Well, here’s the good news: After last week’s troubling, backpedaling, post-Rick, post-timeskip “premiere,” The Walking Dead regained some of its footing tonight to produce a perfectly fine, if not particularly memorable episode. The bad news is that something’s wrong with Michonne, and it’s kind of a bummer.
“Stradivarius” is mostly about certain characters reuniting or at least considering reconnecting after drifting apart from each other during the years of the timeskip. It’s perfectly fine, but not especially gripping to watch, since to viewers, these guys were all good buddies literally two weeks ago. But the episode picks up the pace on the various storylines and does an excellent job putting them all together to keep a decent sense of momentum going, something that last week’s episode was noticeably lacking.
This is also good because each storyline is very straightforward, and other than dropping some expected answers (yes, Maggie had left Hilltop to hang with Georgie of The Key book fame) and a few small clues to the mysteries of the timeskip years (Michonne and Maggie had an enormous falling out, apparently), there’s not anything that really needs delving into. So let’s just do some basic recapping, shall we?
As decided last week, Michonne, Siddiq, and Sexy DJ are escorting the five new survivors to Hilltop. They first head to the rig where Yumiko, Connie, Kelly, Luke, and Magna had been holed up before a zombie herd forced them to flee in Judith’s direction, partially to see what stuff they can salvage, and partially because Michonne wants to see if their story actually checks out. Because she’s distrustful as all hell. It checks out.
There’s still some friction between the Alexandrians and the New Guys, but a lot of it can be laid on Michonne’s feet. Yes, Magna’s predictable complaint that they hadn’t gotten their weapons back yet was irksome when they were on the road. Why the hell would Michonne bring armed newcomers into Hilltop? But when the same zombie herd arrives at the place they took shelter for the night and they’re all surrounded by the undead, everyone clearly needs to be armed if they’re going to survive. Michonne continues to refuse to give them their weapons until the very last minute...well, it doesn’t make Magna’s initial grousing less irritating, but eventually she’s right, and Michonne becomes the problem here.
Actually, Michonne is just a problem generally. Even though she agreed to escort the new guys to Hilltop, her distrust of them is so constant and vocal that it’s disdainful. Halfway there, she even announces that she’s done escorting them and going home, leaving the job to Siddiq and DJ, to the new guys’ very reasonable dismay (Siddiq isn’t happy about it either). When a suspicious Michonne patrols their shelter during the night and spots Luke fiddling with something, she immediately assumes it’s a weapon and demands he drop it. When he says he can’t, Michonne attacks him with her katana—and ends up cutting the Stradivarius violin of the episode title in two.
Luke takes its destruction better than I thought he would, and a baffled Michonne later asks him why he gives a damn about music, given it’s the zombie apocalypse and all. He explains how music essentially equals community and coming together is what allowed humans to beat Neanderthals. It’s pretty goofy and on-the-nose but actor Dan Fogler sells it, maybe because Luke doesn’t seem like a guy who would have actual knowledge on Neanderthal extinction anyway, but is only speaking something he believes to be true. At any rate, it’s still not enough to get Michonne to come to Hilltop.
And that’s because, as above, something really bad happened between Maggie and Michonne during the timeskip, something so bad that Michonne thinks if Maggie even sees her things will immediately get ugly. But then Siddiq drops the bombshell that Maggie is gone from Hilltop, which is something she apparently did not know—a clear sign of how much relations between the two colonies have broken down (although clearly some people knew, and just never told her). Michonne still doesn’t want to go, even when Siddiq pulls the “What Would Carl Want?” card. “It’s not that simple,” she replies, repeating Rick’s most obnoxious mantra.
However, two men on horseback ride up, carrying spears and wearing Kingdom-style body armor, but are from Hilltop. They’re making a rare trip to Alexandria with a message that Rosita has been rescued from out in the woods, and is recuperating with them. Michonne finally accepts that the universe wants her to go to Hilltop and asks them to announce Michonne and her caravan are on their way.
The best element of this storyline has nothing to do with Michonne. It’s how it continues to make the new guys likable—and yes, I even mean Magna. I love how the entire group is so close-knit they’ve all learned to sign in order to communicate with the deaf Connie. It turns out Yumiko is pretty great, too; she’s the clear leader, and a good one. Not only does she remind them they have nothing to lose by seeing if Hilltop is someplace they can have a better life, when the zombie herd arrives she takes charge of her troops and coordinates with Michonne to keep themselves and their horses alive. Yumiko’s clearly going to be a major force for the Hilldomlexians, assuming she’s not already in line for a shocking death. Meanwhile, Luke’s little Neanderthal speech endeared me to him, and Connie and Kelly were likable from minute one.
As for Magna, as much as she generates unnecessary conflict, she’s still also the one most affected by the recent death of their former comrade Bernie, and it’s made clear here that a lot of her issues are coming from that trauma. Especially when Zombie Bernie—excuse me, Zombernie, shows up with the zombie herd that killed him. Although all the new guys are sad to see the shambling, mutilated corpse of their recently lost teammate, Magna is affected most of all, straight-up crying. There’s a three-dimensional character under that veneer of someone who constantly wants to pick dumb fights; it’ll just take more time for her to make her full debut.
So what’s happened at Hilltop since Maggie left? Well, Jesus was elected as leader and has been reelected at least once, and he basically sort of hates it. He leaves Hilltop as much as he can, forcing his second-in-command Tara to take charge of most things, and also apparently has refused to take Maggie’s old office for years because he can’t admit to himself this is not a temporary position. Still, Tara must be doing a great job, because Hilltop is looking even better than Alexandria. It even has a potter’s wheel! Ceramic vases for everyone!
