I’m not going to say The Walking Dead is “getting good again.” We’ve been down that road before; the show’s vacillating quality is, next to its childish cynicism and wave after wave of impotent dead, its most consistent attribute. And besides, the whole thing is a bit too silly, a bit too forced to take seriously anymore, if we ever really did—maybe someone could put together an essay that manages to turn Rick’s journey into something more than an endlessly disappointing mass of sumless parts, but I’m not that person. Still, “New Best Friends” does continue the trend begun last week, heading forward into a brave new world where the heroes aren’t constantly miserable and might actually accomplish something meaningful again, and that’s a relief. I don’t need The Walking Dead to be great, but if I’m going to go down with this zombie-infested ship (and I’ll keep writing these reviews as long as they let me), I’d prefer to do so with a smile.

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Tonight’s episode offered several reasons to smile. Daryl and Carol are reunited (and it feels so good); Morgan takes a swing at a Savior; Father Gabriel turns out to be worthy of Rick’s trust; we spend some time with Shiva the CGI tiger; and, as the episode title suggests, Rick makes some new friends. And while friendship is always a lovely thing to find in its own right, the fact that these strangers are the first people outside of his own that he’s been able to convince to join the fight against the Saviors is important. Building a coalition is tricky business, because it means asking others to take a leap of faith (a leap made exponentially more difficult in this case thanks to the dude with a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat waiting for anyone who trips); having numbers on your side makes the jump that much easier.

Rick and company’s discovery is even more delightful on a narrative level, though, because it confirms what’s become increasingly obvious since the start of the season: The show is becoming willing to embrace its own absurdity, because this new group is fucking ridiculous. They have the sort of odd names you’d expect to find in a child’s fantasy novel (Jadis, the group leader, apparently stole hers from the White Witch Of Narnia), they dress like budget ninjas, and they live in a giant garbage dump. They barely communicate with our heroes, and when they do speak, they talk like pompous serial killers. To prove Rick’s worth, they drop him in a trash pit and force him to fight a spike-covered zombie. It’s like being held hostage by a gang from The Warriors who stole their theme from the Saw franchise.

While this is a far cry from the show’s earlier efforts at a more “realistic” approach to a zombie apocalypse (Actually, aren’t most zombie apocalypses in fiction weirdly realistic? There are outliers, but the genre is so heavily indebted to George Romero’s The Night Of The Living Dead that the usual entries feel like grim documentaries that just happen to have ambulatory corpses wandering around in the background.), it’s a much-needed jolt of energy. The Po-Faced Paragons are silly, no question, but it’s an engaging silliness, a respite from the murder-death-kill tomfoolery of Negan and the Saviors.

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And the concept isn’t exactly terrible. You could argue that this sort of teen punk bullshit would actually be inevitable after a civilization collapses. Ezekiel uses the illusion of ancient authority, the trappings and performative airs of archetypal leadership, to give his people something to hold on to. Jadis’ performance goes in a different direction, but it’s no less consciously stylized; the biggest distinction is that we know enough about Ezekiel to recognize it’s all an act. It’s possible that Jadis and the men and women who follow her truly believe in… whatever the hell their deal is. While this doesn’t make the show’s sudden swerve into end-of-the-world Candyland plausible or particularly well-written, there’s just enough sense here to make it possible to enjoy the nuttiness and still kind of care what happens next. Right now, it’s more laughing with than laughing at, is what I’m saying, though that relationship tends to change by the hour.

In more serious matters, we spend some time at the Kingdom seeing how Ezekiel’s peace with the Saviors is almost certainly not going to last. There are tensions there that will inevitably drive Negan’s men to “punish” anyone who hasn’t fallen into line—honestly, it’s kind of a surprise that Richard hasn’t had his head caved in yet, but given how long it was before the Alexandrians had to deal with any repercussions for their actions, I guess that’s actually consistent. Richard leaves a supply delivery angry, and he enlists Daryl’s help in his plan to force the Kingdom into the coming war. Unfortunately for him, Richard’s plan includes using Carol as bait.

