Nine seasons in, The Walking Dead seemed to have lost most of its power to shock a long time ago. As it turns out, however, the show is still capable of surprising and even disturbing its jaded viewers.
This week’s episode is very Michonne-focused and jumps back and forth between two time periods, one in the present day and the other a flashback. It finally gives us an answer for the x-shaped scars that Michonne and Daryl have on their backs and explains Michonne’s isolationist attitude.
In the months following Rick’s disappearance, a pregnant Michonne searches a river bank for his corpse (or worse) but only finds his pistol. Daryl promises her that he’ll never stop looking.
Later, a new group of survivors seek refuge at Alexandria. Michonne recognizes one as a friend from before the apocalypse, Jocelyn (Rutina Wesley from True Blood). She has a few kids with her, and directs Michonne on where to find a bunch more hiding out. She says that all the adults in their group either died or went nuts, and she’s been taking care of the children all on her own for a long time.
For a while, Michonne is thrilled to reconnect with her old friend. They reminisce about their college days, and Michonne lets Judith (as well as other kids from Alexandria) play with Jocelyn’s brood. Everything looks like sunshine and roses until one day when Michonne can’t find Judith anywhere. She soon discovers that other kids are also missing. Food and supplies were stolen from the community pantry, and the guard there was murdered. Bloody child-sized footprints lead to a sewer grate, and Michonne realizes in horror that her friend betrayed her. The whole thing was a con so that Jocelyn could kidnap the children of Alexandria and add them to her collection.
Daryl helps Michonne search. They spot one of Jocelyn’s kids at an abandoned school and chase the little bugger inside, where they’re cornered by a bigger group, including some teenagers, with weapons. One shoots Daryl with an arrow and another jumps Michonne and knocks her unconscious.
The two wake up tied and gagged and hanging from the ceiling. Jocelyn, now looking very crazed, rants about how she’s protecting these children by teaching them how to survive in the real world, where no adults can be trusted – herself excepted, of course. She directs two of the kids to brand Daryl and Michonne on their backs with hot irons (hence their scars later).
After Jocelyn leaves, Daryl escapes his bonds, kills a teenager, and frees Michonne. They split up to search the school for Judith and the other Alexandria kids. A very pregnant Michonne is forced to fight a group of children, one of whom manages to slash her across the belly with a knife. The kids scatter when she overpowers one and gets her katana back.
Michonne follows a commotion outside and is jumped by Jocelyn. They struggle and Jocelyn orders one of her kids, a little girl named Winnie, to go kill all the children from Alexandria, who’ve been rounded up into a camper. A frantic Michonne stabs her friend in the heart. With tears running down her face, Michonne begs the children to stand down and promises them that they can come back to Alexandria with her. She desperately doesn’t want to have to hurt them, but the kids are too brainwashed and won’t back down. As they attack, she has no choice but to kill them (off-camera, thankfully) to save her own daughter.
By the time Daryl catches up with Michonne (we’re never told how many kids he had to kill, or whether he was quite as conflicted about it), Jocelyn and all her children are dead except Winnie, who runs away. Little Judith steps out of the camper to see her mother covered in blood. She hesitates for a moment, and Michonne worries that the girl may have already been turned against her. Fortunately, after a few stressful seconds, Judith runs to her mommy’s arms.
The Present Day
The events of the flashback parallel with the current timeline. Daryl, Connie, Henry, and Lydia arrive at Alexandria seeking medical attention for Henry’s injury and temporary safe harbor from the Whisperers. Michonne is wary of strangers, especially Lydia, but trusts Daryl’s judgment. She agrees to let them in over objections from Aaron, who’s even more skeptical than she is.
Once they’re inside, Michonne not-so-subtly hints to Lydia that she ought to take a hike and leave Henry alone.
The four only stay until Henry is patched up and able to walk again. They head out at night in order to avoid drawing the Whisperers to Alexandria. Judith, who’s a little older and wise-beyond-her-years, is upset with her mother for not doing enough for their friends. She disagrees with Michonne’s views about isolating Alexandria from the rest of the world.
The next day, Judith is gone. Worried that she’s speaking to Negan again, Michonne heads straight for his prison cell, but Negan says the girl hasn’t been there recently. Michonne demands to know what they talk about. Negan says that Judith likes talking to him because he always shoots straight with her, unlike Michonne and the rest of the adults who try to shield and protect her. He claims that he’s never lied to her, not even when she asked about what he did to Glenn and Abraham.
When Negan points out that Judith is headstrong like her mother, Michonne realizes that she must have left to chase after Daryl and Henry. Michonne follows and eventually finds her fighting off a herd of Walkers. The girl does well to defend herself, but gets in a bind and Michonne has to save her.
Afterwards, Michonne tells Judith the story of what happened with Jocelyn, assuming that she was too young to remember those events herself. But Judith does remember, and says that she could tell even at the time that Jocelyn and her kids were bad people. The girl lectures her mother about the importance of helping their friends. Realizing that her daughter has a point, Michonne comes around to her thinking. They ride a horse-drawn wagon until they catch up with Daryl’s group, and offer them a ride to the Kingdom. Michonne is finally ready for Alexandria to interact with the other communities again.
Unfortunately, the Kingdom may not be safe for long. The episode ends with a pair of Whisperers spying on the entrance gate and making plans to report back to Alpha.
This is easily the best episode of the season, if not the last few seasons. It’s brutal and horrifying and emotionally wrenching, without being repulsive like the Glenn and Abraham murders back in Season 7. Even though we already know that Michonne and her baby will survive the ordeal in the flashback, the trauma she endures is very gripping. The interaction of the two timelines is smartly handled, and seeing the terrible extremes Michonne went through to save her daughter should make us worry about what Alpha will do to get hers back.
In all respects, this is an atypically well-written episode of The Walking Dead. The whole thing is anchored by a terrific performance from Danai Gurira. I fear the show will really suffer when it loses her next season.