After last week’s episode slipped into neutral (outside of a stand-out performance from Samantha Morton), The Walking Dead jumped back on the horse and delivered another exhilarating episode, successfully combining heroism, old-school horror, humor, and even a Western flair in “Chokepoint,” another successful ninth season episode. In doing so, the series also elevated another featured player into a future The Walking Dead fan favorite, providing the framework for how the series can continue to maintain viewer interest even as long-time favorites exit the series.
At The Hilltop, near the beginning of the episode, Kelly frets about her sister’s whereabouts to Tara, who tells her not to worry, because she’s with Daryl. Yumiko, however, delivers the perfect rejoinder, suggesting that no one need to worry about Daryl either because he’s with Connie. Her words are prescient. Connie, the deaf survivor played by Tony nominee Lauren Ridloff, takes center stage this week, offering a break-through performance after she takes charge as she, Daryl, Lydia and Henry flee from Beta and a group of Whisperers trying to retrieve Lydia.
Daryl’s initial plan is to ditch Lydia and run, as he refuses to put The Hilltop in further danger by bringing Lydia back there again. After an argument ensues between Daryl and Henry about Lydia’s future, Connie takes charge, directing Daryl and Co. to the top floor of an abandoned building, which will act as a chokepoint. Because the walkers can’t traverse stairs, The Whisperers are separated from their “guardians,” leaving them without their defenders and only one narrow access point to Lydia.
Though they are outnumbered, Connie and Daryl use their superior position to their advantage, using the chokepoint to spit out one Whisperer at a time, which Henry and Connie dispatch, the latter with a badass slingshot she uses to brilliant effect. With Henry’s help, Connie takes out almost all the The Whisperer soldiers without breaking a sweat, setting up a big showdown between Daryl and Beta. Echoing the showdown between Negan and Rick a few seasons ago, it’s the kind of hand-to-hand fight sequence we rarely see on a show that employs a lot of weapons and where the bogeymen usually can’t fight back.
Ryan Hurst’s Beta is an absolute force and easily outmatches Daryl. Though we know that Daryl won’t die (because we would riot), director Liesl Tommy — who fetched a Tony nomination for directing Eclipse, a Broadway play written by Danai Gurira — directs a sequence so intense that we briefly forget how unkillable Daryl is because of how unkillable Beta seems to be. Like something out of a Friday the 13th film, Beta refuses to go down, pulling a knife out of his chest and beating Daryl down until Dixon retreats, hides under a floorboard, and waits until Beta passes so that Daryl can sneak up behind him and push him ten floors down an elevator shaft.
Victorious, Daryl and Connie take their leave with Henry and Lydia, but like Jason Voorhees, Beta survives the fall and the episode ends with him pulling himself up, more pissed off than ever, and ready to exact his revenge at the trade fair. Unlike with Negan and the Saviors, however, there’s anything tactical about their approach: They’re looking for brutality and mayhem, so expect this year’s season finale to be one of the bloodiest in the show’s history.
The B-plot, meanwhile, offers up a nice change of pace, providing some tension but a lot of good-natured humor. As expected, The Kingdom is confronted by a new enemy, The Highwaymen, who demand a ransom for allowing visitors to the trade fair pass through the roads. In a tense stand-off with The Highwaymen and their leader, Ozzy (Fargo’s Angus Sampson), Carol offers the highway pirates a job, instead: Keep the roads free for visitors of the trade fair, and The Highwaymen can have access to The Kingdom. Ozzy laughs at the offer, but then a smiling Carol offers the kicker: Access to The Kingdom’s movie theater.
Cut to a chaotic scene out on the route toward The Kingdom, where Tara and Yumiko are fighting a losing battle against a herd of walkers. Cue the western music, as Ozzy and The Highwaymen ride to the rescue on horseback. “Who are you?” asks Tara. “We’re The Highwaymen.”
It’s part of a pattern this season where The Walking Dead has been borrowing from other genres to inject some added personality into the episodes, and here it adds another enjoyably triumphant moment to complement Daryl and Connie’s more hard-fought and exhausting triumph. It all adds up to another terrific episode of the series, as it leads into next week’s flashback episode tackling the X scars on Daryl and Michonne.
— Henry managed to be not entirely useless this week, and his and Lydia’s kiss offered a rare sweet moment for the series. But the next Glenn and Maggie they are not. If The Walking Dead wants to kill off Henry and pass Carl’s storyline in the comics on to Lydia, I don’t think there’d be a lot of pushback from the fan community.
— Seriously, Ryan Hurst has been phenomenal this season, the kind of brute-force villain the series has never really seen before. I doubt there will ever be a redemption storyline for him like there has been for Negan, but it would be interesting to see him deprogrammed and rehabilitated into something more akin to his Opie character from Sons of Anarchy, if only so that we can witness that transformation.
— There’s a lot of chemistry between Daryl and Connie. There might have actually been a few sparks there, too. Is Daryl’s nine-season streak without a romantic interest about to end its run? (For Connie’s sake, Daryl, please wash your hair)
— Finally, I love that Tammy Rose Sutton and the Blacksmith have decided to keep that baby, but more than that, I’m happy that Brett Butler — the former ’90s sitcom star (Grace Under Fire) who fell into a dark hole of addiction — has resurfaced and is doing well, first on The Leftovers and now on The Walking Dead.