It’s a convoluted but moderately clever plan: He’ll kill some Saviors, let others find a weapons stash he’s planted, and then have clues from the stash lead them back to Carol. The idea being that the Saviors will take revenge on Carol for the death of their own and that Ezekiel, who’s clearly fond of the lady, will be driven by grief and rage to strike back. Which is where the cleverness breaks down—I don’t know Ezekiel would be quite so easily manipulated. But Richard is more desperate than smart at this point, which is probably why he tries to talk Daryl into his mission. That’s when the talks break down.

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You can ding the writing a few points for the convoluted nature of Richard’s plan—I think it works, but I’m not sure how much effort I’d expend to defend it—but one decision in the show’s favor is having Daryl almost immediately figure out that Richard is talking about Carol, despite the man’s pathetically obvious attempts at evasion. Dragging this out must’ve been tempting, but it would’ve been a bad call, as it would contradict what we know about Daryl (he’s not an idiot) for the sake of a big reveal later on.

Unfortunately the episode almost immediately squanders that goodwill by turning Richard into a moron. I could see trying to physically threaten Daryl to scare him into keeping the plan secret; it wouldn’t have worked, but at least it makes sense. But actually trying to force him to go along with it, after he clearly has no interest in sacrificing someone he cares about? People do dumb things in the heat of the moment, but this sort of prolonged idiocy doesn’t so much convince us of Richard’s need as it does remove whatever sympathy we might have had left for him. Still, I appreciate this plot turn as an attempt to have people with shared goals working against each other. It feels like this usually only happens when Rick is involved, and it’s nice to see Daryl getting something to do.

It’s no surprise that him and Carol finding one another again was the episode’s most emotionally affecting scene; I don’t know how long they’ve been separated in show time, but both have been through a lot since they last saw each other, and the warmth of their reunion feels entirely earned. Their friendship is one of the show’s most compelling, in no small part thanks to that natural evolution that has made Carol herself so fascinating; they fell in with one another because it made sense for them to do so, not because the writers needed to put people together for the sake of some kind of upcoming horror. And I especially appreciate that it’s a non-romantic connection, something that’s deeply felt but hasn’t (so far, at least) led to kissing and what not. Honestly, just the idea of them kissing seems wrong—they’re more brother and sister together than lovers.

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I don’t know if that explains or justifies Daryl’s decision not to tell Carol about Glenn and Abraham. He’s doing it to protect her, though it’s a fragile effort at best; sooner or later she’s going to come into contact with one of the others, and the truth is going to come out. But it at least makes sense that Daryl would want to let her hold onto the peace she seems to have found for a little while longer. That’s the problem with making friends. The more you care about them, the more you want to protect them, and sooner or later, the lying starts. It’s a surprisingly nuanced observation from a show that doesn’t always have time for that sort of thing. The fact that such a moment can sit comfortably next to Rick’s Adventures In The Trashworld Underdome is a sign that even if The Walking Dead isn’t exactly great, it’s at least still trying to be better.

Stray observations

  • Speaking of that zombie fight: Rick should get some tetanus shots, and fast. I mean, he won’t, but I doubt those zombie spikes were very hygienic.
  • Rick and Gabriel’s conversation post-zombie fight was neat, and a nice reminder of how far they’ve come as friends (as Rick himself notes). Gabriel’s one of the few characters whose hero worship of Rick doesn’t feel forced. He’s such a troubled, feverish guy that of course he’d latch on to someone like Rick.
  • Morgan lost his stick to the Saviors. He seems to be going through one of those “I’m a peaceful man but I can only be pushed so far” storylines, albeit largely in the background.
  • I’m getting a serious John Carpenter vibe from the score this season, and I am digging it.
  • I ask again, how big an area is the show supposed to be covering at this point? Because there are half a dozen colonies living within easy driving distance of one another, and at least two of these colonies are supposed to be living in secret of everyone else. I’m not trying to nitpick here; it’s just sometimes it feels like Rick and the others wandered into a parallel dimension a couple of seasons back without anyone telling us.

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