TV Review: The Walking Dead – Season 9, Episode 7

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Season 9, Episode 7: Stradivarius

PLOT: Michonne leads her new acquaintances to Hilltop while Carol reconnects with Daryl and Rosita runs for her life.

REVIEW: The Stradivarius episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead marked the return of actor Michael Cudlitz to the series. Cudlitz used to play the character Abraham Ford on the show, making his first appearance near the end of season 4 and then making his exit back in the harrowing premiere episode of season 7. In a better world, Abraham would have been the Walking Dead character who moved over into the show’s companion series Fear the Walking Dead instead of the weirdness they pulled with Morgan, but Abraham is gone – and even now that Cudlitz has worked on another episode, it wasn’t in an acting capacity. Instead, he was behind the camera, as Stradivarius was his directorial debut. He did a good job with it, throwing in some interesting shots, and the script written by Vivian Tse gave him a chance to direct action, emotional scenes, humorous moments, and pure horror.

Stradivarius caused me to think of the days when The Walking Dead would only focus on one character or pairing of characters in each episode. That was always a bad idea, as it caused storylines to be stretched out beyond reason, and an episode like this really casts a negative light on those past episodes, showing how much better the show can be when it’s juggling multiple stories at once. This one had a lot going on: Rosita (Christian Serratos) was running for her life from those strange whispering zombies glimpsed in the previous episode, Carol (Melissa McBride) visited an isolated Daryl (Norman Reedus) while on the road with her adopted son Henry (Matt Lintz), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) was leading the recently introduced new group of survivors to what will be their new home at the Hilltop community, which is now being led by a reluctant and overwhelmed Jesus (Tom Payne), who sneaks off to have Cato and Clouseau sparring sessions with his martial arts protégé Aaron (Ross Marquand). At one point, these little stories would have provided three or four episodes worth of material, but this episode was much more interesting for having it all packed into one 40-something minute running time.

The most interesting section of it all for me was the journey Michonne goes on with the newbies, accompanied by trusted companions Siddiq (Avi Nash) and DJ (Matt Mangum), a character who used to be part of the villainous Savior community but sometime during the recent six year time jump became Michonne’s right hand man. I’m intrigued to hear stories of what happened in those six years, as the writers and producers are having fun teasing viewers with vague hints at events we haven’t witnessed or been told about. A X-shaped scar on Michonne’s back is a wound that happened during that lost time, as are scars seen on Daryl, and something also happened between Michonne and former Hilltop leader Maggie that has her trying to avoid the woman, not knowing she isn’t living at Hilltop anymore. One of these characters needs to catch us up on what we missed.

Even more clueless about events and characters than viewers are the aforementioned newbies; sisters Connie (Lauren Ridloff) and Kelly (Angel Theory), music enthusiast Luke (Dan Fogler), brooding Magna (Nadia Hilker), and Magna’s girlfriend Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), who is more willing to play by Michonne’s rules while Magna just oozes attitude. This Magna character is being hyped as a new fan favorite in the making by the folks behind the show, they say we’re going to love her, but she’s not winning me over so far. I haven’t been able to connect with her yet, and have actually found Hilker’s performance to be off-putting in these first couple episodes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Luke, as Fogler won me over the moment he stepped on screen. He’s always a fun presence in a cast and a welcome new addition to the show, even if Luke’s monologue about how music sets us apart from the animals and Neanderthals felt like a revision of the character Jim going on about the importance of beer in the fourth season of Fear the Walking Dead.

We find that Daryl has taken to living in the wilderness after an unsuccessful search for the corpse of Rick Grimes, which seems fitting for him. The six year time jump is mainly shown on characters through the fact that they have different hairstyles now than they had on episode 5 before the jump, and Daryl was given longer hair that didn’t survive this episode. It was amusing to me that Carol gave him a hair trim that only took him right back to episode 5 length.

The best thing about Daryl’s new situation is that he now has a dog named Dog, and this dog better not just be around so it can be given a tragic moment like the tiger Shiva. They’re already using this dog to manipulate our emotions, and I don’t want to see too much of that.

I was expecting to see more of the whispering zombies in Stradivarius, I’m anxious to see more of them, but there were plenty of regular zombies around to make up for the episode not advancing that idea. It was eventful and held my attention even without whisperers. I’m sure we’re going to be seeing a lot of them soon enough anyway – but hopefully not too much of them, like what happened with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors.

Earth-shattering Stradivarius wasn’t, but it moved things forward and was a fine episode. Cudlitz is certainly welcome back anytime.

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BEST ZOMBIE MOMENT: There was a good amount of zombie action on display in Stradivarius, but I would say the best moment was an intense scene involving Daryl, Henry, and Daryl’s dog… And yes, it did earn some of its intensity by putting poor Dog in danger. Daryl had to deal with a bunch of zombies to get Dog out of a bad situation, while ordering Henry not to help him.

GORY GLORY: Both contenders for this honor in tonight’s episode involved feet. I thought the winner was going to be the moment when Connie smashed a zombie head under her shoe, but then later in the episode we got a wonderfully gross moment where a zombie tears off its own foot to get out of a trap set by Daryl.

FAVORITE SCENE: The group of newbies proved to be trustworthy when they were given their weapons back and jumped into action to take on a herd of zombies alongside Michonne and her pals.