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The Walking Dead finds its groove without Rick Grimes

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The latest episode recaptures the old magic by focusing on the  basics

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

At times, the latest season of AMC’s The Walking Dead has felt muddled, as if new showrunner Angela Kang was confused about what she wanted the show to be. Is she making a daring drama that surprises audiences with fearless storytelling decisions, or continuing the stunts that have defined the last few seasons? Does she want to improve on the comic-book morality of the long-running comic series, or is she more interested in treading water and setting up an upcoming Rick Grimes movie trilogy?

But last night’s episode, “Stradivarius,” offered the clearest example yet of what she has in mind for her reworked version of the series. With Rick’s departure out of the way, The Walking Dead was able to dig into its new characters, explore the relationships that have evolved in the years since Rick vanished, and dive into the implications of three very different communities struggling to align themselves. “Stradivarius” is heavy on dialogue, character-driven scenes, and implied mystery. It features real loss and relatively few zombies — so much so that at times it felt like an episode straight out of the show’s first few seasons. It’s glorious.

Warning: Spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9, episode 7 below.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Daryl gets a dog

Bryan: There are a lot of moments to touch on in this episode, but one in particular does a nice job of setting the tone: Daryl’s dog. In this episode, the audience learns that after Rick died, Daryl went out to look for the body — which, of course, still hasn’t been found — and then never came back to any of the communities. He’s just been out on his own, doing what he does, though he has taken up with a pet whom he has apparently named Dog. (That seems like the most Daryl thing possible, in the best way.)

I haven’t been on the Daryl Dixon love bandwagon for years now. I found the moral duality he represented early on in the show to be fascinating, but for far too long, he’s seemed like a character without purpose. Fans love him, and Norman Reedus is the kind of actor you can watch do a silent smolder for days, but there was no real point to his existence. He’s been a little like the rug in The Big Lebowski — something everybody talks about, and some people are extremely invested in, because boy, does it tie the room together.

But the way he cares about that dog… it’s a minor touch, but it’s as if he’s put all the love, compassion, and care he has for other human beings into that animal. Maybe I’m getting too feelsy with this because my wife and I just welcomed a puppy into our home, but the entire thing plays as if Daryl’s reaction to losing Rick was to shut down and swear off humans, because caring about them can hurt. The dog, however, is reliable, won’t bring up political problems, and won’t flip to work for the bad guys at a moment’s notice. The dog is Daryl’s haven, and he feels he can keep that thing safe by himself, without having to rely on anybody else.

That is, of course, until he can’t — and a group of walkers almost take out Daryl and Dog. Only Henry’s last-minute intervention saves them both, and not long after that, Daryl decides maybe it’s time to come in from the wilderness with Carol and Henry after all. It’s a small beat, but it’s an exceptionally smart and cleanly executed one that’s able to convey a whole lot about Daryl’s headspace, emotional state, and what he prizes in life — without any lengthy monologues or over-orchestration.

Nick: The more I read about Daryl’s dog, the more on board I am with it as a plot device. Apparently, Kang told EW it’s been batted around as an idea for Daryl since as far back as season 2. It makes much more sense for the loner side of Daryl’s character to have come out in full force during the bigger of the two recent time-skips. (A dog probably wouldn’t have survived many of the big moments between Hershel’s farm and Alexandria.)

But you’re right — Daryl has needed something to flesh him out since he somewhat stagnated as a character many seasons ago. Daryl became a loyal lieutenant and right-hand man to Rick, but then he didn’t have anywhere else to go. The show batted around the idea of turning him into a villain, giving him a crisis of conscience with the Dwight storyline and having him push the boundaries of the group’s use of violence in the lead-up to and during the Saviors war. But it’s always felt like the show was wasting all the fan goodwill and Reedus’ clear dedication to the character on shallow subplots. For the last couple of years, he’s mostly existed in service of supplementing other characters’ arcs.

