After nine seasons, The Walking Dead has pretty much sampled every possible horror trope available to its zombiefied universe. The results have been mixed, but it’s always interesting to see the show attempt to spin a fresh twist on an old narrative trick. And while we’ve had multiple examples of the series leading us into believing someone had died, only to reveal an unexpected survival (often with rotten results—looking at you guys, Glen and Rick), I think this might be the first time they’ve indulged in the monster-movie life-and-death switcheroo gambit: That old horror-movie chestnut in which the hero, after a bitter and exhausting battle, finally triumphs over the masked killer/crazed lunatic/supernatural entity/etc., killing them and closing the book on that chapter of the saga...until the camera slowly zooms in on the lifeless body of the villain, the music tenses, suddenly their eyes pop open, and they rise, ready to torment our protagonist anew. It’s a cherished final-scene tradition for many a franchise, not to mention a common means of juicing your slasher movie’s third act.
And wow, does The Walking Dead lean hard into this tried-and-true routine for the ending of “Chokepoint.” Whether you find it a charming embrace of the show’s genre debts or a hackneyed betrayal of the series’ faux-realism probably depends on your fondness for toying with horror’s foundational bag of tricks. When Beta coughs himself awake at the bottom of the elevator shaft Daryl body-slammed him into at the climax of their fight, pulls himself up, and begins to growl in anger and frustration as we cut to the credits, I found it wholly silly—but in an entertaining way. This is the series delivering some hammy theatrics, and thanks to the looming, Michael Myers-esque threat of Beta, the ploy works.
This episode builds on the creative rebound of the past couple of weeks by continuing to take concrete steps toward the Kingdom’s trade fair and rearranging the season’s players. Despite Daryl and Connie’s showdown against the Whisperers (okay, okay, Henry and Lydia were there, too) being the obvious dramatic high point, the introduction of the Highwaymen ended up far and away the most satisfying element, for the simple reason that the show gave us a story that works as a singular tale, self-contained within an episode—you know, like how an episode of TV tends to best function. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it subverted the expectations of a drawn-out battle. This show so often stumbles along, refusing to let its subplots die, that to see it crisply and efficiently tell a damn story feels like a minor revelation, not unlike the recovery of the projector bulb itself.
We learn a new group of bandits, the Highwaymen, have set up shop on the roads in and out of the Kingdom, and are demanding a ransom in exchange for letting people cross safely into the community. But as Carol continues to progress away from the kill-first-ask-questions-later mentality, even being the one to talk others out of a violent confrontation, the meeting takes a happily unexpected turn when she singlehandedly quells a Kingdom-Highwaymen showdown by asking the blackmailers about the last time they’d seen a movie. Angus Sampson is always a welcome presence, and here he gets to play slightly against type by subverting the expectation of a do-or-die thug and accepting the offer to work for the Kingdom. It’s a nice moment when he rides into town, tipping his hat to Ezekiel and Carol, but it’s even better when he and his men ride up during the walker attack on Tara’s convoy from Hilltop, coming to the rescue in no-nonsense fashion.
I’ve been giving the character of Henry a lot of shit this season, and for good reason—he’s excruciating 90 percent of the time. And for most of this episode, that trend continues, especially in the exchange where Lydia and he confess their feelings for one another. The clunky, halting “I care about you” spiel may have been relatively honest, but that didn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch, especially after Lydia delivered another sensible verbal beat-down of Henry’s terrible decision-making skills. “You made my mother look weak,” she says, which unfortunately cues up the romance. But he gets a moment of reprieve later on the balcony, thanks to Lydia. Cassady McClincy has been doing strong work as Alpha’s estranged daughter, all guarded pain and wild-eyed intensity; so when she drops all the pretenses and just gives Henry a smitten, schoolgirl-crush look, it’s impossible not to react with disarmed appreciation, exactly as Henry does.
Plus, it’s easier to look more favorably on someone after they’ve sustained a severe injury. Having Dog save Henry from death wasn’t high on my list of priorities, but the sequence probably played out as well as it could have, given the stakes. We always knew Daryl changing his mind about Lydia was a given—there was no way he was just going to abandon the girl in the woods—but the fight with the Whisperers was a nice show-don’t-tell way of getting us from his resistance to his acceptance, and it made Connie into an unexpected badass. The character is still all over the map (flighty and unpredictable one episode, a steely and determined killing machine the next), but at least the show is trying to justify how she holds her own with someone like Daryl.
The Whisperers’ attack played out well, and with a decent sense of tension, even if director Liesl Tommy didn’t do a particularly good job of establishing the spatial geography of the building or where characters were racing to and from during the fight. It all seemed to swirl together into a nebulous half-built floor plan, so it never became clear where anyone was in relation to each other, which hurt momentum and pacing. Still, Daryl swinging an axe into a Whisperer was a brutally nice touch, and the various kills all landed with force. The Daryl-Beta smackdown had an air of genuine menace—it’s obvious Daryl wasn’t going to die or anything, but Ryan Hurst is such an imposing presence, the possibility of real injury to our hero felt plausible. Then Daryl kicked him down an elevator shaft, and the real horror movie began; it’s just a question of where Beta (And Alpha) will direct their sense of vengeance. To the fair? Or to the remaining souls at Hilltop, during the Kingdom’s trade celebration? Either way, as the last few episodes arrive, it’s not a question of whether the Whisperers will deal a devastating blow to our people, but when.
- This week we learn that the Whisperers refer to walkers as “the guardians”—a sobriquet that makes sense in light of their chosen method of travel.
- Earl got bitten and/or clawed during the attack on the Hilltop convoy, right? I was a little busy noting how Tammy’s baby-safe chest wasn’t as effective as A Quiet Place’s soundproof one, but I’m pretty sure Earl is fucked.
- Also, that road-bound assault showed those stupid teens from Hilltop are at least good for something.
- Carol’s reasoning for why they should talk to the Highwaymen is ironclad: “They sent a letter—a grammatically correct one.”
- So is Daryl seriously proposing the four of them just hit the open road after getting Henry patched up? It makes a weird kind of sense, I suppose, but there’s no way Connie will be joining them. Also, even the implication is absurd: They’re not going anywhere.