The Walking Dead season 9, episode 13, Chokepoint, is essentially several genre pieces wrapped up into 40 minutes. It’s a zombie show, first and foremost, but it seasons that baseline flavour by taking inspiration from both classic Westerns and high octane siege movies. The latter is much more successful in keeping us entertained than the former, though, so we’ll start by looking at why the introduction of The Highwaymen into The Walking Dead season 9 are… odd, to say the least. Major spoilers for The Walking Dead follow...
The sudden appearance of this mercenary group, who threaten The Kingdom (via a strongly worded letter) with violence unless they pay a road toll, are the quintessential apocalypse archetype of dystopian cowboy gang. Every time they show up on screen, twangy country music starts playing in the background, and the unnamed leader is basically a walking John Wayne impersonator. It’s also strange to see that, within a single episode, The Highwaymen turn from potential new villain into willing allies of The Kingdom, after Carol (name of actor) offers them the prospect of catching a movie at their newly constructed home theatre… wait, what? I guess they must be dying to see that True Grit reboot.
Regardless of motive, it now means that - unless they suddenly betray the Kingdom - The Highwayman are shallow cannon fodder for the war with The Whisperers, as AMC appears to have no intention of characterising them beyond their facade as apocalyptic frontiersmen of the road. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just… weird, and another piece of evidence that The Walking Dead is shedding its streak of exploitative nastiness in its old age for a more lighthearted tone. Whether you’re happy with that depends on what you want from a zombie show, but I’m willing to run with it for now.
Outside of The Kingdom’s dealings with The Highwaymen, Daryl, Connie, Henry, Lydia, and Dog are on the run from The Whisperers, and with Alpha presumably fuming somewhere off screen, it’s Beta’s turn to take the lead as this episode’s primary antagonist. The fleeing fivesome take refuge at the top of a block of half constructed apartments, to force any pursuing Whisperers to separate themselves from the undead, which is where Chokepoint suddenly becomes a siege piece inspired by the likes of The Raid and Dredd.
The extended, exceptionally well staged climax to the episode represents one of The Walking Dead’s best action sequences in recent memory, not least because it finally shows why Beta - a human tower of brute force - is someone to worry about. His fight with Daryl, in particular, is a frenzied adrenaline shot of blow after blow, as walls are literally torn apart like cardboard throughout the pair’s breathless tussle.
Reedus is again on fine form in Chokepoint, and his unique rapport with Connie makes for sweet viewing, especially as it’s a relationship you can’t help but think is needed now that the character can’t bounce off of Rick or Carol anymore. Heck, even Henry got his time to shine during the fight against the Whisperers, and the group’s end decision to become permanent nomads suggests they could be the show’s entry point to new and distant lands (is this how Daryl will reunite with Rick in The Walking Dead movies?).
Road to perdition
These dealings with The Whisperers and The Highwaymen act as the main two courses of Chokepoint, but a side dish is also present in the form of Hilltop’s delegation to the fair, who get stuck by the road after a chance encounter with a Walker herd (yep, it’s another road-based zombie ambush. Hooray!).
Given The Walking Dead’s penchant for suddenly humanising minor characters right before their untimely demise, I thought Earl was a goner as soon as he expresses his desire to raise another child with Tammy, but fair play to the episode’s writers for staying their hand and saving him from death at the last minute. This rescue tied in nicely with The Highwaymen’s storyline, who show up to fulfill their role as guardians of the road between Alexandria, Hilltop, Oceanside, and The Kingdom, just in time for the upcoming fair.
All in all, I’m impressed by the decision for The Walking Dead to start more liberally stealing pages from its TV peers to keep the tone refreshing, even if The Highwaymen feel like they’ve come straight out of a gross out Western comedy movie. It’s been six episodes without a major death in season 9 at this point and, despite some clear stumbles (*cough* OMEGA *cough*), Chokepoint proves that the show is managing to stay on its feet without leaning on its most overused dramatic device. The fair is undoubtedly going to feature some fatalities, yes, but let’s see how long this season can survive without fulfilling a mandatory obligation to let another major cast member bite the bullet.
Verdict: Chokepoint holds its own as a surprising, exciting pocket of action and drama in The Walking Dead season 9.
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