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No One On ‘The Walking Dead’ Is Sadder than Daryl Right Now

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This week’s episode of The Walking Dead continued the series strong work this season, proving that Angela Kang can still run a strong and successful season of television with neither Rick Grimes nor the mysteries on the other side of a time jump. “Stradivarius” succeeded in spite of not being an episode that features a major death, a cliffhanger, or a signature moment from Robert Kirkman’s source material. It’s just a good solid, character-developing episode, the sort that we’ve come to expect during the ninth season of The Walking Dead.

The episode also made great use of its three ostensible leads, Michonne, Carol, and Daryl. We finally found out what Daryl has been up to for the better part of the last six years, too. After Rick’s “death,” Daryl has been spending his time out in the woods searching for Rick’s body, hoping for a sense of closure (good luck, buddy) He grew accustomed to living alone out in the forest. He found himself a dog, which he named “Dog,” because of course that’s what Daryl would name him, and there’s a metaphor in there, too, about Daryl wondering around like a lost puppy trying to find Rick; he occasionally eats (snake, apparently), and he set up booby traps for walkers. He’s essentially living as a morose, grieving hermit.

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Carol’s decision to take a side trip to meet Daryl en route to taking Henry to The Hilltop seems to be as much about Daryl as it is Henry. Carol says that he wants someone to watch over Henry at The Hilltop — rid Henry of some of his idealism — but I think Carol really just wants Daryl to reconnect with the world. She’s worried about him, and she’s using Henry as an excuse to push Daryl back into society. The gambit works, too, and Daryl follows them back to The Hilltop after bonding with Henry, who saved Daryl from a walker.

Daryl has never been the “leader” type on this show — he’s a right-hand man kind of character — but that might soon change. Over on The Hilltop, Maggie is gone, and Jesus is begrudgingly running the place, although it is clear that he’s leaving most of the day-to-day duties to Tara (and the rapport between Tara and Jesus is in this episode outstanding). Jesus doesn’t like to be limited to one place (he’s busy nursing his crush on Aaron), but no one else wants to challenge him to lead The Hilltop. Tara seems like a natural fit in that role in its current state — things are going well, and the duties seem mostly mayoral — but should a threat arrive (like The Whisperers), The Hilltop may benefit more from a commander-in-chief type, and Daryl could take on that role. He’s never really been one to organize and give orders, but with another threat looming, Daryl may be the man that The Hilltop needs right now.

In the meantime, that threat is bearing down on The Hilltop, as it seems that Eugene may have been abducted by The Whisperers (or, at the very least, he’s hiding from them in a barn). There may also be a Whisperer or Whisperers hiding in the woods outside of The Hilltop spying on Michonne’s group as they head into The Hilltop (I assume it is Lydia).

In the meantime, Michonne’s storyline mostly acts as an opportunity for viewers to get to know Magna, Connie, Luke, Yumiko, and Kelly, since they are expected to be around for the long haul (at least a few of them). They’re good people, and I believe they have gained the trust of Michonne, especially after Michonne inadvertently killed Luke’s poor Stradivarius (RIP). I thought that Luke’s speech about art and music was terrific, too, although I half expected it to end in a big sing-along, which might have been nice but also way too out-of-character for The Walking Dead.

Meanwhile, Michonne remained reluctant to go into The Hilltop herself, still wary of Maggie. I think Michonne may still be upset with Maggie because she — like Daryl — was indirectly responsible for Rick’s “death.” Rick ended up in that hole because of his fight with Daryl, but he wouldn’t have gotten in that fight had Maggie not attempted to kill Negan, so Michonne may be holding a grudge against both of them. However, she finds out — as do the rest of us — that Maggie has taken Hershel and left to help start a new community with Georgie. It may or may not be the last time we see Maggie.

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Additional Notes

— Michael Cudlitz — who played Abraham on the show — directed this episode, and he did a bang-up job. I expect he’ll get further opportunities.

— My favorite moment in the episode, weirdly, was seeing C. Thomas Howell come out on a horse in full The Hilltop regalia. C. Thomas Howell has been working steadily as a character actor for 40 years (best known, perhaps, for his role in the phenomenal Southland alongside Michael Cudlitz and as Ponyboy in The Outsiders), but I still can’t see him without thinking about a movie he starred in called Soul Man, a 1986 “comedy” in which Howell disguises himself as a black man in order to get into Harvard. What were they smoking back in 1986? I mean, really.

— Where’s Enid? Henry mentions her in this episode — and I think implies that he has a crush on her — but we still haven’t seen her, or how she’s transformed after the seven-year time jump. I think she may be the only major cast member unaccounted for after the time jump.

— I am so grateful to Carol for finally cutting Daryl’s hair. Now, if she can just convince him to wash it, although maybe his hair grease is how he’s fueling his motorcycle these days. Daryl is the only character on this show that actually LOOKS like he lives in the zombie apocalypse.

— How amazing is Magna’s group with a slingshot? Kelly is as good with it as Daryl is with an arrow.

— On the next episode of The Walking Dead, The Whisperers are coming! It’s not a great storyline in the comics, but I have the feeling that Angela Kang is going to make it a great one on the series.

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