Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

For a show whose entire reason for existing is predicated on the idea that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, The Walking Dead sure hasn’t spent much time outside the cozy confines of its established locations lately. I get it—those sets are expensive and cool—but it doesn’t always help the story.

Thankfully, “Stradivarius” at least partially gets things back on the right path by venturing out into the wilderness. Sure, Michonne and her team leading Luke, Magna, and the others to Hilltop may have been briefly sidelined by a late-night monologue on the importance of art and culture that was eye-rollingly clunky, but at least the new members of our crew aren’t the focus here, with the show returning its focus to characters we actually give a shit about. The series is still struggling to give us a reason to connect with any of the recent arrivals, but making them just one of several storylines is a much smoother integration than the hard reset button pressed last week. With our attention back on Carol and Daryl—and hell, even Jesus counts as an old hand at this point—the show may not have given us anything all that compelling, but at least it remembered what it’s supposed to do: Give us drama based on the people we’re invested in, not just assume we’ll follow the adventures of any old group of thinly drawn survivors.

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It’s easy to forget just how much time has really passed on this show since the end of the Rick Grimes era. It often takes something like Tara, after treating the injured Rosita and saying, “It was weird... seeing her after all this time” to remind you how long it’s been since the bridge blew up, and to again emphasize that something big went down during the interim—something that severed the link between the communities. If Carol and Henry’s visit (with Daryl in tow) is any indication, the fracture isn’t universal, and The Kingdom is still on friendly terms with Hilltop. Which makes the fair more of an effort to draw Alexandria back into the fold. And after seeing Aaron and Jesus palling around and learning Siddiq (and presumably others) have known Maggie left quite some time ago, there are clearly many who want to fix the split, meaning the question of what traumatic experience pushed the leaders of the respective communities apart is left lingering in the air like the scent of a burning rotten walker foot. There’s no way we’ll be getting that backstory before the season takes its winter hiatus after the next episode, but the series is going to have to address it very soon to prevent this from becoming an albatross haunting any stories it wants to tell.

It’s a testament to how solid the chemistry between Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride is at this point that a reunion of the characters which plays like a soggy after-school special is still this watchable. Carol wants Daryl, who’s been living in solitude and eating what appear to be some very gross meals of boiled snake stew, to come to Hilltop and look after Henry as the kid begins his blacksmith apprenticeship. After some grunting, a haircut, and a late-night struggle to free Daryl’s adorable new dog from a snare before the walkers devoured it, he pulls the motorcycle out of storage and comes along for the trip. “She misses you,” Henry tells the weathered tracker, and that’s about all it takes to pull him out of the funk that sent him away in the first place. He never stopped searching for Rick, it seems (“We never found a body,” he points out), but his friend is asking for his help, and that’s good enough.

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

At least the focus with the newbies was as much on Michonne this time as on our latest band of hardscrabble humans. Making Luke profoundly obsessed with musical instruments is an okay character trait and a way to distinguish yet another man with few discernible survival skills, but the reveal of Michonne slicing the Stradivarius in half—and the groan-inducing story of how caring about stuff is, you know, important—didn’t do the show any favors in trying to curry favor with the audience for placing these unknown folks so front and center. Similarly, the anecdote about their dead friend with the loud shirt certainly didn’t make his subsequent undead reveal emotional in any meaningful way; we barely know these folks. Much more useful both narratively and as character study was the walker attack in the morning, when Michonne distributed their weapons and we saw how each person contributed to the group’s well-being. Connie and Kelly are slingshot pros (a weapon of which it’s bizarre more people in the zombie apocalypse don’t avail themselves, in hindsight), Yumiko is our latest ace with a bow and arrow, Magna is good at hitting things, and Luke, um...provides comic relief? Seriously, how is he not dead?

Michonne learning Maggie took off with Georgie should help add some much-needed energy to this group’s arrival at Hilltop next installment, because Jesus being lackadaisical about assuming authority isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat dramatics. Even the back-and-forth between Tara and Jesus about the need for him to commit to his position wasn’t consistent; she makes a big production out of how he has to stay put and tend to his people, only to turn around the next morning, shrug, and go, “Eh, whatever,” when she agrees to stay behind and let him go hunt for Eugene instead. It’s as though the series can’t quite figure out how to get some momentum going, and is just hoping it can run out the clock on these episodes until getting to a more exciting part of whatever it has planned for this season. Presumably the search for Eugene will provide excitement; I hope so, because right now just putting the camera back on characters who deserve it isn’t enough to sustain interest.

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Stray observations

  • I don’t know what went down over the past six years, because it seems awfully bold of Siddiq to think he can mouth off to Michonne with a line like, “What about Carl? What about your promise to him?” It’s okay to punch him if you want to, Michonne.
  • Rosita’s opening sequence was odd, because it either implied walkers were close enough to her when she collapsed that their new throaty voice could be heard—and therefore should’ve been right on her when she hit the ground—or it was in her head, casting doubt on that whole twist.
  • Apparently being deaf has given Connie hawk-like eyesight. She thinks she sees something, only to then shrug it off as “nothing.” As though that didn’t telegraph something being there hard enough, we then cut to a camera p.o.v. hidden just off the side of the road.
  • Aaron tackling Jesus off the horse made me laugh.
  • I wasn’t kidding about the sets being cool. That final overhead crane shot as the group left Hilltop really showed off how much work The Walking Dead has done to create an entire tangible reality for these communities. Well done.

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