WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 9 episode "Stradivarius," which premiered Sunday on AMC.
The Walking Dead got a much-needed breather this week with “Stradivarius,” which also marks Michael Cudlitz’s directorial debut on the series. It’s not as good as Abraham miraculously rebounding from his untimely death, but we’ll take it. The dust has settled on Rick’s monumental departure, at least in terms of storylines, and this episode shifts its focus from grief and politics to more intimate questions of trust, friendship and the breakdown of the two.
Michonne, Sidiq and a long-lost Hemsworth brother named D.J. escort Magna and her group to the Hilltop, but the mood is tense. Despite empathizing enough with the new additions to help them find a place within the communities (in a NIMBY sort of way), Michonne refuses to allow them to carry their weapons. Luke and Yumiko try to keep things civil, considering this is the closest they’ve come to any sort of safe place to live in what appears to a while, but Magna and Michonne are cut from a similar cloth and Magna’s behaving a lot like Michonne rightfully did when she and Andrea got to Woodbury all those years ago. The key differences, of course, being that Michonne is not the Governor and the communities aren’t murderous dictatorships: She knows the new group has nothing to worry about, but the event that presumably broke apart the communities (as well as her and Maggie’s relationship, it would seem) also made her extremely mistrustful of outsiders. Or it did until she broke Luke’s violin.
In an effort to prove their story is true, Magna’s group leads the Alexandrians to their old camp, which has been ransacked in their absence by another walker herd, larger than the one they fought off. Sidiq discovers a recorder and an accordion, which leads Luke to sheepishly admit he rescues abandoned instruments in an attempt to retain a degree of art and culture in their brutal, post-apocalyptic world. Michonne is unmoved by the entire thing until she discovers Luke poking around at night, and in her overzealousness takes a katana to his violin when he surprises her. Despite the tragic loss -- the real crime of this episode is that no one seems to appreciate what a massive deal a Stradivarius is, and how utterly soul-destroying it is that Michonne broke one -- tensions lift between the group as Michonne gamely attempts to apologize to Luke, and for her trouble gets a speech on why art matters.
Luke is insistent that art is what separates humans from animals, and while Michonne remains unconvinced that art is all it will take for everyone to start treating each other with a base level of decency, she is moved enough to give the group back their weapons when another herd comes through the following morning. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and it serves to underline Michonne’s continued struggle to exist without a compass. The loss of Carl and Rick (plus whatever gave her that X-shaped scar) has, at least in part, made her revert to the fiercely suspicious Michonne we first met, but she and the audience both know she’s not that person any longer, and the new group brings out that internal conflict.
Daryl undergoes a parallel journey as he tries to resist Carol’s attempts to get him to mentor Young Henry. The two Kingdom residents pay a newly feral Daryl a visit in the woods, but even after Carol gives him a much-needed haircut, he’s not interested in returning to civilization – especially not to babysit Henry. Carol’s insistent, though: Henry needs a dose of Daryl’s realism, and it’s not healthy for Daryl to live in the woods on the off-chance Rick’s body turns up. In what is surely a surprise to no one, Daryl never really accepted Rick’s death, rightfully pointing out a body was never found, and he’s largely abandoned civilization in the years since (he also an X on his back, so that conflict was clearly a catalyst). Daryl isn't good at trusting people on a good day, and the loss he’s suffered in the past six years has taken its toll, but so has the time he’s spent alone.
After Henry helps him rescue “Dog” from a backfired walker trap, Daryl is forced to remember that being alone is its own kind of dangerous. He casually mentions to Henry that the traps are for walkers, not animals – that dying slowly and in pain is something no one deserves. It’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about Rick, lying wounded someplace on a riverbed, or what he felt like when he thought Merle was handcuffed to a roof in Atlanta. Daryl has never really gotten the chance to be an older brother, and he looks like he’s considering it as he accompanies Carol to the Hilltop with Henry.
They meet the Alexandrians upon arriving, but before anyone can settle in and get reacquainted, word gets out about Rosita’s injuries and Eugene’s disappearance, and a rescue is mounted. Daryl still has enough gas to operate his motorcycle, so the episode ends with Michonne, Jesus, Aaron and Daryl cutting out of the community with Dog leading the way. It's a pleasant throwback to the show’s early days, executed with a sense of foreboding. Despitethat we’ve yet to see them, the threat of the Whisperers looms over the entire episode. Cudlitz gives us a brief moment of nostalgia and hope right before things will presumably walk off a cliff.
Whether it’s Rosita hearing their voices as she flees or the uptick in the walker population that’s commented on by several characters or Connie’s Spidey-sense tingling, the advent of a new antagonist creeps closer. The ironic thing is that the Whisperers probably wouldn’t have been able to infiltrate the areas between the communities to such an extent had relations not soured and the roads were more frequently traveled. We’re betting the idea that humanity cannot survive and is in fact vulnerable to outside threats without large scale trust and cooperation is about to take center stage.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, The Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Alanna Masterson, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Nadia Hilker, Dan Fogler, Angel Theory, Lauren Ridloff and Eleanor Matsuura.