Now that Daryl has a clear theme going for him — he’s distraught over his role in Rick’s death and the fractured interpersonal relationships that led to that moment — it’s much easier to believe his newfound dedication to caring for a pet and the unconditional love it provides. I’m just hoping the dog doesn’t become either a bit of plot armor for Daryl, or a meta device the writers can use to toy with the audience. I could see situations in which the dog brings Daryl perilously close to danger time and again, only for the writers to pull them both out of trouble at the last moment to joyous celebration from viewers. I could also see them continuously tease a grisly end for the dog to whip up a social media frenzy, only to calm it down at the last minute by giving fans what they want and keeping the dog safe. Either scenario is a bit too much of the old-school Scott Gimple playbook, and as much as I really don’t want to see a beloved pet get taken by the walkers, I hope the show walks a realistic line and keeps the tricks to a minimum.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The new recruits

Bryan: Last week, I found the introduction of the new group of survivors — Yumiko, Magna, and Luke, among others — a little flat. They were just thrown in without much ceremony, yet were intended to be the focal point of Michonne’s ire in a way the audience was clearly supposed to invest in. I didn’t. Thankfully, “Stradivarius” quickly moves to address those issues with, yet again, clean and efficient storytelling. Luke is obsessed with musical instruments as a way of reminding himself what separates humanity from other living creatures. It’s revealed that Magna and Yumiko are a couple, better explaining Magna’s actions in the previous episode. Most importantly, the group finds that their lost friend Bernie has in fact become a zombie, and Michonne quietly dispatches him instead of forcing any of the others to do it themselves.

All these things are built around fleshing out characters and creating human stakes. The Bernie incident isn’t impactful because zombies are scary; it works because Magna and the others have lost a friend, and it’s clear how much losing him means to them. Luke explaining his obsession with instruments — which is not a fetish, he clarifies, despite the joke his fellow group member Connie makes — makes him feel more like a well-rounded person, rather than a chess piece being shuffled around a board.

Once again, these may seem like trivial moments to highlight, but as an audience member, they’re the precise kinds of details that make me care about the people in this show. The zombie infestation is too grand a threat; the constant battle between communities too familiar and well-worn. The only way to keep caring about any show nine years in is to be deeply invested in its characters, and it really did feel to me in “Stradivarius” that the show was starting to execute a course-correction, and a welcome one. I got the same feeling from Aaron and Jesus’ encounter. We learned about the backstory of the different communities, yes, but it was more about the relationship between those characters, and how they’ve forged their own alliance, even though they’re from communities that aren’t speaking with each other.

It’s an important reminder, particularly when some audiences have been as frustrated as we have been at times. When The Walking Dead stops playing games, it still knows how to be quietly effective and dramatic television, and that’s the reason I signed up to watch back in 2010 in the first place.

Nick: I tend to sympathize with viewers who think The Walking Dead has too many characters. For years, the show has introduced new, peripheral faces to the mix, only to have them deliver one line a week, or suddenly shoulder a big, dramatic narrative arc that doesn’t ultimately pay off, or immediately fades from memory. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the Hilltop character Carol had a brief romantic relationship with prior to settling down with Ezekiel, and I still cringe at the thought of stereotype-heavy characters like T-Dog ever making their way onto an otherwise solidly progressive TV drama.

So I’m a bit torn on Magna and Luke’s group, if only because I’m fearing the worst: that they’ll be given a lot of expositional responsibilities during the next upcoming story arc, only to be killed off for the emotional payoff, while keeping the main cast intact. It’s happened so many times before, and it’s such a reliable move from a writing standpoint, even if it’s lazy, and even when the audience pretty much knows it’s coming. Still, the show has done this effectively in the past, like when it killed off Rick’s love interest Jessie and her two teenage sons in Alexandria. To this day, that scene is still shocking for how brutally executed it was, even when the audience could guess what was coming.