On one of Jesus’s sneaky excursions, he’s tackled by Aaron, where they have a friendly fight. It turns out they’ve both been sneaking off from their colonies so Jesus can train Aaron in the ways of kicking butt, even though he’s basically screwing over Tara every time he leaves, and Michonne would be furious that Aaron was breaking her “security protocols” by traveling so far from Alexandria. This is how they happen to see a flare and find the banged-up Rosita, who tells them that she had to leave Eugene behind in a barn. They bring her back to Hilltop and give her to Dr. Enid.
This is the storyline where technically the least is happening, but it works because Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus are just so damned good together.
Turns out the reason for Carol’s visit was to ask Daryl to accompany Henry to Hilltop to watch over him there, along with the not-particularly secret agenda of bringing Daryl out of his imposed life as a hermit and back to civilization (so to speak). Although Daryl gives the idea a hard pass (Henry is not particularly a fan either), it’s clear Daryl is still pretty messed up after Rick’s seeming death, and tortured by hope because no one ever found the body. Daryl is awkward and taciturn even to his BFF Carol, and he also beheads a snake and drapes the corpse over his neck like the world’s grossest and least effective winter scarf, so overall he doesn’t seem to be doing great.
On the plus side, Daryl has a dog now, and he’s trained it to check the zombie traps he’s placed around his campsite and bark if he sees walkers, so his master can take care of them. Pretty cool! Unfortunately, the dog gets stuck right next to a bunch of trapped zombies and is seconds away from being eaten when Daryl and Henry run to save it. Despite the danger, Daryl refuses Henry’s offers of help, even when a zombie manages to grab him and pull him down. Daryl, of course, is fine, but one of the zombies tears free and is about to land on the dog when Henry ignores Daryl’s command and takes care of it.
Being forced to depend on another human being cracks the shell Daryl had built around himself, and there’s a fantastic scene where he finally starts talking to Henry. The words just start tumbling out because he’d unconsciously wanted, if not needed, to be back among people again, and have those connections which have a life, rather than simply surviving. Reedus does some fine work here, just barely tearing up to show Daryl’s relief that he’s allowed himself to rejoin the world of the living. And the next morning, the three of them head out.
At the episode’s end, Daryl, Carol, and Henry arrive at Hilltop, where they have a happy reunion with Tara and Aaron. Then Jesus immediately ignores Tara’s previous pleas to actually do the job he’s been elected to, in order to head out with Aaron and find Eugene. Daryl and his dog join the search party, leaving Henry behind, but that’s fine. This was never really about Henry anyway.
And that’s pretty much that. “Stradivarius” was a very workmanlike episode of The Walking Dead, but there’s nothing wrong with that once in a while—besides, it looks pretty good compared to last week’s mess. Still, I’m worried about Michonne.
The show has taken one of the show’s best characters and forced her to become Rick. Despite all the experiences, lessons, and growth she had along the way, now she’s been reduced to someone who can’t and won’t trust others, and who sees everyone and everything as a threat, even after it’s proven not to be. I’m not even complaining that it doesn’t make sense for her character, because there’s definitely a possibility that the personality shift will be entirely justified by the storytelling. I’m perturbed because the show is making her walk the exact same path Rick walked a dozen times, and it’s just not that compelling anymore. I know it’s easy drama, but it’s the exact same drama we’ve already seen, and the show’s going to need to do something new to make Michonne’s journey to finding the tiniest shred of empathy for people outside of her group a compelling one. I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know if The Walking Dead knows what that is, either.
I also don’t have any idea if last week’s clunker was an aberration or if the problems have returned, and we just got lucky tonight. Next week is the mid-season finale, and the stakes are going to be a lot higher. TWD needs to make sure everyone still watching cares enough to come back when the show returns next year. Even if the show’s season nine hot streak has continued, this is not an easy job for a series that’s developed a thoroughly earned reputation for divisive, if not outright annoying, finales.
Still, I’m hoping it pulls it off—and given what an attitude change that is from the last several years, it’s pretty obvious the show has figured out to do some things right. We’ll see next week.
- The episode begins with Rosita still pursued by whispering zombies through the woods, meaning they’ve been after her for a pretty long time. Are they really that bad at following her trail, or are they just messing with her?
- On paper, it would be annoying to learn Carol let you have a desperate fight with zombies just so you could experience a teaching moment. But it was a great reveal, and it’s pretty cool knowing that neither Daryl nor Henry were ever in real danger because Carol is such a badass.
- Even if the episode didn’t make you sympathize with Magna a bit, you have to admit she’s pretty great with those throwing knives.
- And speaking of weapons, how about those slingshots Connie and Kelly have? I’m just going to assume it is possible for one to fire a projectile that can pierce a human skull, because it was very funny to see zombies die by slingshot.
- Carol cutting Daryl’s hair was nice, but it felt immensely...intimate. Were I Henry I would have been extremely uncomfortable
- Surprising no one, Michonne is not digging the Kingdom’s upcoming fair.
- To be fair, she’s not completely a hardass—while the new guys are all frozen in grief, gaping at Zombernie, she doesn’t brutally cut him into two. Instead, she gently slides her katana into the back of his head, so his friends don’t have to see his body get mangled horribly (well, mangled more horribly).
- This episode used another rock song! This time it’s the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “April Skies.” It’s still completely jarring when the show uses one, but I think I like it. It’s something that definitely helps this feel like Walking Dead 2.0.
- How, exactly, did zombies manage to pull that rig onto themselves?
- Was that a severed hand doggie chew toy? Very Yojimbo.
- Actually, here’s my biggest question: If Maggie hates Michonne so much that she would freak out if she even saw her, why the hell does Michonne think that Hilltop would ever accept five random strangers Alexandria refuses to keep? I’m going to need an answer to this, TWD, and I bet you don’t have one.