shoot at him before he told her she was right, there's nothing out there for him, and he wanted to come back. The scenes with JDM and young pro Cailey Fleming were actually really good; they were silly, but the writing was calibrated for the actors to sell it. I can't say enough about how much better the dialogue is with Angela Kang running the show. There was room for Morgan to play that Negan knew it was faintly ridiculous that he was being dominated by a little girl, but also that he genuinely respected her. This sort of unlikely DeNiro-Pacino dynamic was supposed to exist with Judith's brother Carl (Chandler Riggs), but Riggs was too old and not a good enough actor for it work. Season 9 is so much better than Seasons 7 and 8, wow.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.