The Walking Dead finally revealed how Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) got those X-shaped scars on their backs, and, well, it was worse than I thought it was going to be, which made for a better episode than I was expecting.
The scars were first glimpsed in the first episode after the post-Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) time jump, and they were very pointedly not explained. Characters would obliquely refer to something terrible that happened that made Michonne unwilling to welcome outsiders into Alexandria, which is the opposite of what Rick and Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Michonne herself had wanted. I knew it had to be something really traumatic, but the kind of awkward way the show teased it — drawing attention to the obvious way characters weren't talking about it, which lazily signaled "this will be important later on" — primed me for an anticlimactic reveal. What could possibly be so bad that Michonne would do a 180 on the principles she'd previously been trying to convince others of? Plus the show put the story on the back burner and basically forgot about it until it was time to remember. So the way we got to the story was flawed, but the story itself was satisfying.
The episode — aptly titled "Scars" — was a Michonne-heavy hour that gave the show's two post-Rick leads quality time together. But honestly? The best part of the episode was Judith (Cailey Fleming). Fleming is a really gifted child actor. While her precocious dialogue wouldn't work for a kid outside of the heightened Walking Dead world, Fleming delivers it with confidence and fluency. It doesn't feel beyond her. You buy that she's a kid who can talk to adults, probably because as a high-level child actor, she is. Her competence is a welcome change from the traditionally subpar acting from The Walking Dead's youth corps.
"Scars" flipped back and forth between timelines, one in the show's present and one shortly after Rick disappeared, when Michonne was pregnant with R.J. The two stories paralleled each other, and we saw how Michonne became the way she was and how she got over it (we had been seeing the middle of Michonne's story all season). And Michonne closing off her heart and her community made sense after we saw why.
Michonne was terribly lonely after Rick died or disappeared (she's not sure which), and then, miraculously, an old friend from college named Jocelyn (guest star Rutina Wesley) showed up at Alexandria's gates needing help. Jocelyn was the sole adult leading a group of kids, and Alexandria welcomed them all in. Michonne was thrilled to have someone she loved and who knew her — knew her as she used to be — back in her life, and the kids fit right in at Alexandria. But after a few days, Michonne went to pick up Judith from Jocelyn's house to find this woman she thought was her friend had raided the pantry and infirmary, killed a sentry, and worst of all, absconded with Alexandria's children. So Michonne and Daryl set out after her.
They found her and her child soldiers hiding out in an old schoolhouse. One of the kids shot Daryl in the shoulder with an arrow while another knocked Michonne out. She woke up to find herself and Daryl bound and gagged while one of the kids heated up a cattle brand. Jocelyn explained her warped version of "the children are our future," and then Daryl and Michonne were branded, which explains the scars. Eventually they got free, and Michonne ended up killing Jocelyn and all the kids. She didn't want to, but they were trying to stab her in her pregnant belly. I liked how the show paralleled Michonne taking out walkers in the present while saving Judith in a way that reminded her of that day in the past so that we didn't have to see her massacring a bunch of kids. So yeah, Michonne had to do horrible things to keep her people safe, and the thing that made her unwilling to let outsiders in was pretty much the worst thing that could possibly have happened. I get why Michonne closed Alexandria now.
But Judith managed to convince her to change her mind. Judith was mad at Michonne for not allowing Daryl, Henry (Matt Lintz), and Connie (Lauren Ridloff) to stay, since Lydia (Cassady McClincy) was with them. Judith wants to help friends in need, and and so she snuck out to go bring them back. Michonne got a hard truth from Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), of all people, who told her that Judith wants to abide by the principles Carl explained in his deathbed letter to her, and that it's because she's Michonne's daughter that she has her own ideas about how things should be. Michonne has raised her to be an independent thinker, you know?
Eventually she caught up to Judith, and after saving her from some walkers, she told her about that day, including the part about how Judith seemed like she didn't recognize her when she found her. To her surprise, Judith remembered. "You didn't look like you because of the blood," Judith said. "Then I saw it was you and I was happy you found me." She remembered all of it. And she understood why her mother didn't want to help people, she just didn't agree. "Loving someone means doing whatever it takes to keep them safe, right?" she said. "But when did we stop loving Daryl, and Maggie, Carol, the King?"
Later, over Carl's grave, Michonne delivered a moving monologue. "Your father and I dug this together," she said. "And that day, standing right here, I made a promise to never bury another child again. But then your father was gone, and I was lost. And then you were lost. And I was scared. More scared than I have ever been. Before or since. And I wasn't the only one, so we decided to make this place only about the people who lived here. And that's not what Carl or your dad gave their lives to create, but it kept you and R.J. safe. That's what I wanted. That is all I wanted. You were right. We have to protect the people we love. All the people we love. And we will."
So they went out in a minivan that had been converted into a horse-drawn cart by cutting the top off of it and picked up their friends and set out for the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the Kingdom and its fair have been discovered by the Whisperers, which will surely create problems in the last two episodes of the season.
The episode furthered the theme of schism and reunification that has animated Season 9. Throughout the season, The Walking Dead has implicitly asked, "What do we owe our friends and neighbors?" And in "Scars," it answered it: aid in times of need.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.