This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 10
Losing the Grimes family might be the best thing to happen to The Walking Dead since Frank Darabont. The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 10 depends a great deal on two characters that wouldn’t have been featured otherwise in Daryl Dixon and Henry. (Henry has no last name, so I’ll call him Henry Windsor out of deference to his status as a member of the Kingdom’s royal family.)
Given the unique back story of those characters versus the relatively more sedate lives of Rick and Carl, what works in this week’s episode featuring the two of them—and Tara for that matter—wouldn’t work in the steady, sure hands of the traditional Ricktatorship.
There’s an insecurity to things now. Tara doesn’t know the right thing to do immediately, like Rick or Maggie would have. When faced with the choice between going after the missing Luke and Alden and regrouping to get a plan of action, Tara does the cautious thing and retreats to the safety of Hilltop, giving her a chance to plan for this new world. This ultimately causes Magna’s group to leave Hilltop to look for Luke and Alden, then return to Hilltop when they realize that searching through the forest in the dark is a bad idea with the Whisperers around.
Tara’s willingness to let people make mistakes—while keeping an eye on things with her guards, who aren’t fooled by Magna’s escape attempt—is something Rick didn’t tend to do. He’d know what to do immediately and react, while Tara gets a chance to think of a better thing to do versus thinking over a decision.
Similarly, this difference in delivery system works to greater advantage with Lydia. Rick is a cop. He looks like a cop, he thinks like a cop, and he acts like a cop. He’s not a detective, so shaking down a potential perpetrator is one thing, but connecting to a damaged, abused teenage girl isn’t his forte. Enter Daryl, who is able to lean on his history and background to connect with Lydia as she slowly explains her back-story, with various lies along the way that Daryl is able to see through. He knows what it’s like, and he knows where to find the inconsistencies in her story, where someone like Rick might not. He’s scary looking enough to be a threat, but his soft heart is enough to come through when he’s given the chance to be nicer.
Henry, for his part, is sheltered enough that Lydia sees that people like him, relatively soft and caring people, can survive in this world despite what her mother has beaten into her. He’s willing to give her a second chance, because he was given the chance to grow up in a place where that’s an option. The brief tour they take around Hilltop is meaningful to Lydia, because Henry trusts her in a way that would seem a bit more unnatural if Carl had been the one to do it.
Carl’s turn towards kindness and second chances in Season 8 never quite rectified with the Carl who shot someone who might have been trying to surrender, after all; that would go double for someone present when one of his friends was caught and killed. Henry lacks that baggage, and has a comparatively rosier outlook on life.
In David Boyd’s hands, the scenes in which Lydia recounts her origin story are riveting. During every retelling, things are just slightly different, like a one-woman Rashomon. At times, her mother’s hair is long or short. Her father Frank (Steve Kazee) is bearded or clean-shaven. Her mother (Samantha Morton) has the tattoo of Lydia on her arm, or her father. One parent or the other sings to her, the classic Groucho Marx tune “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in honor of her name. The inconsistencies in the visual depiction of the story stand in for inconsistencies in her telling of the story, and it becomes a bit of a fun game to see what’s different every time Lydia recounts her story.
The only thing that is consistent is that her mother will do anything to survive, and to keep her family safe. Lydia might not believe that her mother will bring the Whisperers to her rescue, but that seems far-fetched, given all she’d done to protect the family while they were hiding in a warehouse in Baltimore.
Those flashbacks are great examples of just how well The Walking Dead does sound design, with Boyd’s direction, Channing Powell’s script, and the performing of Kazee, Morton, and Scarlett Blum (young Lydia) carrying the scenes. They have good emotional impact, and the differences in performance between each scene really help to sell the unreliable narration of Cassady McClinchy’s more mature Lydia.
Clearly, Lydia seems to be confused and borderline brainwashed by her mother’s efforts, and it seems to be legitimate. After all, if she was really that brainwashed into survival at any cost, the nervy scene in which Henry talks to her about Hilltop while she fondles a hammer and contemplates bashing her way to freedom would have played out far differently, crying baby or no crying baby.
Given Henry’s relative lack of importance until recently, Henry seems to lack the plot armor Carl had for so long, which adds tension to the scene which is amplified in the editing room by the clever inter-cutting of the two hiding from security and Lydia’s slow picking up of the hammer—Daryl’s over-watching presence is revealed only after the scene plays out, much like the guards watching after Magna’s group are only revealed the next day.
There’s a certain amount of freedom given to make mistakes, that didn’t seem to be as prevalent under Rick. Those responsible for the safety of others watch, but don’t interfere, letting people like Henry, Lydia, and Magna make mistakes and learn from them, rather than being protected from themselves. Perhaps the creative team behind the show feel freed to learn from mistakes, too.
It seems reductive to say that The Walking Dead is back and better than ever, but it’s back and it’s definitely improved over recent years. Yes, mistakes were made, but mistakes seem to have been learned from and overcome.