This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 13
One of the most exciting moments in any episode of Game of Thrones isn’t the actual show, but the lead up to the show. No matter what I might be feeling, or how I might be feeling, when that music kicks in and we get the sweeping shots of the clockwork map, I get an immediate jolt of energy. The Walking Dead has never had that, until fairly recently.
Usually I zone out during the opening credits, waiting to see just who might be writing and directing a particular episode, but for “Chokepoint,” I actually paid attention, and found the credits to be surprisingly touching. The credits are full of allusions to friends past, like a shot of a motorcycle being covered with kudzu, and a discarded Smoky hat sitting on a fence post, and friends present, like arrows sticking out of the ground next to a crossbow and a katana.
As usual, perhaps I’m a bit late to the party, but I found the opening credits to be a nice lead-in to an episode that channeled a lot of The Walking Dead’s finer moments of the past, as well as charting a good course for its future. “Chokepoint,” at the moment, is one of the better episodes of one of the better seasons of The Walking Dead, and serves as a latter-season highlight for the show, which has shown improvement under Angela Kang’s guidance and a return to form despite missing several important characters. Kang was given a difficult task, all things considered, and she seems to be pulling it off; even if ratings haven’t improved, quality certainly has. She’s turned several subtractions into additions, or at least interesting plot threads, and elevated existing characters into places they wouldn’t have normally gone.
For example, in the A plot of the episode, Daryl, Connie, Henry, and Lydia are forced to find a place to hole up and prepare to defend themselves against a Whisperer hunting group led by the massive Beta. Rather than having Rick around to draw up plans, Daryl and Connie set things up, working together despite Daryl’s initial resistance. Immediately, Connie’s group has started to pay off for the show, especially considering the fact that unlike lots of the other groups, Magna’s group were clever survivors in their own right before joining up; at this state, any group that’s still around should be smart enough to set up a titular chokepoint and execute it. These aren’t people who need protection, even Henry and Lydia should know enough to set up basic traps, take the high ground, and make them come fight on turf you know and have prepared for them.
That cleverness pays off in a really solid fight sequence, in which all four major characters hold their own. Henry is injured, and constrained by his desire not to kill anyone per a promise to Lydia, but she’s quickly able to disabuse him of that notion and, really, there wouldn’t be anyone in this fight escaping uninjured, especially considering the skill with which Beta and the Whisperers can fight. Again, it’s a fairly even match-up, and the preparation by the heroes is what made the difference, along with a little Jedi training from Connie to avoid enemies sneaking up behind her.
However, the quality of the action sequence aside, director Liesl Tommy is better known for her work in the theatrical setting, and that comes through in the episode’s B-plot, in which Jerry and Diane are robbed by The Highwaymen (perhaps big Kris Kristofferson fans) and are given a letter to take back to Ezekiel demanding money in exchange for free passage to the Fair for their friends. However, it isn’t martial prowess that saves the day when Ezekiel, Jerry, and Carol meet the head Highwayman Ozzy (Angus Sampson of Insidious fame) for a talk, but negotiation.
Certainly, the Kingdom’s fighters get the drop on the Highwaymen, but if they wanted to start shooting and stabbing, it’d get messy in a hurry. That’s just an equalizer. In a great little scene, Carol disarms the scene with a very genuine smile and an offer to what appear to be a bunch of Civil War cosplayers to join them for trade and a movie. To watch the idea come across to Melissa McBride—who clearly sizes The Highwaymen up on their costumes and their theatrical lair full of dressed mannequins—and to watch Angus Sampson slowly soften to the thought of a film after so long is subtle, but quality performance work.
As established in David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick’s script, the Highwaymen aren’t bad people, they’re just trying to survive, same as the Kingdom. If a taste of creature comforts is what’s needed to make that work, along with paying work, then it works out better for everyone—and the Highwaymen are there to ride in on their horses and come to the aid of Tara and the rest of Hilltop when they’re trapped by a horde on the road. Diplomacy, as we’ve seen, can pay off, albeit not the sort of diplomacy that Tara engaged in with the Whisperers, but Carol and Ezekiel won’t have anyone going off to disrupt the agreement with the Highwaymen like Daryl did with the Whisperers.
There’s a huge difference between a group just trying to survive and a group that’s trying to throw their weight around, and the Whisperers are clearly in the latter category, if only because we got a full episode about how despicable Alpha is, plus her abandoning a fussy baby to be eaten by walkers. After all, The Highwaymen left Jerry and Diane alive, and with a way to get back to The Kingdom. Alpha wouldn’t do that. Beta certainly wouldn’t have done that, either. Some folks just can’t be made to see reason.