The character development with the new group is top-notch, and miles ahead of what we might have gotten last season or before that, when new faces became The Walking Dead’s easy way to fill screen time. The investments being made into Luke’s love of musical instruments and Magna’s tough exterior slowly unraveling feel real and earned, and I’m looking forward to them becoming mainstays of the cast, at least for as long as the show deems them necessary. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong and these characters will became pivotal fixtures of this season and those in the future, but for a show that involves its viewers so heavily in the art of contract negotiation, I can’t help but wonder how long these actors have signed on for.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The Maggie mystery

Bryan: While Rick Grimes’ removal has now been dealt with (until the new movies at least), Maggie’s disappearance is still up in the air. “Stradivarius” deals with it in the most inconsequential way possible, having it all play as backstory that people talk about, though Maggie herself is never seen.

Granted, this is a way to work around the fact that actress Lauren Cohan is working on a new TV series, Whiskey Cavalier, and will not be a series regular like she has been in the past. It wouldn’t have made sense to make a big to-do of Maggie’s disappearance right on the heels of Rick’s “death,” so instead, the audience just learns from others that she’s gone elsewhere, Jesus took over in her stead, and Michonne doesn’t even know that Maggie has left until this very episode. But again, the show not making a big deal out of it plays as a strength. The entire scenario becomes about the impact Maggie’s departure has had on the characters that are still present and accounted for, rather than making it some extravagant meta-event.

I had a similar reaction to the way the episode just casually revealed that Daryl has a mysterious “X” scar on his back, matching the one Michonne had in the previous episode. There is clearly backstory there — who gave them the scars, and what do they mean? — but the show is keeping its powder dry, revealing their existence slowly and patiently. Nick, I’m sure if there’s a comics parallel to these scars, you already know exactly where this is headed, but as someone who only watches the show, I really appreciated how these kinds of moments were handled. Hyping up comics fans does not seem to be the driving priority; making good television is, and that path is going to serve The Walking Dead well if it sticks to it.

Nick: For me, the Maggie story is a sore spot in an otherwise really solid episode. I maybe understand why it had to be done, and the constraints under which the show had to send off one of its longest-running and most important characters with just a few bits of dialogue. But it really does feel unfair to Lauren Cohan that they couldn’t have done something a bit more substantial, and I can see fans justifiably bemoaning how poorly it was handled. Whether Maggie returns feels besides the point. She’s gone now, and it happened offscreen, which is just a bummer all around.

One silver lining here is how Kang and the writers have worked it into the plot. Sure, it could have been a one-off scene where Siddiq tells Michonne that Maggie has up and left, and that’s that. But the fact that it’s information that was purposefully kept from Michonne, as well as a secret between an inner ring of hopeful Alexandrians and Hilltop members who want to reunite the groups, is a promising sign that The Walking Dead will twist an unfortunate bit of contractual fallout into a substantial plot device with a meaningful outcome. It would be a nice turnaround if Maggie’s absence is what pushes the communities to come back together again to fight whatever threat is hiding out in the woods, as was made clear with Rosita’s opening scene this episode.

As for the scars, I don’t actually know what the show is getting at, which is refreshing, because for all of Kang’s improvements this season, it still does feel like every curveball is a reworked comic reference being put to good use. I’m assuming some serious stuff went down in the last six years that truly fractured Alexandria and the Hilltop, with Rick’s death and Maggie’s indirect involvement being the catalyst.

And for the first time since Negan’s nebulous backstory — the details of which are mostly and inexplicably still a mystery — I really hope the show turns back time a bit and gives us a telling flashback. Hell, I’d take a multi-episode detour if The Walking Dead really wants to show us the aftermath of the bridge, and whether it really did result in serious physical altercations between the main cast members. For now, I can only assume we’ll know more later, perhaps when Michonne finally comes face to face with the others for the first time in years. At the very least, it’s an encounter that has me genuinely excited, proving that The Walking Dead can still create real drama between its characters, drama that doesn’t feel like it’s been manufactured to serve some greater conflict.